It's not easy for Loek Van Mil to become another face in the crowd in the world of professional baseball. Sporting the height of an NBA player will do that to a person.
Standing at 7-foot-1, Van Mil is the tallest man ever to play Minor League Baseball, a feat that is lost on the right-hander. Instead, his focus remains on his progress during his second stint in the Minnesota Twins organization. During the North American offseason, the towering reliever has taken a detour to Australia, where he's pitched since early December with the Adelaide Bite.
Van Mil was first signed in 2005 out of his native Netherlands as a non-drafted free agent, spending his first five years in the United States in the Twins system before splitting time with the Indians and Angels. While with Cleveland and Anaheim, he found the most success of his career, making 14 Triple-A appearances between the two organizations in 2012. A short 2013 stint with Cincinnati was followed by a year with Japan's Rakuten Golden Eagles in 2014 and a 2015 return to Europe. He re-signed with the Twins in August.
Van Mil made three appearances with Triple-A Rochester and that light workload, combined with the short season in the Netherlands, was enough for him to earn a ticket to Australia.
The season with the Bite isn't the first time Van Mil has been down under. He went to Australia in 2005 and lamented that he couldn't get back sooner.
"I've always wanted to come back, but something has always come up," he said. "First, it was playing in a World Cup, then I got injured, then I got the opportunity to play in the World Baseball Classic. Thankfully this time I was able to get back out here.
"I had the opportunity to come back because I didn't pitch a whole lot last year, and it was a great way for me to prepare for next season. It's a win-win."
Working out of the back end of Adelaide's bullpen, Van Mil has been a consistent arm on one of the league's three playoff-bound teams. The 31-year-old boasts a 3-2 record, 3.14 ERA and four saves in six chances out of his 12 outings.
Throughout his Minor League career, Van Mil sports a 3.20 ERA in 236 appearances at five different levels. His stint at Japan's highest level lasted just seven showings, resulting in a 4.15 ERA and seven strikeouts in 8 2/3 innings.
Van Mil feels he has been lucky to have so many opportunities open up throughout his playing career, but knows injury hampered his progress. The right-hander missed the 2008 Olympic Games and 2009 World Baseball Classic after a partial tear of his ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. The time he has spent away from the diamond gave him perspective and a lighter view he uses to guide his career.
"I can't change anything," he said. "The only thing I can do is be happy where I am. I'm playing, my body is healthy, I still have an opportunity, and I'm in Australia where it's 35 degrees [Celsius] most of the time. I'm pretty happy where I am."
While his height may be the first talking point for fans, opponents and other observers, Van Mil has always been adamant that it is a non-factor in his approach to the game.
"Frankly, I don't care too much about it," he said. "It is what it is. I use it to my advantage and if people want to make a big story out of it, I don't care. I just want to be in the big leagues."
Though he doesn't dwell on his height, Van Mil is aware of potential advantages it gives him while jokingly noting he doesn't have a degree in physics to back up any of his claims.
"You have a long stride and the ball comes in from a higher place," he said. "Because it's coming in from a greater height, I'd like to think that I'm harder for the hitter to hit.
"Maybe there's an intimidation factor in there. My longer leverage might make me throw harder, it's not really something that I know. I do feel like I'm closer to the plate and the guys I face are seeing something they don't usually see."
Van Mil and his team hope their next stride will be their biggest of the season when they clash with Canberra in the ABL Preliminary Final next week for the right to challenge Brisbane in the Championship Series.
Notes from abroad
ABLCS in Queensland: The Brisbane Bandits clinched their maiden ABL playoffs appearance in Round 13 last week and captured the league's regular-season crown with a Round 14 opening win and a loss by Canberra. The Bandits will host the league's best-of-3 Championship Series from Feb. 4-7 with the chance to bring the Claxton Shield back to Queensland for the first time in a decade. Former Cubs prospect Ryan Searle earned his 14th, 15th and 16th saves of the season in Round 13 for Brisbane to set a new league single-season saves mark.
Heat extinguished: Perth built an inarguable dynasty since the ABL reformed in 2010-11, winning four of the league's first five titles and appearing in every Championship Series. A Saturday night loss in Round 13 was enough to consign the perennial favourites to the bottom half of the standings this season and eliminate them from postseason contention.
Sydney stopped: The only other ABL team to not miss a postseason in the league's first five years were the Sydney Blue Sox. Their run also came to a close with a Round 13 series defeat at Canberra that included three losses in four games. The bright spot for the Blue Sox came in the form of lefty Lachlan Wells, who was lights-out in the lone Sydney victory. The Twins prospect hurled 5 2/3 innings, struck out five and walked just one in a 2-0 win. The light went out on Sydney's playoff chances with Adelaide's win in the opener of Round 14.
Comeback Kent: Canberra left-hander Steven Kent spent six seasons in the Atlanta system from 2007-11, missing the 2009 campaign after shoulder surgery. The southpaw struggled to a 1-4 record and a 7.77 ERA in his final campaign, but over four years later, he's earned himself another chance. Kent, who has touched 94 mph with his fastball in ABL play this season, signed a deal to return to the Braves. The 26-year-old has gone 6-4 with a 3.30 ERA in his first 13 starts for the Cavalry this season.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.