By Scott MacLean
One of New Zealand’s lesser known national sides goes into action next week as our baseball Diamondblacks attempt to qualify for the quadrennial World Baseball Classic at the first of four Qualifier tournaments, battling South Africa, the Philippines, and hosts Australia for the sole berth available at the Blacktown International Sportspark in Sydney’s outer west.
In 2012 the side made the qualifier final, but were comfortably beaten by Taiwan – who are exempt into the main event this time around – after wins over Thailand and the Philippines.
Baseball has a growing profile in New Zealand with playing numbers now at 6,800, up from 4,200 four years ago, an increase of 60%. While that is still some way behind softball, Baseball NZ is making significant strides at junior and college level in particular. The Diamondblacks suffer from a lack of exposure with a lack of regular international competition outside of the WBC process, and funding is an issue with this week’s team camp in Auckland being run on a shoestring budget.
Head coach Chris Woodward – a Californian with 12 years’ playing experience in the Major League’s and will suit up as part of the Los Angeles Dodgers coaching staff in 2016 after two years with the Seattle Mariners – has scoured far and wide for players eligible for New Zealand, though in the finest traditions of international sport they aren’t always consistent; for instance, Americans who identify as Jewish can play for Israel even without they or their parents having ever set foot there.
The 28-man squad he has named has several players who return from the 2012 qualifier, alongside others who have experience in the North American Minor League and Collegiate systems. The former group includes the Moanaroa brothers, Moko and Boss, outfielder Daniel Lamb-Hunt, infielders Alan Schoenberger and Scott Campbell, who came as close as any New Zealander has to making the Majors as a position player and returns after retiring in 2013 due to injury, and catcher Te Wera (Beau) Bishop, who has had two cracks in professional ball in the Boston Red Sox and Milwaukee Brewers systems, alongside pitchers Andrew Marck and Jamie Wilson. The latter includes the touted Max Brown, who is in his first year with the Arizona Diamondbacks organisation after playing collegiately at Kansas State. At the other end of the spectrum are a number of age-grade players, with catcher Connar O’Gorman and pitching brothers Scott and Ben Cone having experienced the Australian League, and four members of the national U18 side.
Cleveland Indians pitcher Nick Maronde – who lived and played in Auckland in his teens before returning to the US where he twice went to the College World Series tournament with collegiate powerhouse Florida – is the sole player with Major League experience on the roster; that coming in parts of three seasons with the Los Angeles Angels. Another veteran head is former Australian and New Zealand softball infielder Tyron Bartorillo, who played third base in the Black Sox’ 2013 World Champion side.
Amongst those absent are pitcher John Holdzkom, who hasn’t been released to play by Pittsburgh while Toronto farmhand Daniel Devonshire tore his bicep three weeks ago. Veteran pitcher Scott Richmond has made himself unavailable while Makauley Fox, who pitched collegiately at Oregon State, has left baseball altogether.
The biggest and most tragic loss though is Lincoln Holdzkom (John’s brother), who was killed in a single vehicle accident in California in mid-December. The team will honour him by hanging his #37 jersey in the dugout and will wear a memorial #37 patch on their jerseys, with his photo taking pride of place this week at their base at the Pakuranga Rugby Club.
Woodward has assembled an experienced coaching staff to assist him. Ron Roenicke, the Milwaukee Brewers manager from 2011 until being fired early last season is the bench coach, with Josh Bard, who caught for 10 seasons in the majors, serving as hitting coach. Naoyuki Shimizu, a 13-year veteran of the Japanese leagues and a member of the Japan squad that won the first WBC in 2006, is the pitching coach, with two more MLB-veterans in DJ Carrasco and Brant Brown rounding out the staff.
Australia are the favourites, and although they don’t have as many major leaguers as in previous years – veteran pitcher Peter Moylan, recently signed by Kansas City, is the only MLB regular on their roster – still have nine players who are in the US professional system, and many others in collegiate ball, plus those also playing their own MLB-owned league.
South Africa, who have a handful of minor leaguers themselves, is the team’s first assignment in the double-elimination format at 3pm Thursday 11th. The result of that game will determine who, and when the Diamondblacks play next.
You can follow the side at www.worldbaseballclassic.com.
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