Baseball: Now or never for Campbell's big league ambitions

By Steve Deane

Campbell is waiting on the Toronto Bluejays to decide on him. Photo / Greg Bowker
Campbell is waiting on the Toronto Bluejays to decide on him. Photo / Greg Bowker

It's make or break for New Zealand's best baseball player. If 26-year-old Aucklander Scott Campbell is going to crack the Major Leagues, chances are this will be the year he does it. But if it doesn't happen this year, it probably won't happen at all.

"To be honest, yeah, it really is," says Campbell, when the make-or-break scenario is put to him.

At the end of the coming season he will be a free agent. By then the Toronto Bluejays will almost certainly have made up their minds whether a player who hit his way into their thinking with a spectacular minor league season in 2008 is worth persevering with.

Back then, Campbell appeared to be on the fast track to the bigs. Midway through 2008 he was the top hitter in the AA Eastern League (two steps below the majors). He played in the Futures game during the All Star break, rubbing shoulders with the game's best prospects.

For the likes of Matt LaPorta, Cliff Pennington and Bryan Anderson, the game represented just another step on a bump-free road to the top. For Campbell, it was the end of a glorious run - and the start of a nightmare.

"I woke up one morning with a huge bruise on my groin. I could barely walk," he said.

That was early in 2009, a season he started with Toronto's AAA affiliate in Las Vegas. The injury never really came right, so he played through the pain, but his hitting numbers for the season were down, and talk of a potential call-up evaporated.

Eventually a fourth MRI scan revealed he had torn the cartilage in his hip. Surgery didn't fix the problem so a second clean-up operation followed, meaning he didn't play at all in 2010.

Now, with Campbell still looking to recover full fitness ahead of a season that will likely decide his future. Where he now fits in Toronto's plans is uncertain, although shelving plans to spend this summer playing in Australia was a positive sign. Toronto want him in top shape for 2011.

"I think I've still got a chance to go back to AAA," he says. "I still think that they consider me a prospect. If I can get back to the health and the game I was playing in 2008, then I still think a lot of good things are possible, whether that is somewhere else in the world or in the big leagues is not really up to me.

"I am just going to play and put up some good numbers. I'm a free agent at the end of the year so maybe someone else will give me a chance. That's all you can really do in this game, put your best foot forward and see what opportunities arise."

Campbell has been helping his brother Aaron coach New Zealand's U16 team at the Oceania Championships this week. Over a decade has passed since he packed his bags to pursue his ball-playing dream in America through high school and college. Baseball here has come a long way in that time. A growing sport, it is yet to pass from minority interest into the mainstream.

Campbell is well aware a homegrown Kiwi Major League player could get the sport over that hump.

"I am going to do everything I can to get that opportunity," he says.

"You can see what [New York Yankees centre fielder] Curtis Granderson has done around here. Everyone gets really excited and it draws media and draws people to come down and just take a look. Once a Kiwi does that it will be like 'okay, if a New Zealander can get to that level then it is possible'. Eventually someone will make it, if not me. That is going to open up a lot of funding for better coaching, better facilities and better equipment. Then it all builds upon itself."

- NZ Herald

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