It might be as far from home as you can get in a Trans-Tasman league, but when the Auckland Tuatara take to Perth Harley-Davidson Ballpark late on Friday night for their competition outing in the Australian Baseball League it’ll represent a watershed moment for the game here, and the people who have worked hard to make it happen.
The current incarnation of the league dates from 2010, when Major League Baseball and the Australian Baseball Federation revived the competition that had sat idle since the previous ABL folded in 1999. Although MLB have since sold their ownership stake to the ABF they retain some clout, with the ABL currently recognised as one of the “winter leagues” where prospects and veterans alike can get more playing time. You won’t see starts of the here and now playing, but you might see someone who turns into a bonafide superstar like New York Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius who spent a season in the league as part of his development.
The Tuatara are one of two new teams in the ABL, the league’s first expansion from its original six. They’ll compete in the Northeast division along with three-time defending league champions the Brisbane Bandits, the Sydney Blue Sox and Canberra Cavalry. The Perth Heat, Adelaide Bite, and Melbourne Aces form the Southwest division along with the other expansion side, Geelong-Korea.
For their inaugural campaign Baseball NZ CEO Ryan Flynn has scoured far and wide to build their roster, but it will be something of a balancing act as players will come and go over the course of the season. The highest profile name is 32-year old American pitcher Josh Collmenter who has seven seasons in the majors with Arizona and Atlanta, and currently also works as the national U15 pitching development coach. He’ll have at least four Kiwis with him on the staff including John Holdzkom who is trying to get back to the Majors after a brief but successful stint with Pittsburgh in 2014 but derailed by injuries since, and youngster Kyle Glogoski who is currently in the Philadelphia Phillies system.
On the hitting side of things Diamondblacks regular Daniel Lamb-Hunt figures to be a key part of the lineup with his past experience in this league and in Germany figuring to be a valuable asset. Te Wera “Beau” Bishop is another with overseas experience with the catcher having once been in the Boston Red Sox and Milwaukee Brewers systems. Two players expected to make an impact though are American outfielder Eric Jenkins, who is a well-regarded prospect for the Texas Rangers, and Astros Triple A farmhand Nick Tanielu, with the Samoan-American joining midseason.
As well as looking to the States to find players the Tuatara have also forged alliances with a pair of clubs from Asia’s baseball leagues, with both the Chiba Lotte Marines from Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball and the Uni-President 7-Eleven Lions from the Taiwanese league sending players. The franchise also has a partnership with Kagawa Olive Guyners from the Japanese independent leagues that will see a player exchange each year.
The team will be managed by American Steve Mintz. A former MLB pitcher himself, Mintz managed Adelaide for two seasons – both times to runners-up in the championship series – so is familiar with the league and its demands. Former big-leaguer Darren Bragg and minor leaguer Cola Yeh round out his staff.
The Tuatara face some unique challenges in their debut season. There’s the usual travel factor, plus the fact that they’re in a division with the two sides that contested last season’s championship series. But the biggest of all might be the schedule itself; beyond the fact that it’s a weekend league – all four matches each series follow a pattern of Friday night-Saturday doubleheader-Sunday afternoon – the Tuatara will play just 12 games at home, and all before Xmas with their last 24 games all in Australia. That’s almost entirely due to the speed with which things have come together, with McLeod Park hosting those 12 games before the move to Albany’s QBE Stadium for the 2019/20 campaign and beyond.
It might be too much to expect the team to make the playoffs this year, but with the game continuing to grow in numbers here, there’s now an avenue where, just maybe, a local kid will take those first steps towards a big-league career.
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