Playing in America a Dutch treat for Black Bears catcher

GRANVILLE — If not for his older sister, maybe Paul Brands would have found an interest in soccer.

“That is the national sport of Netherlands,” the West Virginia Black Bears catcher who hails from Amsterdam said. “I just never had much interest in it. I played a little bit as a kid on the streets, but that was about it.”

Instead, Brands found a passion for baseball after watching his sister play softball.

“She used to travel all over to games and my family followed her around,” Brands said. “I started playing baseball when I was 5. The passion started then for me. I always wanted to be a baseball player.”

There is a saying at the professional baseball level that if a player has enough ability, then scouts will find him.

Brands is proof.

“Yeah, you don’t see a lot of players come out of his area,” Black Bears manager Kieran Mattison said. “I’ve had the opportunity to work with him before in Bradenton (Fla.). He is a hard worker and very determined. He has the potential to be a very good catcher.”

While the sport continues to grow, and the Netherlands national team is No. 9 in the world rankings — ahead of talented-rich teams like Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic — there is little in the way of professional baseball role models from Netherlands.

Hall of Fame pitcher Bert Blyleven was born in Zeist, but he was raised in California.

New York Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius is from Amsterdam and is a member of the Netherlands national team.

Brands’ path to the game began at a youth academy, then he moved on to the club level and the junior national team, where he traveled across Europe playing in tournaments.

There is no organized high school baseball in Netherlands.

“When I was about 12, that’s when I first started thinking about playing one day in America,” Brands said. “My goal was to be good enough to play in college and then go from there to the draft.”

Except Brands was named the most promising hitter of the Royal Dutch Baseball and Softball Association, and at age 18, he signed a seven-year deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates as a free agent.

“I had actually just started college to study engineering,” Brands said. “I didn’t want to do that. I’ve always wanted to play baseball in America. That was always my dream.”

Three seasons at the rookie-league level have provided a transition point. His best season was 2016, when he hit .252 in 31 games.

Brands was batting .160 with two doubles in eight games this season with the Black Bears before the June 30 contest, against Mahoning Valley

“Back home, you play in front of crowds that are small, maybe 150 people,” he said. “It was a little different playing in front of so many people. My first year in America was a little bit of a culture shock, but I’ve been here for three years now. Other than that, you just have to make adjustments to the talent you’re playing against. Baseball is baseball. The game doesn’t change a whole lot, but the type of talent you play against changes.”

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