Publication:Johnson City Press; Date:Jul 28, 2007; Section:Sports; Page Number:1B

Tall order

Baseball’s tallest player has high hopes in Elizabethton

By JOE AVENTO Press Sports Writer

    ELIZABETHTON — Loek Van Mil has heard it all. As the tallest player in professional baseball, he’s constantly asked the questions.

    “Twenty times a day,” he says.

    A sample of the questions Van Mil, the 7-foot-1 Elizabethton Twins pitcher, faces each day:

• How tall are you?

• Do you play basketball?

• What size shoes do you wear?

• Do you have a special bed?

• How tall is your girlfriend?

    Growing up in Oos, Netherlands, Van Mil got into baseball, in part, because he wanted to be different. Soccer will always be king in his country, and Van Mil didn’t want to do what everybody else was doing. Baseball, honkbal as it is called in Dutch, seemed like a good idea.

    “Not many people play baseball over there, so you’re kind of special in a way,” he said. “It was something different, not mainstream.”

    When he began playing baseball as a child, Van Mil was a catcher. These days, it’s difficult to imagine him behind the plate, since even in his crouch, he’s taller than some middle infielders.

    When he was 14, he suffered a knee injury. By the time he returned to the game, he was 6-6. First base seemed a natural spot, until someone noticed the zip on his fastball. Well, it was relative zip, compared to the other kids on his team.

    He became a werper, a pitcher in Dutch, and was topping out at 80 mph at age 17.

    “By Dutch standards, that was reasonably fast,” he said.

    After some time with the No. 2 team in his country, he began to develop. The Twins, who had plenty of success with another pitcher from the Netherlands, Bert Blyleven, kept an eye on him.

    “They kept following me,” Van Mil said. “I think I was a project. I was really bad when they saw me. I was this lanky kid.”

    The Twins eventually signed that lanky kid two summers ago as a non-drafted free agent. By the time he signed, Van Mil was throwing 85 mph, not exactly high heat. But somebody in the organization liked his build and saw some potential.

    Van Mil was throwing 87 mph last year in the Gulf Coast League. He knew he could throw harder, but was afraid to let loose.

    “I didn’t think I could control it,” he said.

    This year, he was up into the 90s, but was still worried about control. He decided he’d be one of those guys who would throw 90 mph and hit his spots. Then, one of his coaches told him those guys were a dime a dozen, so he decided to use his size and the leverage his build naturally gives him. And he’s throwing in the mid-90s these days. “People were coming up to me after the first game and saying they didn’t know I could do that,” the 22-year-old Van Mil said.

And how was the control?

“More strikes than before,” he said. “That’s the weird thing about it.”

In 19 1 /3 innings this year, Van Mil has walked 11 batters. He’s struck out 18 while going 2-1 with a 2.79 ERA.

    There have been five Dutch-born players in the majors, including Blyleven, who won 287 games in a 22-year career. Van Mil would love to make it six, but until then he is content trying to work his way up.

    “I’m actually having a good time here,” he said. “I like the scenery here. I like the people. It’s a great place to play ball.

    It’s a winning team. They expect to win, and with the coaching staff they have here, that’s what they do.”

    The answers to the aforementioned questions Van Mil faces daily:

• He doesn’t play basketball.

• He wears size 12 shoes.

• He doesn’t have a special bed.

• And he doesn’t have girlfriend. And there’s one thing Van Mil wants most of all. “I’d rather be known for being a good pitcher who happens to be tall than just a tall pitcher,” he says. He’s well on his way. His statistics indicate he’s already one of the best honkbal werpers in the Appalachian League. And that’s no tall tale.