- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 8, 2000

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. On the waterfront of this ocean-side town there's a trendy restaurant that has named itself for an island in the Caribbean to give itself a more tropical feel.

Try as it does, the Aruba Beach Cafe falls far short of serving authentic Aruban cuisine. At least that's what several members of the Baltimore Orioles say.

"It's a nice place, but it's nothing like Aruban food," Orioles pitcher Sidney Ponson said. "Not even close."

Ponson would know. He was born and raised on the tiny island just off the Venezuelan coast.

"They probably don't expect too many Arubans to be coming there," he added.

The same could be said for major league baseball. While larger Caribbean and Latin American countries have exported baseball players since the 1950s, baseball is a new sport in Aruba. The island is a protectorate of the Netherlands and forms the Dutch ABC Islands with Bonaire and Curacao.

Aruba has a population of 96,000, so it doesn't have a large talent pool to stock big league teams. Yet the Orioles find themselves with a quartet of Arubans on their 40-man roster.

Ponson can be heard chatting with outfielder Eugene Kingsale and pitchers Calvin Maduro and Radhames Dykhoff in Papiamento, the melodic language of the ABC Islands that is a hybrid of Spanish, Dutch and native Indian dialects.

For obvious reasons, the Orioles are very popular in Aruba.

"Back home, you see a lot of people wearing Oriole hats, Oriole shirts," Maduro said. "They all follow us very closely, and they all pay attention to the team, especially when Sidney pitches."

All four have tasted the majors, but Ponson is the only one to get more than a cup of coffee. He also the only one who is a lock to make the Opening Day roster.

Maduro continued to make his case last night in the Orioles' 5-4 loss to the New York Mets. Maduro pitched two innings and allowed two runs.

The Orioles have trailed other teams in their scouting efforts in Latin America, but they have cornered the market on Arubans. No other major league team has an Aruban on its 40-man roster. However, Atlanta and Detroit each have an Aruban in its minor league system.

Baltimore's success in Aruba is linked directly to Jesus "Chu" Halabi, a longtime Orioles scout in Venezuela and its surrounding countries.

"If it wasn't for Chu, none of us would be here," Kingsale said.

Halabi makes his home in Aruba and runs an instructional program for young players there. That gives him a unique opportunity to spot and help develop promising talent. All four of the Orioles' Arubans played for Halabi as a teen-ager, often in tournaments in Venezuela and the Caribbean.

"You will see more and more players from Aruba, Curacao and other smaller countries," Halabi said. "But this group is special. To have four players that close in age [23-25] from such a small island it's just a talented group of players."

Under major league rules, international players can't be signed until July 2 after they have turned 16. However, word got out among Latin American scouts about these Arubans, and by the time the players were eligible to sign, each of them was courted by several teams offering larger signing bonuses than the Orioles.

"Each one of us could have signed for more," Maduro said. "But we have a lot of loyalty to Chu. He has done so much for us not just in baseball but in life. We were never going to sign elsewhere."

Halabi first saw Ponson and Maduro play Little League as 10-year-olds and invited them to train with older players who traveled throughout Latin America for tournaments.

"It was just obvious they were going to be good players," Halabi said. "They both had very strong arms, but they both had composure for their age that made them stand out."

Kingsale, a speedy outfielder, was a well-known child athlete who played playing soccer, basketball and volleyball on the island. Halabi spotted his athleticism and began teaching him baseball.

"I really didn't start to play until I was 13," said Kingsale, a graceful runner who likely needs to face another season of pitching at Class AAA Rochester. "I learned the game much later than American players, so I think it's maybe taking me a little longer to be ready."

Dykhoff also is projected as a late-bloomer. He took to the game as a teen-ager after Halabi spotted his strong arm. Dykhoff, a southpaw, was 13 when Halabi saw him hunting rabbits by throwing rocks at them.

"His arm was so strong. He was hitting them, and the rabbits were popping up in the air," Halabi said. "If he could hit a moving target that small and throw that hard, I knew he could find a strike zone."

Dykhoff has averaged more than one strikeout a minor league inning but is contending with several pitchers for the final spot in the Orioles bullpen.

"He may not make it in spring training, but with his arm strength and being left-handed, he's going to throw in the big leagues soon," Halabi said.

Maduro is out of minor league options, so if he doesn't make the Orioles, he's likely to play somewhere. But he makes his preference, both for himself and his countrymen, clear.

"I want to play for the Orioles," he said. "It would just be so awesome to have four guys from our tiny island to play for the same team. It would be a dream come true."

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