By CONOR NICHOLL
Zair Koeiman's baseball career has taken him from Curacao, to the Netherlands, to Eastern Oklahoma junior college and now, this summer, to a strong start as the Hays Larks' second baseman. But it all started when he was five years old.
"It was because of my cousin," Koeiman said. "He played baseball, and he walked up to my dad at the time and he said, 'What is your son doing? What is my little cousin doing? He isn't doing anything. He is just sitting around and eating all the foods you guys are giving him. Why don't you let him go and do some sports?' "
Koeiman's father took him out to the field and Zair instantly loved baseball, a popular sport in Curacao. Kids often play baseball in the street.
A wood company was in Koeiman's neighborhood. Koeiman and his friends would set up bases in the wood company's parking lot. Any ball hit on the roof of the building was a home run.
"It was every single day in the sun on that field," Koeiman said. "I still get the chills just thinking about it. It was really fun."
The daily practice has helped Koeiman carry a .338 average, third-best on the team, for the 14-8 (8-8 Jayhawk League) Larks.
He leads the Larks by a big margin in hit by pitches (10), is tied for the team lead with five homers and ranks first with a .478 on-base percentage. Plus, Koeiman has played sterling defense at second base, displaying plenty of range and multiple highlight reel plays. After five straight road games, the Larks return home Friday night against El Dorado. Because of the heat, start time has been moved to 8 p.m. at Larks Park.
"He is a good spark, and he knows a lot about the game," catcher Jay Sanders said. "He is having some meetings with the pitchers. He is coming in the dugout, and he sees little things that some of us don't see and that's good to have on the team. He is helping you out with confidence. He is a good guy for us."
Koeiman speaks four languages: English, Dutch, Spanish and the native language of Curacao, Papiamento. Quick to smile, Koeiman has various interests, including writing music.
Koeiman is the youngest in his family by 10 years and has three older brothers. Along with his mother, two of the brothers live in Curacao and one is in Amsterdam. Koeiman talks with his mother nearly everyday, but hasn't seen her in the last couple years. While many Larks players label Hays the smallest town they've ever been to, it's actually one of the biggest for Koeiman.
Koeiman played at Eastern Oklahoma junior college this spring, located in Wilburton, Okla. The town has a population of 2,843, according to the 2010 census. Koeiman has enjoyed the people and the larger city of Hays.
"A lot of stores," he said. "You can just walk around here and go shopping. You can't do that in the town where I play ball. It's a really cool town."
Koeiman has enjoyed the travel and different places he has lived in his 22 years. In addition to playing baseball in Curacao, he recalls riding his bicycle in the hot sun and going to the beach.
"It's really fun," he said.
When he was 12, Koeiman moved to Amsterdam where two of his brothers attended school. Soccer is the main sport in Holland, but Koeiman said baseball is starting to grow.
"That's a really big city," he said. "There is a lot of fun stuff to do, but baseball-wise, it's not really popular over there. ... But I really like it over there. Weather is sometimes kind of cold, but it's good."
Koeiman had an uncle who played for the Amsterdam Pirates. The uncle talked with a team official about Koeiman. The official wanted to see Koeiman practice. After a session, the official was impressed and Koeiman was placed on the team and played shortstop. Eventually, Koeiman earned a spot on the Dutch national team.
One time, Koeiman went to a showcase in Italy. Eastern Oklahoma coach Craig Price had a good friend who saw Koeiman play. The friend talked to Koeiman's coach and Price, and Koeiman came to the United States. In 55 games this spring, Koeiman played second base and carried a .265 batting average, seven homers and 35 RBIs. That power has carried over to the summer.
"Great kid," Larks manager Frank Leo said. "Very sharp kid. Just excited. He almost made the national team for Curacao when he was younger. An exciting player."
Asked about the power numbers, Koeiman smiled and said it comes from "the good food that my host parents gave me." Then, Koeiman paused, and became serious.
"You have got to work hard," he said. "Since I was little, I have been working really hard, work out, run, do everything that I have to do and you can see it pays off."
Koeiman has displayed strong fielding and hit by pitch numbers in the spring, too. At Eastern Oklahoma, he collected 67 putouts and 126 assists with a .932 fielding percentage. This summer, Koeiman has a team-high 61 assists for an infield that has seen constant flux because of injuries.
"Anything hit to him, you know that he has got it," outfielder Jon Ryan said. "He is making great plays out there. He is a real playmaker out there."
Before every pitch, Koeiman looks for the sign from the catcher and then shifts left or right depending on whether it's a fastball or off-speed pitch. Plus, Koeiman has shown soft hands, a skill that many Curacao-born players have. The fields in Curacao are dirt and aren't manicured like American fields.
"Most of the guys who come from Curacao, they have really good hands," Koeiman said. "I can name a couple of my friends that play pro. Every time you hear somebody talk about them, it's always about their good hands. I think one of the main things that gave guys good hands is because of the dirt. After a certain time, you are going to get used to it. ...When you get into the United States and you get on the big league fields that are really nice fields, it is going to get much easier."
Koeiman was hit by 18 pitches this spring and already has 10 hit by pitches this summer. The Larks don't track records for hit by pitches, but Koeiman's number is rare. The rest of the team has combined for just 15 hit by pitches.
"A lot of people have been asking me if I am too much on the plate, but I don't think I am," he said. "I think one of the reasons why I get hit so much is because I don't really get out of the way. At Eastern, if you get out of the way, our coach will be (ticked) off, because you have got to take that hit by pitch and get on base."