Marlins righthander Rick Vanden Hurk fully expected to start the season at Double-A Carolina. He rode the bus from Jupiter, Fla., with the Mudcats. He made the first road trip of the year to Birmingham, when he received a suspicious phone call from the Marlins’ brass.
Four days later, the 21-year-old was starting against Milwaukee in the big leagues. After going 0-1, 12.75 in 12 major league innings, Vanden Hurk returned to Carolina, where he struck out 10 over six innings in each of his last two starts.
We caught up with the Dutchman who the Marlins signed in 2002 to talk about his call to the big leagues, spending the offseason in Hawaii Winter Baseball, the development of a cutter and his given name, ‘Henricus.’
Baseball America: So let’s cut to the chase–what was getting the call like?
Rick Vanden Hurk: It was pretty awesome. It was a little unexpected, obviously. We were on the road in Birmingham and I was supposed to start the fourth game there and then we got a call the night before telling me I was going to start the fifth game, but they didn’t give me a reason. So it was already kind of weird. So we went back to the field the next day and they told me after the game that I was going to start against the Brewers, so right away I went a little crazy.
BA: So you started burning up cell phone minutes?
RVH: Oh yeah. I called my family in Holland and they were going crazy too. They went right online to buy tickets and they arrived on the day I started. They’ve come over to see me once or twice a year, but this time was a little bit different.
BA: You hadn’t faced live hitters in something like 12 days–what was that adjustment like?
RVH: The last time I threw was in big league camp against the Orioles. And I threw a sim game here and then it was another seven days before I faced hitters–big league hitters, so yeah, that was a challenge.
BA: You’ve battled through some tough injuries in your short career. First you had the tumor removed from your left hip not long after you’d signed, then, after that, you need Tommy John surgery (in 2005). That must have made that call that much sweeter.
RVH: Definitely. The Tommy John was the worst. That was tough. You want to make a club out of spring training, but I had a bunch of stuff to work on. It’s not fun to stay back and rehab. When I first signed and didn’t make a club I understood it, I was young. But having to stay back after Tommy John was one of the toughest things I ever went through. You try to keep envisioning yourself on a major league mound one day–that’s your dream–but there were definitely days where that seemed . . . unreachable.
BA: When you figure you’re 6-foot-7, I guess the common perception is that you struggle to repeat your delivery. But you actually repeat it very well. How much work went into being able to do that from 2002 until now?
RVH: Over the years we’ve worked on it a lot, especially staying on a line and keeping my direction going toward home plate. And I still have to work on that every day. From the beginning of my career until now, it’s a pretty big difference. Not arm slot wise, I still throw the same, but more staying in balance to keep the same mechanics every time. I think I’ve improved that a lot.
BA: How much did adding a cutter at the end of last season help you out?
RVH: It’s another pitch, but for some reason, it’s gotten my breaking ball a lot better as well. I’m getting a lot more speed on my breaking ball and a lot more break on it. It’s a lot harder and sharper than it was. And with the cutter, I can throw it in to lefties and then I have the curveball . . . it’s just given me another weapon.
BA: And you got to take that cutter to Hawaii where you had a lot of success and your velocity was all the way back up to 97 mph.
RVH: Hawaii was awesome. The competition was good. The Japanese guys . . . there were guys that came in from Japan and gave us other players a completely different perspective on the game. I learned a lot from talking to the Japanese players and their coaches.
BA: But you guys (on the Waikiki Beach Boys) probably weren’t the popular team–I guess that went to the (Honolulu) Sharks, who had (Indians infielder and Hawaii native) Rodney Choy Foo.
RVH: Bruddah Choy Foo is a good player, man. And he was probably the most popular guy in the league. But the coolest thing was we’d have two off days so we could do all the stuff around the island–sight-seeing, surfing–it was awesome. I know they just started that league up again, so I was real fortunate to be able to go. And let me just say if there are any players out there who get a chance to go–definitely do it. It was awesome.
BA: So do all of your friends back home in Holland follow your career?
RVH: They know it, especially since this is what I’m doing over here in the States. They’re familiar with the organizations now and all the affiliates. When I got called up to the big leagues, I guess they had games on satellite all over the bars and restaurants over there. They told me I even made the national news, so that blew my mind a little bit.
BA: You’re going to go back in the offseason with complete Dutch celebrity status.
RVH: I don’t know about that . . . but something like that, I guess. Wow, that’s kind of scary. I never really thought about that before. But the people in Holland are pretty laid back, so I’m sure I’ll be able to still walk around and have no one bother me. That’s never been something I worried about.
BA: Anyone call you by your given name–Henricus?
RVH: Not really. The Spanish guys call me Enrique, and everybody else calls me Rick, Vandy, Holland . . . whatever. Whatever works. I answer to almost anything.