Baseball: Diamond sports work on rivalry

By Steve Deane

The major stumbling block to baseball establishing itself in this country remains the country's preoccupation with another diamond sport.

Softball might not offer the pro and collegiate pathways but the game has a proud history and strong social values. Photo / APN
Softball might not offer the pro and collegiate pathways but the game has a proud history and strong social values. Photo / APN

Every weekend during the summer a bunch of young baseballers descend on North Shore's Stafford Park to play T-Ball. They hit off the tee, field, throw, run, laugh and have fun. And every weekend during the summer a bunch of softballers the same age head to Rosedale Park to play T-Ball. They play exactly the same game, probably at exactly the same time - on fields about 10km apart.

Welcome to the absurd world of diamond sports in New Zealand. Softball and baseball share more synergies than just an identical introductory version of the sport. Little League baseball, for instance, is played on a field of the exact same dimensions as a softball diamond. The rules are very much the same. But the few differences - mainly philosophical when you boil it all down - override the similarities to the point where the sports have lost sight of the fact they are essentially the same game.

There's no we. It's us and them.

"We don't have a formal relationship with Baseball NZ," says Softball NZ chief executive Dane Dougan.

"I haven't spoken to [Baseball NZ counterpart] Ryan Flynn for a while but we get on fine. There is no animosity at all. The us-and-them mentality? Well, his job is to run baseball and my job is to run softball."

For Dougan, that means ensuring New Zealand has the best possible shot at recapturing the world title it has held on five previous occasions when the Softball World Championships are held on the North Shore in March.

There's more to it than national pride. A big chunk of Softball NZ's $2 million annual budget comes from High Performance Sport NZ. Under the Government's funding model, losers on the field often become losers off it.

So Dougan's position is understandable, even if outwardly it doesn't make a lot of sense. The "no animosity" claim might be true, but there is at least some serious tension.

The battleground area between the sports centres on elite male players. Baseball believes the very best players should play baseball. The opportunities to pick up college scholarships in North America and play professionally throughout the world are vast.

Softball wants to retain its best players to maintain the strength of the national team, which is crucial to maintaining its funding and profile.

From Flynn's perspective, New Zealand is out of whack with the rest of the world. In most countries baseball is the elite version of the sport for men, while softball is a hugely competitive female sport and largely social pastime for men.

"We all know around the world to go somewhere, college or professional, as a young man you are hitting baseballs," Flynn says. "That's just a fact. When that ends you go and play softball. You play both hard and they are fun. There is no conflict between the two that I've ever experienced in my life until I came to New Zealand."

Last November, Black Sox manager Doug Golightly was sacked for sending players an email insisting they not dabble in baseball. Exactly what transpired is unclear. Golightly was backed by the team's coach, captain and senior players but was still sacked. One thing is clear - the portrayal of Golightly as anti-baseball is incorrect. Golightly would not be quoted for this story, but he made it clear he is a proponent of a combined approach to diamond sports in this country.

Black Sox coach Eddie Kohlhase believes his manager was "hung out to dry a bit". Kohlhase is a moderate when it comes to softball-baseball tensions. He accepts that baseball offers opportunities to young men that softball can't and wants the sports to work together. But he also has a job to do, and that is to put out the best New Zealand team he can in March.

"Put yourself in my shoes. We have got a programme and our elite athletes, we want them there. But the outcome of winning a world championship in softball in March, I hope that's a good thing for everyone who plays on a diamond."

The three players at the centre of the Golightly affair, Brad and Pita Rona and Ben Enoka, are still in the Black Sox fold. Pita Rona has signed to play professional baseball with the Baltimore Orioles, however he is touring Argentina with the Junior Black Sox.

Dougan says that proves the sports can and do work together and players are free to determine their own path.

"Our perspective has always been that it is personal choice. If a player wants to have a crack at baseball we wish them all the best. We have no animosity towards any players who have gone to baseball and we won't do. If they decide they want to come back to softball afterwards then we welcome them with open arms."

That's fine, but it kind of misses the point as far as Flynn is concerned. If elite males played baseball as boys they'd have vastly improved chances of making it to collegiate and professional level.

"We say it's a Kiwi thing we do - we play softball over baseball," says Flynn. "But do we want these kids - who are world class at swinging a bat - to have a chance to achieve their dreams? Like [Red Sox catcher] Te Wera Bishop is now? Do we want that? And if we don't want it, why do we want it in other sports?

"Is it about opportunities for our kids, or is it about the adults who have been there who are running the clubs? Which one is it and why are we doing this?"

Flynn believes there is no downside to softball clubs offering baseball, as is already happening in Manawatu and Wellington club Island Bay. If anything, the clubs would increase their playing numbers and revenue.

"We could work together for our youth to play softball and baseball," he says. "It's a bit silly the sports never did work together. In university in America you've got a softball diamond next to a baseball diamond. You grow up loving both sports and knowing them very well. But you do them at different times of your life."

Dougan's rejoinder is that softball might not offer the pro and collegiate pathways for men, however the game has a proud history, strong family and social values, and players can earn some money playing in semi-professional American leagues. He understands why baseball is selling big time dreams as it establishes a foothold in this country, but insists softball has plenty to offer, too.

"If I was in Ryan's shoes I'd be doing exactly the same thing. They've got a professional league that is on TV [MLB] as we speak. That's what they've got. Full credit to them and I wish them all the best. The reality is now that the Black Sox have a home world championship in March. That's a well-funded side from Sport NZ and our guys don't have to pay to compete and they get a little bit of money in [expense] payments to help them train as well. We have 30,000 players and a team that is not self-funded, so we are still in reasonable shape."

One criticism levelled at baseball is that it oversells the pro dream, luring young players with promises of fame and riches. Flynn bristles at that.

"Show me one interview where someone has over-sold it, where we've said it's easy.

"The pathways in baseball are as clear as any sport we have in this country. We always sell collegiate first and professional second. That's the icing on the cake after you get your education. But if a young man has any talent at all and wants to get an education we can find him a place somewhere around the world where he can play baseball."

Several people have told the Herald they believe a merger is inevitable, with softball's stance likely to soften following the world champs.

With baseball recently becoming eligible to apply for funding, it will be interesting to see if Sport NZ is prepared to bankroll the two sports separately. Funding often comes with strings attached - league for instance received a bailout on condition it cleaned house.

Pressures may also come to bear from a higher authority - the IOC. Both diamond sports were kicked out of the Olympics for 2012. The separate nature of the two freed up two spots, which went to golf and rugby sevens. Softball and baseball want back in for 2020 and they accept to get there will require a joint bid. "In the past, baseball and softball were running alone, and the result was that baseball and softball stayed out," IBAF president Riccardo Fraccari said recently.

If the expected merger occurs at international level, New Zealand's strange separation would appear even less sustainable.

"That decision will have far-reaching implications for the way forward for fastpitch softball," says Kohlhase. "For women, fantastic, they get an opportunity to go back to the Olympics. For men, it's a question of whether we follow the North American way of boys playing baseball up to college level. The issue here is that softball has been entrenched for so long that that is what we do. It's actually part of our DNA."

US Navy gave us softball

According to legend, New Zealand's rich softball tradition may have been born on the decks of US Navy aircraft carriers.

The game here dates back around 75 years, which tallies with widespread belief it was brought here by American servicemen during the war. The question is why would baseball loving Americans bring softball here.

"The story I heard - and I don't know how accurate this is - is that softball came from the US Navy," says Sky TV chief executive and diamond sports devotee John Fellet. "The marines who were based here typically played their games on an aircraft carrier deck and they needed a ball that didn't carry too far. Then when they got here they carried on playing the same game. It's sounds pretty plausible and I haven't heard a better explanation as to why softball took such a big hold here."

Take hold it did. In its 1980s heyday, softball had around 80,000 registered players. The Black Sox have won five of the 11 world championships held since 1966. In the more competitive women's game, the White Sox have claimed just one world title, in 1982.

Softball is still the dominant diamond sport in this country, with 30,000 players, 300 clubs and 23 associations. Baseball has 11 clubs or regional associations and an estimated 6000 players.

The series

TUESDAY: The Black Diamonds first training session; and how ESPN and the TAB have brought baseball to NZ.

YESTERDAY: Who are the Black Diamonds; and Scott Campbell's broken dream.

- NZ Herald

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