SAN FRANCISCO -- Wladimir Balentien sat in the dugout for Team Netherlands, taking a break in a workout and joking, staccato-style, with Japanese reporters in their native tongue.
A day later, during another workout break, he will attempt to teach a U.S. journalist a couple of words in Papiamentu, the language of Curacao, the Caribbean nation that has stocked the team from the Kingdom of the Netherlands with 12 of its 30 World Baseball Classic players.
"How do you say 'thank you'?''
It sounded so simple, but there was something about the way the ''n'' moved toward the ''k'' that hinted the word would lose something while swimming in an American accent.
"Danki." … Said with a generous smile.
"Sort of like Danke in German?
Another smile. "Danqui.'' Then more patience and another smile. "Don-key, like Donkey Kong.''
This is Mr. WBC making his case for Mr. Congeniality.
Balentien represents virtually all major facets of the tournament. He grew up in the Caribbean, has a passport from the Netherlands, plays for the Tokyo Yakult Swallows and became the 2012 home-run king of Japanese professional baseball.
He also makes his home in Miami and got his Russian first name via a member of a Venezuelan salsa band that enraptured his Aunt Varella, who helped rear Balentien while his mom worked night shifts at a hospital.
Like most of the players from Curacao, he speaks four languages - Papiamentu (used at home), Dutch (required as the primary language in school), plus English and Spanish (taught in the schools on his island nation).
When the Dutch team meets the Dominican Republic in Monday's semifinal, it won't be the first time that Balentien, now 28, has appeared at San Francisco's AT&T Park. Six years ago, as a Mariners prospect, he played here in the All-Star Futures Game. He played a little over two seasons for Seattle, one for the Reds and then became a Yakult Swallow.
The transition didn't come easily even for a young man who had left his home at age 16 for the United States. The food flummoxed him, especially the raw stuff, and he subsisted on McDonald's far too long. He needed something familiar to keep his strength up, he said, and it worked out well enough. He hit 31 homers to lead the Central League of Nippon Professional Baseball in 2011. The same stat in 2012 put him atop both the Central and Pacific Leagues.
He said he is already counseling WBC teammate Andruw Jones, the five-time All-Star and 10-time Gold Glove winner, on life in the Japanese leagues for a Curacao native. Jones recently signed with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.
When Balentien first reached Tokyo, he relied on some English-speaking players, including Yakult closer and former Diamondbacks farmhand Tony Barnette, to navigate one of the world's most complex capitals.
"The subway, I'd never take it by myself then,'' he said, "because I'd get lost for sure.''
Sometimes, the language and cultural barriers worked in his favor. He does not care for the Japanese custom of never challenging an umpire.
"You know, over here, the manager can go and argue. Over there, nobody can say anything. The umpire rules the game,'' he said. "But the don't understand me. So when you get a bad call, you can say something.''
In those situations, he always falls back on Papiamentu, a safety net even in a multilingual country. "The other (languages), sometimes, they understand you and they throw you out of the game,'' he said.
The Japanese fans call him "Coco,'' the nickname he got as a child from a cousin who once teased him about wearing a cap that looked like a coconut. One of his Japanese-born teammates, catcher Ryoji Aikawa, all but adopted him in the first year even though neither could speak to the other directly.
"It was fun," Balentien said. "When we try to communicate he has to go to his phone to translate and go like that.'' He held up a hand as if displaying a smart-phone screen to someone.
Balentien has picked up a few Japanese words, and even though English would be the ideal common language for them, Aikawa has also attempted a few awkward words in Papiamentu to cement the connection.
"Even if he doesn't pronounce it right, he tries, and it makes me feel like he really wants to have a relationship,'' Balentien said.
Playing for the Netherlands has been a novel experience for him at the professional level, because has not been among teammates who spoke Papiamentu since childhood.
"That's the most fun thing,'' he said. "I never have a teammate that speaks my same language, and we're joking in the outfield and we go to the clubhouse and we're playing cards and we talk our language.''
He still dreams of coming back to the big leagues, though he recently signed a contract extension worth $7.5 million through 2016, and he doesn't expect a U.S. club to buy out the deal.
The WBC brings his worlds together, though, and he loves it. "Konnichiwa,'' he said as two Japanese reporters approached at Sunday morning's workout. They obligingly switched to English immediately, asking how he felt about the tournament.
"I wish I can come here every year,'' he said.