Wednesday, March 17, 2010
Australia version 2.0
Tuesday March 16 Australian Time
I am going to try to attempt to blog more regularly as I now have reached the pinnacle, or the apparent pinnacle of my baseball career. Part 1 of the 38 hour journey from western Australia to the east coast in Sydeny then over to Los Angeles and finally landing in Detroit where I will stay for 6 days before I depart again, another 6 time zones away for my third consecutive season playing baseball in Holland. This year will be a bit different as I will be an import in the Dutch Head Class, arguably the premier European professional baseball league. Why is this such a pinnacle? Well, for 3 years I have been trying to get into this league only to be told I don’t have the experience (so I went to play in Belgium and Israel after college ball), then that I don’t have the stats in a Dutch league, (so I went to play for TTT and dominate the Dutch First Division) then that I don’t have the fastball or size/physique that an import should have in the Head Class, so I went to play for Almere and by beating RCH in the promotion series last September I was able to silence the critics (or so I thought) and finally get a position as one of two non-Dutch players on one of the 8 Dutch Head Class teams, and then I was almost prevented because the KNBSB (Dutch Baseball governing body) was not very excited about my team, Almere Magpies, promoting, even after fairly winning the 5 game promotion series, and as I looked for other teams as a back-up in case Almere was ruled against, I was still told I didn’t have the professional baseball experience of at least A-level in the States to be a Dutch Head Class import. Yet, in just over a week I will be back in Almere for the 2010 season and hopefully making sure this entire past 5 months of training, playing and getting ready in Australia was not all in vain.
Australia was a different experience on the second go-around almost from the Start. I had been convinced by a few trusted friends (Adam Crabb, Jason Rees, and Benn Grice) to give Perth, and the Western Australia baseball league a try, however, I really could not have predicted what I was getting into by signing up to play at West Stirling. Almost from the moment I arrived at the airport, after the 40 hour journey where I was able to go “3 for 3” on each leg of the trip, I was driving back to my new home with my new coach (who was 31) and his mother because he had “lost” his licesnce due to too many run-ins with the law, and as we were driving by police officers outside the airport, my new baseball manager was yelling and carrying on and flicking them off as we left. Didn’t really expect this kind of behavior from a responsible individual… and I don’t think this first impression was a good omen of things to come. Over the next month, besides being part of a 4 week long losing streak with my West Stirling state league team (after I pitched an exhibition victory for Team U.S.A. imports against the Perth Heat All-Stars in my first 2 innings in Perth), I also found that being away from my best mate in Adelaide where I was in 2007-2008 and not really knowing anyone at all in Perth, that lived remotely close to me, made things tough to get by, especially considering the things promised to me – reimbursement on money, a job giving baseball instructions and conducting clinics, a car, a gym, food, etc. were all failed to be fulfilled. By the time the team brought out a new pitching coach, another pitcher (an American who happened to have AUstarlian citizenship as well), and his best friend as another import, a Catcher, and including myself and our Italian import middle infielder, we now had 5 players from overseas and no money, hardly any transportation, and anything resemembling a normal living set-up for any of us. A few of us openly contemplated leaving, we weren’t winning, baseball wasn’t much fun with the current management, and we weren’t seeing much or doing much in Perth due to financial and transportation limitiations. All in all is probably the most miserable 6 weeks of 4 years worth of international baseball experiences (including being released from my first baseball job, almost dying in an Israeli hospital, some pretty depressing members of the opposite sex situations, and some severe injuries that made me wonder if I would ever pitch again). But something funny happened, during a chance encounter at a teammate’s sister’s softball game one boring Saturday afternoon I met two lovely women from a softball organization based just down the road from where I lived, and before I knew it I was coaching their top level Woman’s Softball team (without any knowledge of softball rules and play itself) and then was moving in to the orgnaizer’s house where I stayed the remainder of my time in Perth, aside from some truly amazing trips with a family from West Stirling and the rest of the imports down to the southern part of Western Australia called Margaret River, as well as a 2 week excursion to see one of my best mate’s Jason, out in New Castle and Sydney for Christmas and New Year’s and to see my other best mate Crabby, in Adelaide the week after my birthday in February, and culminating with a trip back to Margaret River and Dunsborough region compliments of the MacPhereson family and along with Lars and Kevin, my buddies from Holland who were also doing some baseball down in Perth… without these experiences and trips, and without the great support from the Carine organization and the enjoyment coaching a great group of girls who I had to leave just before they began finals, I don’t think I would have stayed in WA. During all this time, I still managed to play some baseball, do some serious weight lifting, go to the beach almost everyday and also was able to complete 6 law credits (2 classes) at Murdoch University towards my Juris Doctorate at University of Detroit Mercy Law during January.
I saw some weird shit on the baseball field:
The Perth Top 5
1. The Point:
During a game in November against Swans, as our young backup Secondbaseman was rounding 3B on a basehit to the outfield our Manager at the time, didn’t really know whether to send him or not so he panicked and as he raced down the line with the runner he pointed, yes pointed with one finger to 3B as if he wanted the runner to hold up, of course the runner was either listening for STOP or looking for two hands to go straight up in the air, which is the universal sign language gesture for stop, but neither of these things happened, and he was thrown out at home plate, we lost by 1 run. After the game, the Manager just laid into the young kid for not paying attention to him and running through the stop sign. I don’t know what was a stranger occurrence the fact that he used his index finger to point to the bag while a player was running full-speed or that he adamantly claimed afterwards that this was suitable to understand it meant stop.
The Justin point to third base
2. The Melville Brawl:
I was out with a bunch of my teammates on Friday evening Feb 5 at my favorite local hot spot, Tiger Lils, celebrating my birthday. Also in attendance was our newly signed Almere Shortstop Mitch, who played at Morley and some of his boys from Morley and his best mate from Melville and their import middle infielder from the States. I also played with Melville’s import on Team USA during our exhibition series in October against the Perth Heat, had hung out with him before, and he played on the same college team in the States as my best mate Jason. Flash forward to my start against Melville on Sunday. He was the first batter of the game, I started him with a 2-seam fastball low and he fouled it off, so with 1-strike I decided to go in on the hands with a 2-sean. He was standing right over the plate and it tailed into his front shoulder/bicep area. Not at his head, or his back, or behind him, which would be more intentional, if it were on purpose. Well, he holds his bat and glares at me before running to first, like I did it on purpose first batter of the game with 1 strike. I couldn’t believe it. Later in the game, while he was at Shortstop, one of our players was on running from 1B to 2B on a ground ball to him, he decided to take it himself and after he touched the second base bag and fumbled his grip and decided to take an extra step, out of the 2B cut-out and ran smack into the runner who was too far away from the base to start his slide. As soon as this collision happened the SS turned around and tackled the runner and then slugged him in the face. Benches cleared. Never seen a fight start like that.
3. The Morley Tag-Up
I have a lot of respect for Morley since they were in first place almost all year with a ton of talent and our new SS from Almere, Mitch Graham, however, when they were up 18-1 during the 6th inning of a game at our place in February, their manager decided to have a runner on 2B tag-up on a normal fly ball to right field with 1 out. There are some unwritten rules in baseball, namely with the game almost over, and when you’re up by more than 8 runs or so, you don’t unnecessarily take extra bases. This was a very glaring violation of that baseball etiquette. Well we were pretty pissed in our dugout from getting this rubbed in our face, and then the Morley coach violates another baseball etiquette code where the manager should refrain from talking smack with members of the opposing team as he turns around and starts defending himself to our entire dugout by claiming West Stirling (our team) years ago would rub victories into every team (which was probably before any of the guys on the team – who averaged 20 years of age, were even born). Class all the way.
4. Umps making up their own rules:
On the whole, I thought the Western Australian umpires may have been the worst group in the world (I say this every year – about Atlantic 10 Conference umps, Belgium league umps and especially the umps in Israel). As a veteran player I’m used to bad umpiring. I now accept it as part of the game and I don’t really get to frustrated with all the bad calls, they’re human, they’re not paid very much, some probably can’t see very well….however, when umpires start making up their own rules during a game, that is something I really can’t tolerate. I don’t remember who the game was against or the exact situation, but during the middle of a pitch, or in the course of a ball hit back to me, the first base umpire decided to call time. For no reason. Just time out. Nobody called time. Nobody did anything illegal. The play didn’t count and we had to redo it. It was a big part of the game and both teams were more confused then I had ever seen… even the team it helped was unsure what was going on and why. While we’re on bad umpiring – my first week in Perth and one of the last games I saw two of the quickest boots – or players being thrown out that I had ever witnessed. Our SS Ben Merritt was booted after he was clearly safe at 1B was called out and then had a few parting words as he walked away from the umpire towards his position, as you are supposed to do in baseball. The umpire, offended by Ben walking away, even though this was the mature and proper thing to do to avoid getting tossed, called Ben a “cupcake” (that’s a first), and Ben with his back to the umpire still walking towards his SS position stated “I am walking away please don’t talk to me” Seriously, I am on the pitching mound and heard him say this. The umpire tossed him. My first week in Perth our DH and then future manager Dion was also out at 2B on a pick-off where he felt he was clearly safe on his way back to the dugout he yelled out “We have to be better than this.” Not in the direction of anyone, he could have been talking to the score keeper. He was tossed. It was the 2nd batter of the game.
5. Phil’s Throw:
I wouldn’t say our 3B was the most talented player on the field by any means. In fact, I was asked to take over at 3B at the end of the season after not playing the position for probably 4 or 5 years in a game. However, he was able to do something so amazing on the field, I don’t think I have ever seen quite a performance like it in all my years of baseball. With the bases loaded against Vic Prk in February, he got an in between ball hit to him directly at 3B it wasn’t too slow and it wasn’t too hard so he charged in a bit and then threw off his back leg, everything looking normal, except when the ball left his hand in the took the path of a grenade or a shot-put, as it was launched nowhere close to first base, it came directly for the dugout except about 15 feet over the top layer of the dugout roof. Imagine a ball picked up off to the 3rd base side of the pitcher’s mound and the third baseman fields it with his angle to 1B directly going almost up the line towards right field foul territory, so instead of the ball flying directly over first base and into foul ground hitting a fence or even launced into would-be stands, the throw was at least 20-30 feet before first base going towards home plate and another 20 feet deeper and 10 feet higher the dugout was positioned. Simply amazing. I don’t think I’ll ever see anything like it again. Teammate and Dutch import Lars Siahaya “Holy shit, how is that possible?”
West Stirling Baseball Team:
Despite our lackluster record, our inability to always field a competitive teams, and of course our fair share of bush league baseball, we had some bright spots. Our SS Ben Merritt was an outstanding offensive/defensive combo at the top of our lineup. His never-say-die attitude, competitiveness and understanding of baseball definitely helped us squeak in a few wins and hopefully helped the development of the young team. Ben Bristow, sometimes 2B, sometimes OF, sometimes DH, always the heart and soul of West Stirling, was just the ultimate positive influence and strove to do his best at all times. A young mix of talent would surprise some teams with Left Handed pitcher Ben MacPhereson, outfielder Kieran Chapman and infielder Curtis Payne. A few times we put everything together and reeled all off some competitive games – like a doubleheader sweep against Perth in January, and hard fought battle we won in December against eventual league runner-up South Perth, a offensive triumph from almost every player on the team against one of the top state league pitchers at Gosnells in late February and a Wednesday night shut down of Melville at baseball park. But the fact that I can name all the good games/times on one hand shows how bad most of the season was. The guys were young (Average age of our starting 9 was somewhere between 19 and 21 years old) and although we had some fun on and off the field, when you consistently lose and finish at the bottom, things can’t always be jolly.
We had 10 wins and 25 losses with 1 tie and finished in 10th place out of 10 teams. Most of the times someone asked us if we won, I would say the better question is did we get any hits… Seriously. Personally I had one win on the entire season, starting 11 games, 9 losses and 1 no decision (Which we ended up winning). Our manager was fired during the mid-season break. Players stopped showing up. We didn’t really do much the first half of the year to get better. Talent was a problem. Depth was a problem. Lack of proper training and coaching was a problem. We had a pitching coach who really tried to teach and infuse some positive baseball spirit and it helped to an extent but when the team finishes in dead last in every major offensive category (batting average, we hit .217 as a team, runs, home runs, stolen bases, doubles, slugging percentage, walks, on base percentage, strikeouts, etc.) it’s going to be tough to win games. The most interesting stat to explain all this mess for me personally was my runs support taken after the mid-season 3 week break in December and early January. Beginning January 24th against Perth, my first game back after the break, when I went 6 innings and gave up no runs, but my team also scored no runs until the bottom of the 6th when I was out of the ball-game, until March 5 when I pitched against South Perth 5 innings giving up 3 runs and getting 0 runs in support, I accumulated 28.2 innings pitched and we scored a grand total of 2 runs during the innings I pitched over the course of 6 games. That’s an average of 0.62 runs per game I pitched.
All the bad, on the baseball field, helped me learn quite a bit as a pitcher. I learned the humbling effects the game can do to a player, especially coming off an undefeated championship season in Holland. I learned to be more aggressive inside with my 2-seam fastball, and how to consistently get my off-speed working when I fell behind in the count. I learned to have the patience to deal with a battery-mate (catcher) with not the same baseball experience, batter recognition, and pitch-calling theory as I have. I learned to really believe in having my own program to rise above the inconsistency and lack of direction that losing can cause.
I was quite surprised by the talent level in the league. A number of players from each team are professionals in the States, highlighted by Luke Hughes who plays AAA for the Minnesota Twins and Brendan Wise, a highly regarded relief pitcher coming up through the Detroit Tigers organization. Each team had anywhere from 1 to 3 or 4 professionals and it made the league quite competitive. The most challenging team in the league was Morley Eagles, who won the premiership, their lineup boasted 5 regular players who are currently or have had pro baseball experience in the States, 2 more American imports that could flat out rake (one led the competition in home runs, and one of which I gave up), and two more solid Australian players, one of whom won the Championship Series MVP. I don’t think I would face any lineup like that anywhere in Europe, I can’t remember a team I played in college so stacked aside from the #5 ranked Miami Hurricanes who I pitched against in 2005 that boasted MLB studs Ryan Braun and Gabby Sanchez.
People always ask me to rate the leagues I play in because they’re so diverse and sometimes so strange. You have Division 1 college baseball, Belgium top league, Israel’s only season of 2007, the South Australian state competition, Dutch First Division, Western Australian state competition, briefly some Claxton Shield competition, and the Dutch Head Class. I would say the WA State comp was just as good as any overseas league in Europe or Australia, with the top players being absolute studs either in or on the verge of being in Major League Baseball, and the bottom players – well, I don’t think some of them would not even make my North Farmington High School baseball team. It’s quite a range of talent level, and it makes for interesting games, interesting days, and quite frankly a bit hard to rate. The Morley lineup, the top team, at it’s best, is one of the greatest hitting teams I’ve ever seen, and the worst hitting lineup team (ours) well, I don’t think it would stand a chance in any of the other leagues I played in. Somewhat surprisingly about the league was the influx of imports (or foreign players brought over) – I have never seen anything quite like it. As I wrote previously, our team actually ended up having 5 personnel from overseas, even though rules stipulated only two could play at the same time. Morley had 4! Every team had one, and most teams had two. By comparison, when I played in South Australia, my team, Southern Districts had two and we were the only team to have more than one. The last thing of note that I thought to be the strangest was a post-game tradition of each team getting together at the home team’s clubhouse and giving speeches. Each manager would discuss how they felt about the game, thank the other team for hosting them, these things were a formality, quite silly, and honestly quite time consuming and depressing when your team loses 25 games.
Perth, itself, was a strange city, not going to lie and no offense to my fellow Perthians that I shared the city with for the better part of 6 months. It’s the fastest growing city in the southern hemisphere (I believe), and well, the infrastructure – from the roads, to the internet, to the power companies just aren’t able to handle more than 100,000 people (and I think the city is pushing a million). There was always traffic, there was always wind (after 4PM), and pubs were never open past midnight (which is a tragedy to a professional baseball player). Bars had dress codes, even ones situated right on the beach you had to wear dress shoes to… Food establishments weren’t open late (except for McDonalds)… and it was tough to use the internet due to Australian internet quotas, to keep in touch with all the overseas family and friends and colleagues, essential for an international baseball vagabond.
I know I’m going to miss the weather, the beautiful beaches, and some great friends but overall I’m happy to be on my way back to my “baseball home” of Holland.