Young Mariners slugger Kalian Sams has the muscle and the will to be a powerful force in baseball, but his quest has a long way to go.
PEORIA, Ariz. — They grew up watching each other play, then teamed together as teenagers wearing their national team colors and as pros trying to defy the greatest of odds.
And now, as his baseball career nears a crossroads, Mariners Class AA outfielder Kalian Sams wants to pick up where his friend, the late Greg Halman, left off. Sams is on the Dutch team at the World Baseball Classic and plays a tuneup game here against the Mariners on Friday night before his squad moves on to the final round.
Then, when the WBC is done, Sams, 26, a strapping home-run hitter, will resume his quest to be his country’s next baseball role model, the way Mariners outfielder Halman had been before he was stabbed to death by his brother in November 2011.
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“Everybody knew Greg Halman,” Sams said of players in The Netherlands. “He was one of the youngest guys playing in the major leagues at that time, and all the kids looked up to him. He was a great example. He was a great guy to be around, and everybody loved him.”
Since Halman’s death, a fledgling sport in a country dominated by soccer has yet to find another position player of his stature.
Many of the major-leaguers on the Dutch squad hail from Curacao, a Caribbean island nation in the Dutch Antilles. What made Halman different was that he was born and raised in The Netherlands and grew up playing baseball in and around Rotterdam and other parts of Europe.
Sams grew up in The Hague, the seat of the Dutch government and a United Nations host city. Like most children there he played soccer, but slowly gravitated toward baseball.
He first played against Halman at age 9 in a youth league, and as a teenager in the country’s professional ranks. They played national ball together before Halman signed with the Mariners in 2005. Sams followed his friend to Seattle two years later.
“We spent a lot of time together on the baseball field,” he said. “Back home, we used to always see each other with the national team, or birthday parties, or baseball events, whatever. We always used to see each other over there.”
Sams attended Halman’s funeral and agreed his death left a void in Dutch baseball.
“I believe a lot of kids looked up to him and started playing baseball and trying to be better,” he said. “They saw him go from playing in the Dutch leagues to the major leagues, so that’s every kid’s dream, of course.
“Especially in The Netherlands since it’s not that big of a sport. Having that kind of a background, being from The Netherlands, they really don’t have anybody to look up to … Greg was kind of the main guy.”
Sams doesn’t hesitate when asked who the next “guy” might be.
“Hopefully, it’s me.”
Sams has raw power on his 6-foot-2, 248-pound frame, chiseled by extensive weightlifting and martial-arts training. He hit six homers with a .583 slugging percentage in 20 games after a promotion to upper-level Class A ball in 2011, then popped 11 more homers in just 282 plate appearances for AA Jackson last year.
But soaring strikeout totals have led to concerns he’s an all-or-nothing power guy.
“I have to be more consistent,” Sams said. “I had a lot of ups and downs throughout the years. I just have to be more consistent this year, and hopefully I can move up.”
His WBC teammate, Curacao native Wladimir Balentien, struggled as a major-leaguer with the Mariners in 2008 and 2009. Balentien has become a home run-hitting star in Japan the past two years and says improved plate discipline was behind it.
Balentien sees similar, untapped potential in Sams and has talked with him about what it will take.
“When I was in his position, I wasn’t able to do what I needed to do,” Balentien said. “But now that I’m getting older, I learned more about being a hitter, not just a swinger. So, I talk to him and I tell him that the quicker he learns, the faster he’ll get there and establish himself.”
The Netherlands stunned Cuba in the second round to move on to the WBC semifinals. Sams is hitting .263 with an impressive .821 on base-plus slugging percentage (OPS) and says “people are going crazy back home about the games.”
And with each new step taken by Sams and his teammates, Halman has never been far from his thoughts.
“I always play for him,” Sams said. “Every day.”
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @gbakermariners