Baseball: Melancon pitching in

By Grant Chapman

Mark Melancon (second from right) and Nick Hundley with aspiring young baseballers at Pakuranga. Photo / Doug Sherring
Mark Melancon (second from right) and Nick Hundley with aspiring young baseballers at Pakuranga. Photo / Doug Sherring

It's one of sport's great rivalries - the New York Yankees vs Boston Red Sox - and soon American Mark Melancon will have lived both sides of it.

Drafted by the Yankees in 2006, the Colorado-born baseball pitcher made his major league debut against the Red Sox three years later and is about to join Boston for the coming season. But this week he's in Auckland, making good on a promise to help the sport finds its feet in New Zealand.

Twelve months ago, during a holiday cruise, Melancon gave up a day of his Auckland stopover to conduct a clinic for local youngsters. Now he's back with San Diego Padres catcher Nick Hundley to run a five-day camp and prepare the national junior team for the Oceania Championships later this month.

"New Zealand is the most beautiful country I've been to and has the nicest people," he recalls of his previous visit. "I can't wait to retire here, hopefully. Nick and I have been great friends since college and we complement each other well on many levels. That's why I wanted to bring him here and help transform New Zealand baseball into something special.

I know New Zealand is capable of being a heavy hitter in the baseball world."

Visits from MLB scouts, coaches and players have become more frequent. Last year, Yankees centrefielder Curtis Granderson proved a popular guest and subsequently enjoyed a breakout season, leading the American League in runs (136) and runs batted in (119) with 41 home runs. Melancon (26) may be poised for just such a breakthrough himself. After a high school career that also saw him excel in basketball and football, he was initially drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers but chose to take up a scholarship at the University of Arizona. There, he set a school record for saves and played for the United States national team.

But his final season with the Wildcats was cut short by injury and he needed surgery to replace the medial ligament in his elbow, a common procedure among baseball pitchers.

He battled through rehab and still remembers the day he strode out to the mound against the Red Sox at Fenway Park, pitching two scoreless innings in relief.

"That's my most satisfying moment in the major leagues. I went three-up, three-down in five pitches for the first innings, but walked the bases loaded in the second and somehow got out of it. It was very exciting."

The following year, he was traded to the Astros, where he pitched 74 innings in 71 games last season, producing an 8-4 winning record and a team-leading 20 saves on the worst outfit in the MLB (56-106). Returning to Fenway full time represents salvation to the right-hander.

"I'm very excited to join the Red Sox," says Melancon.

"It'll be fun to face the Yanks. I have a great appreciation for the Yankees' organisation. They made me a better baseball player and person, and I'm very thankful for that."

The presence of Melancon and Hundley in Auckland couldn't be timelier.

Toronto Blue Jays utility Chris Woodward has already been here a week, working with the Junior Diamond Blacks as they prepare for the Oceania event in Guam. Despite their relative inexperience at this level, hopes are high the young Kiwis can qualify for the under-18 world championships later this year.

Melancon's message to them will be the same one he passes on to the national administration as it strives to create a foothold in a cluttered New Zealand sporting landscape: "Many people helped me get to the MLB, but the ones that helped me most taught me work ethic. I'll convey that to NZ baseball - I know it has a lot of potential."

- Herald on Sunday

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