By IAN WILSON
You could call it glove at first sight.
Western Canadian baseball fans may not have realized it at the time, but they were watching the best defensive shortstop since Ozzie Smith take the field.
That summer of 2009, a scrawny 19-year-old kid from the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao made his way to the city of 15,000 people in Saskatchewan to suit up for the Yorkton Cardinals at Jubilee Park.
Majestic moonshots were not his calling card, and if you skipped batting practice you could still witness something special from Andrelton Simmons. Those who arrived at the ballpark early and settled in to watch pregame infield drills were in for a treat. Between second and third base crouched a player who could easily handle the short hops, run down the pop flies that took him into left field, and unleash a cross-diamond bullet that would pummel the dust out of any first baseman’s mitt.
“Did we know what we were getting when he came to us? No, not at all,” former Yorkton manager Bill Sobkow told the Regina Leader-Post newspaper in July of 2012 when Simmons started turning heads during his Major League Baseball (MLB) rookie campaign with the Atlanta Braves.
“He had never played collegiate ball and he was looking for a place to do that. He was no different than a lot of other kids in that regard.”
Simmons didn’t start the first game of that Western Major Baseball League (WMBL) season, but after cracking the lineup the next game, he was an infield fixture for the Cardinals, as well as an occasional presence on the mound.
“As the season progressed, it was very evident that he could move to his left very well and to his right very well. He also had a very, very strong arm,” recalled Sobkow, who passed away in 2016 at the age of 70.
Opposing players also did a double-take when “Simba” – who also went by the nickname “Magic Man” in Yorkton – picked up his glove and took his place in the infield.
“You could tell he was special,” said Jordan Blundell, who was playing for Swift Current at the time.
“The first thing I noticed about Andrelton was his athleticism and defensive work during pregame.”
In 36 games for the Cardinals, Simmons was tagged with seven errors and he led the team in assists with 113. The four-time MLB Gold Glove winner also posted a fielding percentage of .961 in Yorkton, which was well below the .982 mark he has established in the big leagues. But his numbers in the WMBL – the predecessor of the Western Canadian Baseball League – failed to capture what he was capable of with the leather.
“He made plays other players couldn’t make. He was able to get to balls other players weren’t able to get to. The way his feet moved, his angles on balls, his footwork, were all different from the other top players in the league, and different from the top players I had the opportunity to see at that point in my baseball journey,” said Blundell, who is now the head coach and assistant general manager of the Edmonton Prospects.
“Simmons’ glove was undeniably special … he was fun to watch.”
Yorkton teammate Brandon Dhue, who patrolled the outfield for the Cardinals, said even the plays he didn’t make were memorable.
“Every night with him on the field – whether it was on the mound, at the plate or wherever he was defensively – he made you say, ‘Did he just do that?'” said Dhue, who is now a coach with the Ontario Blue Jays.
“I remember leaving that summer thinking he’s the best defensive shortstop I’ve seen play the game at any level … one memory for me that sticks out was a play that he actually fumbled and didn’t make. However, the sheer fact that he had the mindset and body control to make that happen and almost complete the play was something I’ve never seen.”
Infielder Felix Brown roomed with Simmons when they both played on the Dutch Caribbean Team at the Haarlem Baseball Week international tournament in 2008, a year before the two joined forces again in Yorkton.
“I was already able to get a glimpse of what he was capable of,” Brown told Alberta Dugout Stories recently.
“What really impressed me in Yorkton was his ability to anticipate and read the ball off the bat. Personally, I think that is what makes him an exceptionally good shortstop – that, and his above-average arm.”
Brown went on to a successful international career in baseball that included playing time with the French national team and Japan’s Baseball Challenge League. He currently coaches at a baseball academy in Senart, France, which is a short drive southeast of Paris. Brown also runs his own baseball equipment brand, Hot Hitters, which supplies gear throughout Europe.
In looking back at his time with Simmons, Brown said his former teammate “gave me all the hints I needed that he was going to make it big.”
Off the field, he recalls a down-to-earth, soft spoken and intelligent man whose career path should not have caught anyone by surprise.
“I think if you asked anyone on that Yorkton team that summer, they would tell you that Simba definitely was making the majors if he got drafted,” said Brown.
Of course, hindsight is 20/20. Simmons’ bat didn’t scream major leaguer in 2009. Through 127 WMBL at bats, he batted .291 with a .331 on-base percentage. His 37 hits put him in a tie for first among Yorkton batters with Brown, but only three of those were doubles. Simmons recorded no triples or home runs that summer. However, he only struck out 11 times and he was a team best 8-for-10 on the base paths.
“One thing about his bat that has always stuck out to me is that he does not strike out. He always finds a way to put a ball in play. That ability alone was something special to watch,” said Dhue, who has kept in touch with Simmons over the years.
OUTINGS AND INNINGS
The arm that made Simmons such an excellent fielder also proved useful out of the bullpen for Yorkton. And while the numbers weren’t stellar, his 17 innings highlighted a player with talent. Simmons went 0-3 for the Cardinals with a 5.82 earned run average (ERA). He struck out 25 batters in his seven mound appearances.
“He was bringing some smoke and a deadly curveball … his stuff was excellent. His command was what got him in trouble,” recalled Blundell.
Simmons registered one wild pitch and four hit batters with Yorkton. He also surrendered a pair of home runs during his playing time in Saskatchewan and Alberta.
“He was an outstanding pitcher – he had velocity and off speed stuff,” remembered Dhue.
“He was a true baseball player. He could do it all: run, hit, throw, pitch, defend. Whatever it was, he could do it and do it well. It just seemed unfair at times.”
When the 2009 WMBL season came to a close, the Cardinals were a .500 club that qualified for the playoffs. Swift Current got the better of Yorkton in the postseason before the Okotoks Dawgs put the finishing touches on their third consecutive title.
Simmons, who wore No. 42 in Yorkton, was named a second-team WMBL All Star almost entirely on the strength of his defensive prowess.
“Everyone in the league knew there wasn’t a question who the best glove and shortstop was,” said Dhue, adding Simmons should’ve been named a first-team selection.
The young man showed enough promise that Western Oklahoma State College came calling. When he joined that Division II National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) squad in 2010, Simmons also looked like a player who had learned from his time in Western Canada. He smacked six long balls and batted .432 during his freshman year, while racking up 17 Ks through 10 frames in the NJCAA.
The Atlanta Braves took notice, making him a 70th overall selection in the second round of the 2010 MLB draft. In addition to his four Gold Glove awards – two with the Braves and two with the Los Angeles Angels – Simmons was named the Wilson Overall Defensive Player of the Year in 2015.
“I think (Simmons) is the best defensive player in the history of the game,” Braves general manager John Coppolella said at the time. But that didn’t stop the Braves from trading him to the Angels a few days later for shortstop Erick Aybar, as well as pitchers Sean Newcomb and Chris Ellis.
With the Angels, Simmons finished eighth in American League (AL) Most Valuable Player voting in 2017.
Meanwhile, the pouncing infielder has also represented the Netherlands at the World Baseball Classic in 2013 and 2017.
“I’m not surprised that Andrelton made it to the MLB. You could see he was a special player,” said Blundell.
“He played the game with his heart and it was clear as day that he had a passion to play the game. He’d bunt for a base hit, steal bags and just play the game. There was no doubt that his ceiling as a player was extremely high … the surprise would be just how good Andrelton has become as a player. I’m grateful that I was able to play against such an elite talent.”
Dhue, meanwhile, was thankful for the opportunity to play alongside such a player.
“He’s a tremendous person and teammate. He loves his teammates, will go to war for anyone, and is just a genuine great guy,” Dhue told Alberta Dugout Stories.
“For me, it was always just a sense of when will he get to the big leagues. The glove was honestly ready when he was in Yorkton. I think his bat needed some fine tuning and he needed to add some strength, which he did and there he was. I always knew if he got his chance the whole world would see what a talent he was, because you honestly don’t come across that just anywhere.”
Jarrod Ivan, another Yorkton teammate who had the pleasure of sharing an infield with Simmons, has fond memories of a player who was good to be around at the ballpark and away from the diamond.
“Off and on the field, he was the greatest guy you will ever meet,” said Ivan.
“He came from humble beginnings in Curacao and he deserves everything that he has now. He’s by far one of the greatest teammates I’ve ever taken the field with.”