Baseball: United by steely purpose on the road to Taiwan

By Steve Deane

Our first men's national baseball squad have widely differing backgrounds and prospects with those whohave professional experience supplemented by college, high school and local players.

Joe Boyce says the speed of the game in the United States is far beyond the level in New Zealand. Photo / Richard Robinson
Joe Boyce says the speed of the game in the United States is far beyond the level in New Zealand. Photo / Richard Robinson

Unique seems like an appropriate way of describing the selection process for New Zealand's first national men's baseball team.

Put it this way, it's hard to picture Steve Hansen emailing potential five-eighths asking them to flick through a CV, or plugging their name into Google to chew over a few stats before saying "what the hell, congratulations, we'll see you at the airport on Thursday". That might be overegging the cake a bit, but it's not a million miles away from how Baseball NZ went about fleshing out its roster for the World Baseball Classic qualifiers in Taiwan.

Lanky pitcher John Holdzkom, for instance, emailed Baseball NZ chief Ryan Flynn from California to let him know he had a Kiwi dad. Given he stands at more than 2m and is capable of throwing over 160km/h, Holdzkom got a pretty rapid reply. In the end his brother Lincoln, another power pitcher, also got a call up.

At last Friday's first training session Flynn admitted he didn't recognise a good chunk of the squad. He'd talked to them on the phone, swapped emails, but had never laid eyes on many of the players. Given the logistics of popping over to Nebraska or Edmonton to check out a game, it's not like there was an alternative.

In the end Flynn and head coach Andy Skeels cobbled together a side boasting 13 players with professional experience, supplemented by college, high school and local players.

They're an interesting bunch, with widely differing backgrounds and prospects. Some are on the way up the game's pro ranks, some have been knocked down and are trying to get off the floor. For others, simply being on the team is the pinnacle of what they will achieve. The one thing they all share is the knowledge they are doing something pretty cool.

"It's awesome," says Auckland local and Blue Jays prospect Daniel Devonshire. "I grew up playing on this field [practise venue Lloyd Elsmore Park]. I haven't been back for a few years but it's great to come back and play with guys I grew up with."

Having become just the third Kiwi to be drafted by a Major League club earlier this year (coach Skeels was first and teammate Scott Campbell second), the baseball world is still the 20-year-old Devonshire's oyster. He played his most recent ball in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. The chance to play for his country on a major stage caps off a remarkable year.

"To be a part of pioneering this is pretty cool man," he says.

For Holdzkom, the Classic represents a shot at getting back on track after being cut by the Cincinnati Reds in June. Holdzkom's physical gifts are prized in baseball, but he hasn't yet been able to harness them well enough to hold down minor league jobs with the Reds or New York Mets.

"I need to throw more strikes," he says. "I can throw hard but sometimes I can't always throw it where I want to. And you're no good to the team if you are walking everybody."

At just 17, Auckland born-and-raised pitcher Joe Boyce is the baby of the squad. After showing promise in the local competition for the Bayside club, Boyce moved to Seattle two years ago to play high school ball. He can throw 137-142km/h, good enough to earn him a college scholarship next year.

"Everything is a lot faster [in America]," he says. "The speed of the game, the tempo, is far beyond the level here. You pick it up and learn the things that really count."

Boyce is one of about a half-dozen young Kiwis playing for high schools in America. The odds are massively stacked against him breaking through into the big time, but he's undaunted.

"I love the game and I play hard every day. I'll just keep pushing till I get there."

Having played a bit of US "travel ball" and one season of college, Devonshire was taken in the 37th round of this year's draft by the Blue Jays. Being drafted was huge, but the combined opinion of MLB's talent scouts is that 1134 players have a better chance of making the big leagues.

"There are five other levels ahead of me. You're competing not just with the guys you are playing with and the guys ahead of you, but with every other guy in every other organisation. It's a mind game. You play so many games in a year. It's tough. Very tough. Your body breaks down and you might not think you are good enough and the next minute you are getting released. You've just got to stick at it."

It's that type of indefatigable attitude the Diamond Blacks will be relying on in Taiwan City. They believe they match up pretty well against Thailand - who will be boosted by major League veteran Johnny Damon - and the Philippines, but they will be underdogs against the Taiwan, a country with an impressive baseball tradition.

"Taiwan is extremely talented," says Skeels. "They have got 75 years of a culture where everybody from the time they are 5 years old plays baseball.."

How Skeels approaches the tournament will be intriguing. The major challenge will be managing his limited pitching resources. New Zealand's best shot of winning the decisive final game would be to hold back the team's best pitchers, however doing that risks failing to make the final at all. Skeels will also need to balance the desire to make a positive, confidence-boosting start in the opening match against the Taiwanese with the knowledge it is the matches against the fellow minnows the team simply must win.

If the Kiwis can get into the winner-takes-all final game (presumably against Taiwan) they insist anything could happen.

"We can field ground balls and hit the baseball, so I don't see why not," says Holdzkom. "We should make the championship game, then we only have to beat them one time. We don't have to beat them four out of seven. It's just nine innings and anything can happen. When you condense it down into one game, it's a coin flip."

Devonshire is equally optimistic: "You don't make it to professional baseball thinking 'that guy is better than me'. I don't know how to explain it, but you walk on that field knowing that no one is better than you."

- NZ Herald

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