Hit pa­rade: Base­balling Ki­wis

NZ base­ballers are now bet­ter placed to win lu­cra­tive Ma­jor League Base­ball con­tracts. Tony Smith re­ports

Sunday Star-Times - - News -

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

PHO­TO­SPORT

Auck­land Tu­atara pitcher Kyle Gl­o­goski is play­ing in­struc­tional base­ball for the Philadel­phia Phillies.

STUFF

Black Sox soft­baller Travis Wil­son played pro base­ball at Triple A level and was very close to mak­ing the MLB.

STUFF

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.

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