The Press

White Sox great Hira back in top ac­tion at 55

- Tony Smith tony.smith@stuff.co.nz Sports · Chicago White Sox · New Zealand · Christchurch · Kaiapoi · Queens · Waikato · Hawke's Bay · Auckland · Auckland Region · Canterbury · Sydney Olympic FC · El Salvador

Rhonda Hira – New Zealand’s great­est women’s soft­baller – is dust­ing off her glove and re­turn­ing to the di­a­mond to pit her silken skills against play­ers half her age.

Hira, a fit and ac­tive 55-year-old and the most capped player in New Zealand White Sox his­tory, will lace up her cleats and play in this week­end’s Fast­ball 45 tour­na­ment in Christchur­ch as a pick-up player for the Ka­iapoi Queens.

New Zealand soft­ball’s player of the decade (1997-2006) still trains at the gym six days a week and ‘‘won’t be rusty’’ be­cause she’s been play­ing so­cial soft­ball for the tau­tahi club.

Part of the world soft­ball Hall of Famer’s mo­ti­va­tion is the chance to play along­side god-daugh­ters Nerissa and Layla Bai­leyMcDow­ell, and their younger sis­ter McKenzie. The trio are the daugh­ters of Hira’s for­mer White Sox team-mate Jaye Bai­ley, and Ka­iapoi Queens coach Mike Mc­Dow­ell.

‘‘Ev­ery year, the nieces have been ask­ing, ‘ come back and play, Aunty’,’’ Hira said. Mike asked me in the pre-sea­son, and I said, ‘ yeah I’ll give it a go’.

‘‘I quite like the [Fast­ball] for­mat, it looks very ex­cit­ing, so that was another trig­ger for me.’’

Hira, who is study­ing to be­come a per­sonal trainer, said she was ‘‘ac­tu­ally quite mo­ti­vated’’ to help the younger Ka­iapoi play­ers and, af­ter train­ing with her team-mates, is con­fi­dent she won’t let them, or her­self, down.’’

Since re­tir­ing from elite soft­ball in the mid-2000s, she has kept busy play­ing golf. A for­mer Can­ter­bury Masters rep­re­sen­ta­tive and in­ter­club player, she won the best nett tro­phy and long­est drive prize at the re­cent Can­ter­bury women’s cham­pion of cham­pi­ons tour­na­ment.

Hira said she was at­tracted to the Fast­ball for­mat be­cause it was ‘‘only four in­nings, or 45 min­utes, and there’s plenty of squeeze plays’’, with ac­tion from the first in­ning.

She was keen to play along­side the Bai­ley-Mc­Dow­ell sis­ters, hav­ing had ‘‘a long con­nec­tion’’ with the fam­ily, ‘‘since [their mum] Jaye came down from Taranaki as a teenager to play for my team in the Hutt Val­ley’’.

Jaye Bai­ley and Hira played to­gether on the New Zealand team at the 2000 Syd­ney Olympic Games.

Hira, from the Waikato/Tainui iwi, grew up in cen­tral Hawke’s Bay as a mul­ti­tal­ented sportswoma­n. She switched to soft­ball af­ter read­ing that the New Zealand women’s team had won a bronze medal at the 1978 world cham­pi­onships in El Sal­vador.

Hira rep­re­sented Hawke’s Bay be­fore win­ning na­tional ti­tles with Hutt Val­ley and Can­ter­bury. She made her New Zealand de­but in 1983.

In her near-20 year, 107-cap ca­reer, she rep­re­sented the White Sox at five world cham­pi­onships, win­ning a bronze medal at her first tour­na­ment in 1986, and sil­ver in

1990. She was New Zealand’s top bat­ter at the 2000 Olympic Games in Syd­ney, and was rated by leg­endary coach Ed Dolejs as the White Sox’s great­est all-time player.

Hira isn’t the only White Sox vet­eran on a Fast­ball 45 team ros­ter.

Cur­rent White Sox as­sis­tant­coach Melisa Tupuivao (nee Upu), another Syd­ney Olympian, will mark her 46th birth­day as play­er­coach of the Hutt Val­ley Ko­tuku Raiders at the cen­tral qual­i­fy­ing tour­na­ment on De­cem­ber 4-6.

The Fast­ball 45 south­ern zone men’s and women’s se­ries starts at Christchur­ch’s Mizuno Ball­park tomorrow night with the fi­nals on Sun­day.

The Christchur­ch zone win­ners will qual­ify for the na­tional fi­nals in Auck­land on De­cem­ber 11-13.

The Cen­tral Auck­land Bolts men – led by Black Sox cap­tain Cole Evans – and the West Waves women – spear­headed by Auck­land-based Amer­i­can pitcher Gretchen Au­coin – qual­i­fied from the north­ern zone tour­na­ment last week­end.

The cen­tral zone win­ners will also con­test the na­tional fi­nals.

 ?? GETTY IMAGES ?? Christchur­ch United’s Rhonda Hira strides out for first base at a na­tional women’s in­ter­club fi­nal in Welling­ton.
GETTY IMAGES Christchur­ch United’s Rhonda Hira strides out for first base at a na­tional women’s in­ter­club fi­nal in Welling­ton.

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