By Ross Forman
It wasn’t long after arriving at Queen Beatrix International Airport that I saw my first sign of American sports culture. In fact, I had just cleared customs into Aruba, the Dutch country of about 100,000 in the Caribbean, when I spotted a large, lighted sign for TAG Heuer watches, with its spokesman – Tom Brady, quarterback for the New England Patriots – seemingly greeting those arriving for sun, sand and all Aruba has to offer, particularly its picturesque, colorful beaches.
Brady is a fitting “greeter” to Aruba because he is, arguably, the most popular NFL player among locals. And the Patriots are the most popular team among Aruban football fanatics.
Brady has led the Patriots to six Super Bowl appearances, most recently in 2014. He is an 11-time Pro Bowl quarterback who has led the NFL in passing touchdowns four times. Brady is a four-time Super Bowl champion and three-time Super Bowl MVP. And he was the 2007 AP Male Athlete of the Year.
Brady, though, is No. 2 among Boston-based pro athletes for Arubans. And no doubt a long, long way from No. 1. That top honor goes to Xander Bogaerts of the Boston Red Sox.
After all, Bogaerts is a native of Aruba – now the fifth-ever Aruban to land in the majors. He is a local legend, period.
I talked to a 20-something guide for Aruba Kayak Adventures who lives in Aruba, yet hails from baseball-crazy Venezuela. The guide – named Jesus, those he answers to his nickname, Coco – did not know any Venezuelan baseball players, but he was well aware, and smiling, when talk turned to Bogaerts.
Three drivers I met in Aruba during my mid-May visit also were overjoyed bragging about Bogaerts.
Bogaerts is Aruba.
Aruba is Bogaerts.
“Xander Bogaerts is really big because he’s an example all over the island,” said Leslie Prea, who is the manager for the Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino. “Everyone was super excited when he made it to Boston, and when he comes back to Aruba, he always gets red-carpet treatment at the airport (and elsewhere).”
Bogaerts made his major league debut as the Red Sox’ shortstop on Aug. 20, 2013, against the San Francisco Giants, and got his first big league hit five days later against the Los Angeles Dodgers. He was the 2013 USA Today Minor League Player of the Year, and he also was a World Series champion with Boston. Plus, he became the youngest player to hit a triple in World Series history.
Bogaerts had a breakout season in 2015, leading the Red Sox with a career-high .320 batting average, finishing second to Miguel Cabrera for the American League batting title. And Bogaerts was the Silver Slugger award-winner for shortstop. Plus, he was a finalist for the Rawlings Gold Glove Award for his defense.
Bogaerts’ run in the card world dates back to 2011, when he appeared on cards from Leaf, and in 2012 from Bowman. He also had autograph insert cards from then, too.
“When he first went up to Boston, everyone would watch Red Sox games, and many still do,” Prea said. “The Red Sox and the New York Yankees, not surprisingly, are the most popular major league teams among Arubans; they are East Coast-based teams, and that’s where a lot of our customers come from. A huge part of our customer base is from Boston, New York, the Carolinas and elsewhere along the East Coast.”
There were several baseball facilities in Aruba, though many have the old, aged, minor league feel, at best. However, the gorgeous Don Elias Mansur Ballpark seats about 12,000.
“Baseball is huge here,” Prea said.
Baseball is the No. 1 sport among locals, said Richie Koeiman, a manager at the Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino – “by far,” he added.
Gene Kingsale was 20 years old when he broke into the big leagues on Sept. 3, 1996, with the Baltimore Orioles, becoming the first Aruba native to land in the majors. His career ultimately spanned parts of seven seasons and he also played for the Seattle Mariners, San Diego Padres and Detroit Tigers. His big league career spanned 211 games, and he played all three outfield positions at different times.
Calvin Maduro arrived in the majors from Aruba less than a week after Kingsale, pitching for Philadelphia. Maduro was ultimately 10-19 in his 68-game big league career that included time with Baltimore and spanned parts of five seasons.
Radhamas Dykhoff pitched one inning for Baltimore in 1998 – his only appearance in the majors.
Sidney Ponson, meanwhile, was a 12-year, seven-team big league pitcher, primarily for Baltimore. He was 91-113 lifetime.
Soccer is the No. 2 sport among Arubans, and many side with such international powers as Real Madrid and FC Barcelona.
“When Real Madrid and FC Barcelona play, especially against each other, everyone has to watch the game. The whole island will watch a game between the two super powers,” Koeiman said.
About 70 percent cheer for Barcelona, he added.
Favorite Barcelona players include Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez.
For the Real Madrid fans from Aruba, their favorites are Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo.
On the international front, the Holland National Team is tops in Aruba, “and the whole island becomes orange,” as that’s the team color, Koeiman said.
Football and basketball are the next most popular.
The top NBA teams among Arubans are Miami, Golden State, Boston, Cleveland and the Los Angeles Lakers. The Patriots are the most popular NFL team, though “locals aren’t that much into the NFL, mostly because many don’t truly understand the rules,” Koeiman said.
NHL fans among Arubans are very limited.
Golf and tennis are not too popular among Arubans, though Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras were popular years ago, Koeiman said.
What about the WWE?
“Everyone was fun at one time, and many still are,” Koeiman said.
He said The Rock, Steve Austin, Big Show, Kane and Undertaker are among the favorites of locals.
When it comes to UFC, well, that’s another subject, especially nowadays.
Gregory Milliard is known as “The Arubian Assassin,” and after defeating Michael Kuiper on April 29, he has further established himself as a hometown hero around the island.
“Whenever he fights, everyone watches,” said Koeiman, who has direct ties to the fighter – Milliard formerly was a server at the Champions Sports Bar & Restaurant, located inside Marriott’s Aruba Ocean Club.
I had to hear about Milliard’s time serving at Champions, so I spoke to the manager during a mid-May visit. Inside the restaurant/bar, I spotted a large, framed photo of Milliard, not far from a similarly-sized, autographed photo of Ponson.
Milliard, I was told, worked at Champions for about nine years and was “a really good server,” Koeiman said.
And he also enjoyed, er, enjoys eating hot chicken wings, the hotter the better, said Champions manager Jackie Ponson.
Yes, her name is Ponson. In fact, she is a cousin of the former big league pitcher.
She has been at Champions for five years and worked with Milliard for several years. And yes, she’d hire him back “in a heartbeat,” she said. But Milliard is fighting for bigger prizes these days.
I asked Ponson if she had an autograph from Milliard and she said, “No,” nor was she hoping to get one. She instead has personal memories and a friendship.
Nor does she have an autograph from Ponson the pitcher.
She prefers taking pictures with celebrities.
Champions was recently renovated, thus, the sports memorabilia that traditionally graces this and similar restaurants has been taken down. Some of that formerly displayed memorabilia, including autographed jerseys, baseballs, bats and more, will eventually be auctioned and some just sold, though no timetables have been set.
Koeiman said Aruban children, such as himself, used to collect cards, mostly baseball. But not much anymore – “today’s youth are more focused on technology, thus playing on their iPad or cellphones,” he said.
Koeiman doesn’t have his childhood cards anymore.
“In the past, you could buy a pack of cards with gum inside. So everyone would buy the cards at the local supermarket, then collect and trade cards at school,” he said.
Koeiman said there is nowhere on the island nowadays that sells cards, nor do any local stores sell sports memorabilia.
Local collectors make purchases of memorabilia and collectibles via the Internet, he said.
Ross Forman is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at Rossco814@aol.com.