Brad Rock: New Bees pitcher Loek Van Mil is intimidating presence
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — He is looking down at me, as Jazz players usually do, but he's not with the Jazz. Still, he's taller than Al Jefferson, Derrick Favors and even Enes Kanter.
And definitely taller than famously vertical pitcher, Randy Johnson.
Loek Van Mil of the Salt Lake Bees is clearly head and shoulders above the crowd. So I ask him on Tuesday if he has a death stare. At 7-foot-1 and 260 pounds, he's the tallest player in pro baseball and likely the tallest player ever, not counting that 7-3 guy the St. Paul Saints propped up for a one-game promotion in 2007.
"No, I'm actually kind of a nice guy," he says. "I don't do a whole lot of intimidation. I think my size kind of does it by itself."
He got that right. Watching him bring a fastball from 60-feet-6 inches must be like watching a falling redwood coming your way.
"(Players) say it's pretty scary when they're in there, because it looks like you're right on top of them when you release the ball," he says.
The Bees open their season Thursday in Tacoma, with the home-opener on April 13.
Van Mil, who pronounces his first name "Luke," began baseball at age eight. From ages 4-7, he competed in judo, after which his mother urged him to enroll in a team sport. He was enthralled by a grade school game that involved striking a ball with a stick and running to touch poles.
You might say it was a short step to baseball, which he already followed on cable TV.
"I just happened to choose," he says. "Basketball would have worked out fine, too."
True enough. He was 6-feet-1 at age 12, 6-7 at 14 and 7-feet at 15.
"I thought I was going to be eight feet tall," he says.
He began as a catcher — which must have caused endless visibility problems for the umpires — then moved to first base before discovering he had a good arm. Still, he hit the first batter he faced.
This isn't the first time size has made news in baseball. At 6-10, Johnson fashioned a great career out of intimidating batters. The biggest major leaguer in history is Mets pitcher Jon Rauch at 6-11. On the other end, there's Eddie Gaedel, the 3-foot-7 ballplayer employed briefly as a gimmick by the St. Louis Browns.
Van Mil is more unique in that he can actually play, getting as far as AA Arkansas last year, at age 26. His strikeouts-to-walk ratio is a so-so 1.48, with a 3.17 career ERA. Last season, though, his ERA was a respectable 2.04. His all-time record is only 10-15.
Still, his size and pitching speed keep Major League teams watching. But there are other advantages to being big. For instance, he might be the only player in baseball history whose fingers are actually long enough to fill his glove.
Then there are the problems.
"Off the field it's pretty much obvious," he says. "Clothes, cars, doorways ..."
It's not like Van Mil is a Triple-A freak show. Originally he threw a modest 85 miles-per-hour fastball until a coach told him, "You're a 7-footer, so throw like one." He says on his best days he can now throw 97 mph.
Occasional control problems help him on the intimidation front, but not when it comes to advancing to the major leagues. So for now, he's still biding his time. At airports he is often asked if he's an athlete.
"They ask me what sport I play, I never say baseball," he says. "I say basketball in every city and with every team I've played for. I've already told somebody here that I play for the Jazz."
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