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

Softball: Ready to slug it out for world title

Retaking title for Black Sox is top priority for key player Donny Hale, who's carved out fulltime career in Japan

Black Sox big hitter Donny Hale says going back to basics and teaching kids how to bat has improved his form. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Black Sox big hitter Donny Hale says going back to basics and teaching kids how to bat has improved his form. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Donny Hale is softball's supreme slugger and a key to the Black Sox regaining the world title at Rosedale Park.

The 37-year-old has trodden new ground as a fulltime softballer, playing nine months of the year in Japan since 2006. National teammate Nathan Nukunuku and Australian pitcher Andrew Kirkpatrick are the only other foreign players in the Japanese league.

Kelston-raised Hale rounds off his fulltime softball career in North America - where he produced a blistering MVP performance in last year's club championship - and with the Auckland Ramblers. He chats to the Herald.

How is your form?

Pretty good but that can change game by game, day by day. Being an old fella, you pick up a few injuries here and there, especially in the legs. Playing in Japan has helped keep my body in good shape.

How did your Japanese career come about and what is life like there?

My partner (Sina Hunkin) is a teacher and went on a programme to Japan. I like the lifestyle; the transport is great, and I'm in my own world. I don't have everyday worries that other people have, working the eight-hour day. Everything is structured and like all their sports, they do things properly. There are three umpires per game whereas in New Zealand there's only one. They train three to four hours; here it's one and a half. Japan is very extreme in that sense.

What got you into playing softball?

I started playing at primary school and watched it for the first time on TV when New Zealand played Chinese Taipei at Lion Red Ballpark. Ian Stringer and Murray McLean hit back-to-back home runs. I thought, wow, so high and so far.

If you weren't a softballer ...

I can't imagine doing anything else - rugby league was always a passion, and definitely basketball.

You've turned big hitting into a sweet science; what's the secret?

I put it down to the experience playing in three countries and having so many quality at-bats. Also, going back to basics. A few years ago I took on the job of regional development coach in Auckland, teaching kids off the streets basic hitting. It made me look at my own hitting. I write in a Japanese softball magazine, breaking batting down, and that helped me find my weaknesses and strengths.

Your career highlight and favourite memory?

Obviously 2000, winning my first world championships with the Black Sox in South Africa at East London. Early in the tournament we visited a school in the boondocks and in the final, the whole community came down and were singing on top of our dugout going into the final innings. I was mainly focusing on the game, but it was a surprise, cool, sweet.

Your best piece of advice?

If you're going to swing, swing hard.

Who is the best pitcher you've faced?

I faced Japan's current coach, Nishimura, twice in the 2000 world series, including in the final, and he springs to mind. I haven't seen a ball break as much as his - up, down, sideways. It was unbelievable. He could also throw the change up, and was very fast.

You made your international debut in 1995 - how has the game changed?

The pitching standards are not as strong anymore. In New Zealand we don't have so many flame-throwers. But the hitting has got better - it's been taken to a new level.

What about New Zealand's pitching for this world tournament?

A work in progress. It's been a tough build-up for our team and the pitchers especially, but that can always change. In the build-up, everyone knew our strengths and weaknesses as opposed to the international teams, who don't know so much about us.

Does the 2009 defeat to Australia still hurt, and who are the teams to beat this time?

At the time it hurt, for sure, but not anymore. I've played so many games that you learn to let it go, move on. It's just another tournament now. This world series will be wide open but I'd say Australia, Japan and Canada are the ones to beat.

- NZ Herald

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