Hit parade: Baseballing Kiwis
NZ baseballers are now better placed to win lucrative Major League Baseball contracts. Tony Smith reports
Two men who went tantalisingly close to becoming the first homegrown Kiwi in Major League Baseball say it is only a matter of time before New Zealand produces the baseball equivalent of NBA basketball star Steven Adams.
Travis Wilson and Scott Campbell were proven performers at Triple A level – the highest minor leagues tier. Both played for the World team in the prestigious AllStar Futures game.
Wilson, a Black Sox softball convert, made the 40-man major league roster for the Atlanta Braves in 2002, and was one of the last players cut for the season opener after leading the Braves’ batting averages in the spring training league.
He was a three-time All-Star in various leagues and the Carolina League MVP in 2000, and played professionally in Australia and Venezuela.
Campbell, a second baseman from Auckland, was the first New Zealander signed from Major League Baseball’s draft after a standout college career.
He was only an injury away from big league call-up for the Toronto Blue Jays in 2009 before hip problems curtailed his career.
‘‘Scott and Travis should have been major leaguers,’’ says Baseball New Zealand chief executive Ryan Flynn, who says having a Kiwi major leaguer would boost baseball’s profile here in much the same way Adams has done for basketball.
Flynn has high hopes for teenage Auckland Tuatara pitcher Kyle Glogoski, who’s ‘‘made a great start in instructional ball for the Philadelphia Phillies’’.
Wilson, 41, is now an assistant softball coach at Florida State University, winners of the 2018 Women’s College World Series title. He still keeps a keen eye on baseball and is adamant it’s a matter of when, not if, that a New Zealander makes the majors.
‘‘We have the raw material. We’ve had people make it in other sports, and there’s no reason to believe that baseball would be any different.’’
Campbell, 34, also believes it’s ‘‘just a matter of time’’ because budding baseballers in New Zealand have ‘‘better foundational things in place, that didn’t exist when I was playing as a youngster’’ in the early 1990s.
‘‘I think, in any sport, Kiwis have the talent [to make the top], given the right foundation.’’
Flynn insists the MLB dream is not beyond young
Kiwis. ‘‘Australia has produced 33 major league baseballers. You can’t tell me our kids aren’t as good as Australian kids. We just haven’t had the resources they’ve had.’’
Flynn says the pathways are now in place through Baseball New Zealand’s international age-group programmes, the Diamondblacks in the World Baseball Classic, and the new Auckland Tuatara franchise in the Australian Baseball League.
Don Tricker, who guided the Black Sox to two world softball titles, is well placed to assess the challenges faced by Kiwis bidding for a baseball breakthrough. The former New Zealand Rugby high performance chief has just finished his first year as head of director of player health and performance at the San Diego Padres – a club widely acknowledged as having baseball’s best player development system.
He warns the chances of cracking the major leagues are ‘‘pretty slim’’, but has no doubt New Zealand could produce players with major league potential. He says three Black Sox softballers, Travis Wilson, Mark Sorenson and Thomas Makea, were ‘‘exceptional talents’’ with the right attributes for major league baseball.
‘‘But, like anyone else, you’ve got to be in the right place at the right time. Ask Travis.
‘‘Where it’s different now, from when Travis was coming through, is the number of kids coming from Latin America has sky rocketed. Now it’s almost like a 50-50 split between Latin Americans and Americans.’’
Tricker works with the Padres major league squad and farm league teams and says competition is intense.
‘‘One of the things that kids in New Zealand need to realise is they are not competing against New Zealanders, they are up against kids from around the world.
‘‘A kid from the Dominican Republic would be getting close to 40 hours of practice under qualified coaches.
‘‘How many 13-year-olds in New Zealand would get coaching of that quality and how many would be getting 40 hours of baseball a week?
Tricker says there is ‘‘always a chance for an exceptional talent to come through without actually putting the volume in, but that’s an exception rather than a rule.
‘‘A New Zealander wanting to play MLB would, first, have to find good coaching and then spend a lot of time learning and playing the game.
‘‘You could decide to move to the United States or another baseball country, but you really are then competing against kids from the US, and your pathway is then through the [US amateur] draft.’’
Wilson is convinced he ‘‘could have had a pretty successful major league career’’ if he had taken up the sport earlier.
‘‘I played my first game of baseball when I was 19,’’ said Wilson, who was recruited by the Braves after helping the New Zealand Black Sox win the 1996 world softball title.
‘‘I gave away 13 or 14 years of opportunity to put all that knowledge in the mind bank, but I still got pretty close [to the majors].
‘‘When I started out in baseball, I was a long way behind the other guys. I felt it took me pretty much to my third year of playing to get to a point where I felt I’d started to understand the game’’.
‘‘But I played at Triple-A level for almost three seasons and made the 40-man roster in 2002, so I was just knocking on the door; I just didn’t get the call.’’
Wilson, who returned to play for the New Zealand
softball team after eight years in pro baseball, says it would be ‘‘too late’’ for current Black Sox softballers to make the switch and become major leaguers.
He also says diamond sport athletes ‘‘can’t play both’’ codes at a high level. ‘‘There’s no point, to be honest.’’
‘‘Softball has given me fantastic opportunities and great memories as an athlete — and it hurts me to say this, being a New Zealand softballer and Hall of Famer, but if you want to play in the big leagues, you’ve got to start playing baseball as soon as possible.
‘‘We have the ability [to produce a New Zealand major leaguer], but I don’t think we have the resources yet, although the game is growing, certainly, around the country.’’
Campbell began baseball as a nine-year-old in Auckland in 1993 and says the game’s foundations are now stronger than then.
‘‘We’ve now got more competitive international teams at age-group level, our domestic competitions are getting better and the fact we have a professional team helps the visibility of the sport. Those foundational things didn’t exist when I was playing as a youngster.’’
Campbell was sometimes playing ‘‘three games a weekend’’ in Auckland. He attended baseball camps in the US and modelled his swing on San Diego Padres legend Tony Gwynn ‘‘but the level of competition wasn’t strong enough in New Zealand then ‘‘ to prepare him for professional ball.
Like Wilson, he felt he was playing catch-up when he ventured to North America.
‘‘I think I had it from a hitting perspective, but in terms of defence and base running and some of those fundamentals, I was a little way behind.’’
Campbell says playing ‘‘70 to 80 games a year’’ at Central Arizona College helped accelerate his development. He won All-American honours after batting .423 and scored a two-year scholarship at Gonzaga University, a NCAA Division One school in Washington state.
From there, he was signed by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 10th round of the 2006 Major League Baseball draft – the 300th pick overall.
Campbell got a seven-year deal and assigned to the minor leagues. After impressing at Class A short-season level, he played Class A in the Mid-West League and then ‘‘skipped high-All ball and went straight to Double-A’’.
‘‘Double-A and Triple-A are where clubs place players who can step straight into major league ball if someone’s on the DL [disabled list].’’
Campbell was on the cusp after an outstanding year in 2008 at Double-A for the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, resulting in All-Star honours in the Eastern League and a place on the World Team for the All-Star Futures game.
He had 27 Triple A games in 2009, but was cut down in his prime. Three hip surgeries later, he had to hang up his glove and cleats.
Campbell – now back Auckland – has no regrets, saying he had ‘‘great life experiences’’. He believes, based on his 2008 form, he would have been ‘‘called up’’ to the Blue Jays if their starting second base had been injured or lost form.
Making the majors, he says,is sometimes ‘‘a matter of timing’’.
‘‘Travis was the last player cut at spring training for the Braves, and I got injured. Looking at Travis and myself, it was probably harder for us, as positional players [to make the majors]. Pitchers tend to get injured more, so people are constantly moving through the ranks.’’
Wilson went to the biggest club in baseball in 1996. The Atlanta Braves had won the 1995 world series, were perennial pennant winners in the National League and boasted some of the game’s biggest names – pitchers Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Greg Maddux, infielder Chipper Jones and outfielder Andruw Jones.
He spent seven seasons at the Braves before ending his career in 2004 in Double-A with a Cincinatti Reds farm team.
‘‘In hindsight’’, he should have left the talent-stacked Braves earlier. ‘‘I would have got an opportunity at a club that wasn’t as good as the Braves were year-in and yearout.’’ Successful teams have less need to ‘‘give younger players a shot’’. Ryan Flynn says Kyle Glogoski has the talent to crack the majors if he continues on his current trajectory at the Phillies.
‘‘If we had a baseball programme, how many would get there?’’ he asks. Flynn says Australian baseball has had
‘‘tens of millions’’ from the MLB over the years and also enjoyed government funding support. Baseball New Zealand gets $20,000 from Sport New Zealand.
He’d like to see New Zealand get a Major League Baseball Academy system like the Australians, but is ‘‘just getting on with the job’’.
New Zealand under-13 teams have been competitive at the annual Ripken All Stars tournament in Maryland. The under-15s pushed Australia close at their world championship Oceania region qualifying tournament in Auckland last year.
Two New Zealanders – pitcher Ben Thompson at Tulane University in New Orleans, and shortstop Jason Matthews at Southeastern Community College in Iowa – are at good division one schools.
Baseball New Zealand promotes college scholarships as a chance to get an education while playing high-level baseball and hopefully getting a shot at the MLB draft.
International players can skip the draft if they are signed directly by a MLB club – as Wilson was by the Braves.
Campbell says the optimum pathway ‘‘depends on the kid and their mindset’’.
Going through a college system could be good for Kiwis ‘‘because of the amount of baseball you get there’’.
‘‘But if you get an offer of quarter of a million dollars [from a MLB club], it’s hard to say no to that as an 18-yearold kid. It probably also shows the club’s going to put some time into you.’’
Campbell’s a big believer in the adage ‘‘it takes 1000 professional at-bats before you are ready for the big leagues’’.
He saw ‘‘a lot of guys I was in awe of for their natural gifts’’ fail because they lacked the mental toughness.
It’s a sport, he says, where ‘‘if you fail 70 per cent of the time [in the batter’s box], you are considered a Hall of Famer.’’
Baseballers have to be resilient to survive ‘‘the bad times when you’ve had four days on the trot and you haven’t got a hit’’.
Campbell says there is ‘‘a lot of talk about the five tools of baseball’’ (speed, arm strength, fielding ability, hitting for average and hitting for power), but the mental side should be number one.
‘‘It doesn’t matter how hard you throw if you can’t handle pressure — the game is so complex in many ways.’’
‘‘Australia has produced 33 major league baseballers.’’
Baseball NZ CEO Ryan Flynn
Auckland Tuatara pitcher Kyle Glogoski is playing instructional baseball for the Philadelphia Phillies.
Black Sox softballer Travis Wilson played pro baseball at Triple A level and was very close to making the MLB.
Scott Campbell, a second baseman from Auckland, had a standout US college career and nearly made the Toronto Blue Jays in 2009 before hip problems curtailed his career.