By Joe Christensen
FORT MYERS, FLA. - The Twins had a big problem on Loek Van Mil's first day at spring training.
They couldn't find pants that fit him.
Towering over the other minor leaguers at 7-1, the righthanded pitcher tried on one pair, and they barely went to his knees. So a call was made to the major league side, where an equipment manager issued him the biggest pants he could find.
Van Mil wasn't bothered. He has a good sense of humor about his height.
Sometimes he wears a T-shirt that cuts right to the point.
On the front, it says, "Don't ask."
The back says, "7-foot-1. No, I don't play basketball."
Van Mil, 21, actually has been playing baseball since he was an 8-year-old growing up in the Netherlands.
After scouting Van Mil for three years, the Twins signed him last July and issued him his first minor league uniform Saturday.
If Van Mil ever reaches big leagues, he will become the tallest player in major league history. He stands three inches taller than 6-10 All-Star Randy Johnson, and two inches taller than 6-11 Washington Nationals pitcher Jon Rauch.
Making an impression
Twins director of baseball operations Rob Antony refers to Van Mil as "a project."
The club plans to start him in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League this year, to let him gain a professional foundation. Three days into his first camp, he already has made a decent impression.
"You're thinking a 7-foot guy is going to be long and lanky, with a delivery that looks like a train wreck," said Rick Knapp, the Twins' minor league pitching coordinator. "That's certainly not the case with this fellow."
Van Mil's fastball has topped out at 91 miles per hour. He also throws a slider and a change-up.
The Twins need to refine his fielding skills, but Antony said the field staff "was shocked at how athletic he was."
Still, Timberwolves fans can cool down. It's not as if the local NBA club missed another one. Van Mil, whose first name sounds like Luke, said he never played organized basketball, only pickup games in his back yard.
Baseball became his passion when he was growing up in Oss, a city of about 80,000 people. In the Netherlands, baseball isn't as popular as basketball, but Van Mil is quick to note that the Dutch play some of the best baseball in Europe.
Van Mil said he grew up playing catcher. His favorite player was former Philadelphia Phillies backstop Darren Daulton. But when he was 15, the coaches in Oss moved him to pitcher.
The Twins started tracking him when he was 17. Two of their scouts, Howard Norsetter and Larry Corrigan, even offered him a few pointers.
Instead of using his height as an advantage, Van Mil was compromising it by throwing with a side-arm motion. Norsetter and Corrigan encouraged him to throw from a high three-quarter angle.
Van Mil adjusted, making it increasingly difficult on hitters.
"It's a unique angle," Antony said. "As a hitter, it looks like it's coming out of the sky. You just don't see it that often."
True to the Twins
After all the encouragement Van Mil received from the Twins as an amateur, it was easy to pick a team when it came time to sign a professional contract.
The Seattle Mariners were interested last summer, but Van Mil signed with the Twins without much haggling.
"I'm not a very good businessman," he said. "I actually told them, 'It doesn't' matter what the Mariners offer me. I'll sign with the Twins.' They're the ones who started, as we say, to roll the ball. It's not a million dollars. It's not $50,000. It's enough to buy a nice car, put it that way."
Even though Van Mil turns 22 in September, the Twins don't want to rush him through the low minor-league levels.
In the rookie league, he can learn the rhythms of professional baseball and learn how to hold runners on base by shortening his long delivery.
"He's going to have a lot of distractions that most rookie league players don't have," Knapp said. "But he's really a good-hearted kid."
Van Mil said he had thoughts of pursuing a law degree before signing with the Twins.
Reaching the big leagues, he said, "is the ultimate goal, but it's a long way."
At that point, he shrugged his giant shoulders and added, "If you aim high, that's always good, eh?"