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Jenifer Langosch

Bam-Bam's odyssey is truly out of this world

Langosch: Bam-Bam's odyssey is out of this world

Bam-Bam's odyssey is truly out of this world
The soon-to-be 46-minute interview with Hensley "Bam-Bam" Meulens -- former New York Yankees prospect and current San Francisco Giants hitting coach -- had already taken its course through the essentials.

And plenty of essentials there were.

There was curiosity about that nickname and interest in the media guide bio line that noted Meulens is fluent in five languages. The fact that Meulens was instrumental in opening the door to baseball on an island measuring 171 square miles was among the discussion points, as were his ascension to the Majors, his global journey from the Yankees to retirement and his transformation into a successful hitting coach.

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By minute 37, all such ground had been covered.

With the requisites taken care of, a few final questions were in order for the 43-year-old baseball lifer from Curacao. Asked about what he was most proud in his career, Meulens took his time. His answer was thoughtful.

"There are a few things you have to put in line," he began. "Being the first Major Leaguer off our island is at the top of the list. Winning the world championship, obviously, is right there with it. Being an Olympian was huge. Participating in the World Baseball Classic. Those are all firsts."

The answer flowed as expected. Until Meulens continued ...

"And now, I've been chosen to go to space."

Pardon me?

"Yes," Meulens said. "I'll go to space, check it out."

Now that's a story. It was an even better story, in fact, than the one Meulens had already shared about the day a coach chased him around a Korean baseball field with a baseball bat. (We'll get to that later.)

He went on to share details about the upcoming space mission, which will take place in 2014. Meulens' space ticket came courtesy of Space Expedition Curacao, which is in the process of acquiring a commercial spaceship. The initiative will eventually allow the public -- for a very hefty price tag, of course -- to purchase a ticket for a quick trip to space.

The first 100 flights, though, have been set aside for a group of so called "Founder Astronauts." Meulens will join three Dutch celebrities -- a disc jockey, an air travel pioneer and a supermodel -- on flight No. 1. That announcement was made on April 12.

"It hasn't clicked," said Meulens, who will go through intense space training classes in advance. "It still hasn't clicked yet."

And yet, for as unexpected as Meulens' space travel disclosure was at the time, it actually fits. Fits with his story, that is. Because his is a story that has always been about breaking barriers and exploring new frontiers.

* * *

The kid from Curacao who made it to the Major Leagues will forever be revered in his home country. A lot of that is the byproduct of his personality -- affable, gregarious, the never-met-a-stranger type. The rest is due to his baseball legacy.

Combined, Meulens is, and forever will be, an island celebrity.

"He could run for governor without even putting up a sign," said Dick Groch, the former Yankees scout who was largely responsible for signing Meulens as a non-drafted free agent in 1985. "He became a cult figure. Everyone wants to shake hands with Bam-Bam. And the nickname -- Bam-Bam -- goes a long way to help him."

The nickname came into being during Meulens' early teenage years when he turned around to hit left-handed in a softball game. He proceeded to knock ball after ball after ball over the outfield fence. Watching in awe, his friends told him he was as strong as the young Flintstones character.

The same strength caught the eye of Groch when he was in Curacao to assist with a baseball clinic. Meulens hadn't participated in the clinic, but Groch found him on the other side of the island in a tournament later in his stay.

Groch took his seat in the stands just in time to watch Meulens hit a home run in his first at-bat. "That was pretty impressive for that age," Groch recalled.

Meulens went deep his second time up, too. Groch immediately phoned the Yankees' front office.

The teenager signed with New York not long after, becoming just the second player from Curacao to ink a professional baseball contract. Four years later, Meulens became Curacao's first Major Leaguer.

Meulens' career -- which spanned 496 career at-bats -- was never all that noteworthy in America. In Curacao, however, Meulens' mere ascendance to the big leagues initiated a country-wide sports shift on the island in the southern Caribbean Sea, off the coast of Venezuela.

"Soccer was the main sport," Meulens said. "Then I became a Major Leaguer and kids started looking up to me, saying that they wanted to play baseball instead of soccer. Baseball is bigger now than soccer. No doubt."

An island that has a population about that of Dayton, Ohio, has produced more than a half-dozen Major Leaguers since Meulens' 1989 debut. Andruw Jones highlights the list, which also includes Jair Jurrjens, Roger Bernadina, Wladamir Balentein, Randall Simon, Shairon Martis and Yurendell de Caster.

"I knew who he was and knew what kind of player he was," Jones said of Meulens, who is 11 years Jones' senior. "Before me, there weren't many guys that had signed from Curacao. They didn't have an opportunity to make it."

Evidence of the growth of baseball in Curacao isn't just in the numbers. It's found in results. The Little League team from the island nation has advanced to the Little League World Series for seven consecutive years. The club captured the championship in 2004. It was the island's first world title in any sport.

Baseball academies have sprouted -- including one run by Meulens -- and kids are able to play in organized leagues at younger ages than they were just a decade ago.

Meulens deflects credit. Others don't hesitate to give him his due.

"He was the first player to make it to the big leagues," Groch said. "When an apple falls off, they all do. There was an influx into the Antilles very simply because of Bam-Bam and the Yankees. All the clubs started to infiltrate. That opened the door."

* * *

As the conversation continues, Meulens has an epiphany of sorts.

"I should write a book someday," he says. "I'm in the right place at the right time all the time."

Thing is, Meulens has been the one to prop open the doors that he has traveled through. Few have just coincidentally opened themselves.

Much of that has to do with Meulens' upbringing in a country where various cultures are celebrated. From the time he could talk, Meulens spoke Spanish to his mother, who had emigrated from the Dominican Republic. His dad spoke Papiamento, a Creole language indigenous to the island.

At the age of six, Meulens was introduced to Dutch, which was the only language spoken at school. And beginning in fifth grade, English was added to the mix.

Still fluent in all four, Meulens also speaks conversational Japanese. He picked that up during a three-year playing stint in Japan.

"It's crazy," Meulens said. "If you're not in Curacao, it's kind of confusing. But it worked."

It works especially well now in his job as a big-league hitting coach. Meulens jokes that with five languages at his disposal, he has never been unable to communicate with a player.

He'll watch video with Miguel Tejada, Pablo Sandoval and Andres Torres and provide pointers in Spanish. With Pat Burrell and Buster Posey, the instruction comes in English. The Japanese hasn't come in handy this season, but while in the Minors, Meulens served as an interpreter for various Japanese pitchers.

Not only did Meulens' immersion in various languages help him climb the coaching ladder, but it has led to an unusually deep cultural appreciation. Undeterred by potential language barriers or cultural differences, Meulens played professionally in Japan, Korea and Mexico.

This was after he became the first player ever to participate in all four Caribbean winter ball leagues.

"I think it's a personal thing," he said. "I know some guys who play everywhere who don't care for anywhere they go. I coach winter ball, and I see guys coming to winter ball and they hate it. Some stay for two months. Others leave before their time is up. It's all dependent on the character of the person. I have that type of character that I like making friends. I like being different places. I like knowing different cultures."

Meulens has little negative to say about the various places he's lived -- except when it comes to his experience in South Korea. His stay in the East Asian country was brief, and deliberately so. As soon as he arrived there in 2000, Meulens was unsure of whether he'd be able to adapt.

"They wanted you to become Korean," Meulens recalled. "They tried to have you do everything they do. You eat their food or you don't eat. The apartment was not done like they said it would be. They didn't take care of the transportation. In Japan, all of those things are in place right away."

Meulens had signed with a team that had recently declared bankruptcy. That led to increased tensions among the coaches, all of whom were anticipating losing their jobs as a new owner stepped in. It all came to a head one morning when a Korean teammate began translating the coach's instructions into Japanese so that Meulens could understand.

That was deemed unacceptable and led to a confrontation between Meulens and a coach, who had no interest in letting the issue go. With the argument going nowhere (remember, they couldn't actually understand each other) Meulens turned his back -- a no-no in Korean culture -- to return to his circle of stretching teammates. He did an about-face only as teammates began yelling.

The coach was headed toward him with a bat.

"I turn around and see him coming at me like a mad man," Meulens said. "I started running and I touched first base and I ran toward center field. At this point everyone is watching already because they see this guy going nuts. A group of players jumped on him and stopped him. He's going nuts. He's ripping his clothes off. He wants to kill me."

It all led to a one-day punishment in which Meulens was sent to the Minor Leagues. Approximately two months later, as conditions and relationships never improved, Meulens asked for a plane ticket home.

"That was a black page in my book," Meulens said. "It was terrible."

* * *

Groch, now a member of the Brewers' front office, traveled down to Arizona this spring as part of his scouting duties. He caught Meulens' attention one morning and proceeded with some ribbing.

"How can a .220 lifetime hitter be a hitting coach for a world champion?" Groch asked Meulens. Meulens grinned. "I can't tell my secret."

Truth is, it's all about relationships for Meulens.

He doesn't have the league's most potent offense. But he does have a ring -- for a World Series championship garnered in his first year as a Major League coach. He remembers every face, recalls years-ago conversations with impressive clarity and makes a genuine effort to sustain connections with those whom he has crossed paths.

He is beyond generous with his time.

"I can go to the ballpark and as busy as it is, he's still going to wink at you or smile or say hello," Groch said. "What he had more than anything was he was very charismatic and very outgoing. His positive attitude carried him a long way."

It'll carry him off the planet pretty soon, as a man who has never shied away from discovery prepares to explore another unknown. From Curacao to the New York Yankees to Outer Space.

And no, don't think for a second that the significance of such an improbable journey has at all been lost along the way.

"It is a very humbling game, and I appreciate every moment and every opportunity I get to do something good," Meulens said. "There can be so many bad moments throughout your career that I cherish the good moments. I have been blessed."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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