From Curaçao to Carbondale: The story of Kaeber Rog

March 10, 2023

Being one of many hopeful young kids in Curaçao, Salukis infielder Kaeber Rog just wanted to play baseball.

“The baseball environment in Curaçao is very big…there you play baseball games for fun,” Rog said.

He later compared baseball’s significance in the small Caribbean island to the global recognition soccer receives. Once he was introduced to the sport, it was normal to play it as frequently as possible in order to play at the highest level.

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“My dad used to play baseball…he taught me baseball,” Rog said. “I used to go to the baseball field very close to my house. I used to go there and practice. And that’s how it was, playing baseball and having a lot of fun.”

His father also influenced him to become a switch-hitter. A natural right-hander, Rog’s coaches initially didn’t allow him to hit from the opposite side of the dish. They emphasized winning the few games the team played over Rog venturing out to explore a new aspect to his game.

“My dad told me at a young age how cool switch-hitting is,” Rog said. “I don’t know if my dad really knows how much that helped me to this day.”

Using the batting cage in his backyard every day, Rog and other kids his age began to take baseball seriously. They practiced and worked to improve and compete as young as 11 or 12 years old for their Little League teams. From there, they would aim to play at the Little League World Series in Williamsport. Rog’s team lost to the squad that represented Curaçao in the tournament.

Unlike most young people in today’s age, who may think it’s boring and slow, Rog is a huge fan of baseball.

“I have some friends that will tell you that they don’t like watching baseball. But I think it’s super cool,” Rog said. “I enjoy it…you see the pitchers…every little thing…how people go about their business.”

A true student of the game.

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Some of his favorite players to watch are Curaçaoan, including MLB infielders Ozzie Albies and Didi Gregorius. He also likes Xander Bogaerts, who is from the neighboring island of Aruba. And he appreciates the playstyle of others who don’t necessarily share his background.

“Whoever I look at and see that is cool, I like them. Ronald Acuña, I see him hit and I’m like ‘oh my gosh, this guy is so freaking good.’ Francisco Lindor, switch-hitting shortstop…Mookie Betts…there are so many good baseball players,” Rog said.

At 15 years old, Rog got a new goal to shoot for: practicing to earn an international signing bonus. Baseball’s international amateur free agent market was created for players wanting to play in the MLB who weren’t born in the U.S. or Canada. It is a route that some of MLB’s premier players have taken including Juan Soto, Fernando Tatis Jr. and Wander Franco. But it is a risky avenue to take as there are no guarantees for your future.

“My mom didn’t really like that route for me,” Rog said. “She thought that not letting your kid not even finish middle school is not a smart move.”

Instead, Rog’s mother opted to send him to the United States when he was 16 to play high school baseball. There was an immediate adjustment period for Rog as he wasn’t accustomed to the association between school and sport.

“In Curacao, baseball isn’t connected with school,” Rog said. “You go to school; they give you a bunch of homework. They don’t even know what you do with your life after school.”

This translates to no high school teams and essentially two different worlds between the baseball field and the educational environment. Much different than what the United States is accustomed to.

Another new world Rog had to encounter was living without any family or people he knew in a new country. He was fortunate to have a good experience in his first year in the U.S., living with a host family and two other Curaçao natives who play sports.

“One swam and the other one played basketball. But it was a lot of fun…like a vacation without your parents,” Rog said.

With his roommates, Rog played basketball, baseball and rode bikes after school. It was a freedom that he enjoyed but still used accordingly. Attending Trinity Christian Academy in Jacksonville, Florida, the weather and improved organization allowed Rog to play baseball year-round. He played a lot more, even if the motivation or talent wasn’t the same as his native country.

“You play like 25 games a year in high school in Curaçao…here in the United States, even though you might not play the same talent, at least you’re playing,” Rog said. “You got a lot more development in the United States baseball for sure.”

Baseball is hosting its fifth World Baseball Classic this March, where many of these players will be showcased and compete for their country. Although he doesn’t remember much from that early on in his life, Rog will be rooting for the nation where he was born:

“Netherlands all the way,” Rog said.

He lived in the Netherlands for the first four years of his life but moved to Curaçao where the rest of his family resided. Sometimes he recalls some moments of his childhood, like when he sees pictures of him learning to ride a bike. But still holding that piece of his life, Rog played for Team Netherlands this past fall at the U-23 Baseball World Cup in Taiwan.

“It was an unbelievable experience. The pitching was completely different…very intense baseball,” Rog said.

Rog committed to Florida International University during his junior year of high school. Two years later, he found himself disappointed in his experience, simply not having fun. He wasn’t having success at the plate, was treated poorly by teammates, and acknowledged he wasn’t a good player at the time.

“It was very hard for me there because our team sucked, we were in last place. It was the COVID year and D1 coaches weren’t coming out,” Rog said. “Baseball is a very humiliating sport…with ups and downs. I learned a lot to try to stay the same, same attitude every day, be consistent.”

But he was conflicted as he didn’t want to leave Division I baseball. The emergence of COVID-19 made the decision for him, when Rog took his talents to junior college and had a chance to prove himself at Eastern Florida State.

Later on in 2021, he received the opportunity to play in the MLB Draft League, where top draft eligible players competed in a showcase during the summer. Rog made the most of this chance, leading the Draft League in batting average for a while, which led to multiple D1 schools vying for his services. Carbondale was the choice based on the winning Rog saw from afar.

“The main thing that drew me to SIU is seeing the 40-win season…I want to know how it feels to win. That’s the main reason why I came to SIU,” Rog said.

He excelled immediately, slashing .362/.429/.618 with 14 homers and 56 RBI in his first season. He drew more walks (33) than strikeouts (30) and also stole seven bases. This accumulated awards like 2022 Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year and Newcomer of the Year. Rog’s production so far at SIU has been immense but his belief in himself is unmatched.

“I want to be the best Saluki baseball player ever,” Rog said.

But after establishing himself as a premier player, Rog wants to succeed as a team. Now in his senior season, he plans for the Salukis to win as much as possible.

“I want to go to regionals…hopefully Super Regionals but we can’t look too far ahead,” Rog said. “I want to accomplish that over my personal goals…the team goals matter more.”

It exemplifies an attitude that can carry Rog to the next level, which he plans to get to. With dreams to play in the big leagues, he is working hard to accomplish that aspiration but understanding he can’t completely control it. However, Rog has a plan that still involves the game he loves if he doesn’t make it to the majors.

“I want to be a baseball head coach, it’s a fun job…teaching players how to hit. I think one of the coolest things is if you’re a dad and a head coach, and you have your son allowed to practice…and grow up in that environment. I think that’s so cool.”

Rog’s mindset on not just baseball, but life, is cool. He has overcome countless obstacles from living in a foreign country to transferring to multiple different colleges in order to fulfill his dream of playing professional baseball. The Saluki baseball team is fortunate to have Rog as their star-studded shortstop, and hopefully we will witness Rog eventually live out his ultimate dream.

 

Sports reporter Howard Woodard can be reached at [email protected].

 

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