Chris Rattue is a sports columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

Softball: Kiwi pitches happily on foreign turf after switcheroo

Kere Johanson always wanted to be a fulltime softballer. Photo / Supplied
Kere Johanson always wanted to be a fulltime softballer. Photo / Supplied

Kere Johanson headed to Australia on a hunch that hit a bullseye.

The Black Sox infielder on four world series teams including two winners always chased the game. Even as a youthful optical technician in Palmerston North, his visions were about being a fulltime softballer.

Shortly after the 2000 world series, the Poneke-Kilbirnie stalwart headed to Perth. Within a decade he had taken charge of the Australian women's team and assisted men's head coach Bob Harrow in the historic 2009 world title triumph.

"I came to Australia on a lifestyle decision but thought I might fall into something with the game," says Johanson, who received a cheeky text from Kiwi great Mark Sorenson "blaming" him for upending the Black Sox in the 2009 final.

"I saw the potential in Australia because of the Olympic funding. Everything has happened a lot quicker than I thought though."

Ask anyone in softball about Johanson, and they say things like "he isn't shy about putting his 10 cents worth in". He may have initially choked a little while looking in a mirror that showed him the old enemy's uniform. But he quickly got over the switcheroo shock to immediately challenge established Steelers' attitudes towards rookie players.

Johanson, who now lives in Brisbane, says: "When I first jumped on board [in 2007] they didn't have the culture quite right ... we've taken away the demoralising behaviour that hurts self-esteem.

"I would never have predicted winning a world series that quickly but about the time I retired their players were starting to travel to North America the way we always did. With the success of their junior programme, I got this feeling they were on the rise.

"In my playing days, we always knew we would beat Australia. They played well in the odd game but not consistently. They might lead 1-0 but we would sniff around, wait for that one error to happen, and you could smell the disbelief spread through their team.

"Human beings are the products of their environment, and the idea is to create challenging environments. Bob Harrow is a very demanding coach with tough training programmes. If you don't fit into the culture, he has no qualms in cutting you."

Harrow's other key assistant is another Kiwi, pitching specialist Loran Algar, a fringe international in the 1970s when Kevin Herlihy, John Dawson and Owen Walford dominated from the mound. Algar rates the Aussie stars Adam Folkard and Andrew Kirkpatrick alongside any pitcher in history with one exception.

"They are the best left-right combination in softball and as good as anyone other than the great Kevin Herlihy, of course," says Algar.

"Folkard has exceptional pace but Kirkpatrick isn't far behind. Both have it all and are great at hitting their spots. They work very, very hard and always want to win really bad."

The Steelers are homegrown, but there is at least one strong New Zealand connection beyond the assistant coaches.

The 28-year-old Kirkpatrick, a carpenter, has had five seasons with Mt Albert Ramblers and pays tribute to the club and players Donny Hale and Nathan Nukunuku for boosting his career. It was Hale who alerted him to the Japanese game and becoming a fulltime softballer. The current threat to Australian softball's funding whizzes past Kirkpatrick like a fast ball.

"The men have never had any funding anyway - the bill for the world series trip has bumped up to over $3000," says Kirkpatrick, who quit a promising Aussie Rules career for the sport he enjoyed most.

"The boys aren't happy about it and unfortunately some great talents dropped out over the years because of that. I don't enjoy paying bills to play softball but it brings a pretty good commitment."

That commitment included forsaking another season with Ramblers to help keep New Zealand's hitters guessing.

"We watched what the Black Sox did for years, and tried to take it to another level," he says. "When I was young the sport was popular with kids but the senior programmes weren't good. Now it's the other way around and Softball Australia knows it needs to get the kids' numbers up again.

"The women won't be used to getting bills and those girls might not like that. But the men's side will maintain its strength - Bob has changed the whole culture. Blokes used to carry on a bit but you won't see that any more."

- NZ Herald

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