Talent lurks in unexpected places

16:00, Mar 04 2011
Te Wera Bishop
THE WORLD AT HIS FEET: Te Wera Bishop, 17, has the chance of a lifetime landing a seven-year contract with the Boston Red Sox.

It's the bottom of the third, and Jon Deeble needs to make a comfort stop.

Sitting in the main grandstand at the Oceania under-16 baseball championship clash between New Zealand and Guam at Pakuranga's Lloyd Ellsmore Park in Auckland, the tall, white-haired Australian turns his head, spotting four portable toilets just behind the grandstand.

Deeble, the Pacific Rim scout for the Boston Red Sox Major League Baseball team, stands and leaves the grandstand, just as Kiwi pitcher Makauley Fox strikes out the last Guam batter of the innings. None of the players had caught his eye at the tournament so far.

As he wanders towards the toilets, Deeble is stopped in his tracks. Behind the grandstand, a tall young Maori with a rat's tail is throwing a baseball to a younger friend.

Deeble's eyes widen. The boy has an arm like a rocket. A motion that was smooth and effortless – attractive to any baseball player's eye.

As the coach of the Australian national team and former United States minor league manager for the Florida Marlins and the Sox, Deeble knows his baseball. And he knows talent when he sees it.

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This was talent. This kid can throw, he thought.

He had heard about a gifted young catcher who had made the Black Sox, New Zealand's national softball team, in the past year. He had seen videos of the kid. He was hoping to perhaps see him in action while he was in the country, but didn't hold out much hope.

Was this him? Surely not, he thought, wandering towards the youngster.

"What's your name mate?" Deeble asks. The young man hiffed the ball back to his mate, and turned towards the Australian.

"Te Wera Bishop."

Deeble could hardly believe it. This was the kid. He told Te Wera he was a scout for the Red Sox and he wanted to run him through a few drills. He wanted to see more.

Te Wera was unsure. He told Deeble he would ask his father, Les, who was sitting up in the grandstand.

The family were up from Porirua to watch Te Wera's 15-year-old brother, Te Kahui, play for the Kiwi under-16 team.

Te Wera's father was unsure at first. A Boston Red Sox scout? You sure? But he's an Aussie?

Next morning Les, wife Patsy, and Te Wera, who'd never played a game of baseball in his life, turned up again at Lloyd Ellsmore. Deeble was ready.

While the parents of one of Te Kahui's team-mate's held the camera, Te Wera ran through several batting, throwing, and running drills. Deeble liked what he saw, compiling a video package to send off to Boston.

The Red Sox liked what they saw too.

Two-and-a-half weeks of phonecalls, emails and paperwork later and Te Wera is sitting in the conference room of the Sky City Grand Hotel in Auckland. Press photographers click away and television cameras roll as the young man tries to hide his grin.

There's a Red Sox jersey with the No35, Te Wera's favourite, on his back, and a bonafide American dream; a seven-year contract with the Sox, sitting right in front of him.

How did it happen? How did a 17-year-old former Aotea College pupil, about to start a carpentry course, go from budding young Black Sox catcher to someone with the potential to be one of New Zealand's most well-known, well-paid, sportsmen?

The answer is somewhere in the stitching of the big red B on the front the cap Te Wera's wearing. In the way that Kiwi youngsters at the Lloyd Ellsmore tournament drove for catches and dived for first base. In the way millions of people across North and Latin America speak religion in the form of sacrifice fly balls, stolen bases and Roy Halladay's deadly right arm. The answer is baseball.

The sport in New Zealand has enjoyed a near-perfect start to 2011.

Kicked off by the visit of New York Yankee outfielder and MLB ambassador Curtis Granderson six weeks ago, baseball has received a degree of media attention that any emerging sport would die for.

THE Oceania under-16 champs were broadcast live on TV; a coup, regardless of the towellings the Kiwis received from their too-strong neighbours, Australia.

Te Wera's signing with the Red Sox, the fourth by a Kiwi in Major League history and the first since Aucklander Scott Campbell was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in 2004, has been the icing on the cake.

So how is it that Kiwis have been turning to a sport most would usually associate with gum-chewing, big-talking Americans, who call the pinnacle of their national past-time the World Series?

A tall, confident-looking, upstate New Yorker with almost tunnel vision for the sport he loves has a lot to do with it.

"I don't believe there's another nation in the world that can grow quicker than we can in the game of baseball," Ryan Flynn says, easing back on his chair during Te Wera's press conference.

"I believe that will be proven in the next couple of years."

Flynn, the chief executive of Baseball New Zealand, has been in New Zealand only a year, but has already transformed the sport through savvy business ideas and bold decision-making.

Since he began, numbers have risen from 1200 to 4000, while registrations at some Auckland schools are rivalling cricket.

A 10-team college league is about to begin in Auckland with St Kentigern College building their own custom diamond and batting cage.

Schools from near and far are throwing up their hands to get involved.

Small steps sure, but in only 12 months giant leaps for a sport that's long been in the shadow of softball in this country.

When Flynn starts talking baseball, you can't help but be drawn in by his enthusiasm and positivity.

He worked his way from the ground up before, taking the tiny Pacific country of Guam from a baseball backwater to a nation that came within three victories of a spot at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

He knows what you need to get the game up and running.

For Flynn, the first major step in the professional direction is getting a New Zealand-based team in the new Australian Baseball League and he has already had discussions with Australian officials.

"I took this job because I knew in my heart that this was a country that could build a world-class baseball programme," he says.

For all of Flynn's confidence about baseball and the direction it's moving in, softball still firmly occupies the diamond sports highground in New Zealand.

WITH more than 30,000 players nationwide and a softball culture firmly entrenched around the likes of Auckland and Hutt Valley, the game is in a strong position.

Te Wera, who first picked up a softball at the Porirua Softball Club when he was seven, is from a true softball family, with mother Patsy playing for the White Sox, and father Les playing at top club level.

"We were brought right up with softball, I've always loved it," Te Wera says.

Seen as a rising star in softball circles, Te Wera, who has had former top softball coach Don Tricker as a long-time mentor, forced his way into the Black Sox only last year and was figuring as a big part of their plans for the 2013 men's world champs to be held in New Zealand.

Yet for all of softball's strength, baseball can offer something their well entrenched brothers never can.

A shot at the big time, an opportunity for a well-paid professional career like Bishop has just stepped into.

He isn't the first softball player to switch pitches.

Gus Leger and Travis Wilson signed professional contracts with the Anaheim Angels and Atlanta Braves in the 90s, with Wilson the last person cut from the Braves roster ahead of the 2001 MLB season, missing out the Majors because of a late need to bulk up the pitching bullpen.

Bishop's signing with the Red Sox moved New Zealand softball legend Mark Sorenson to urge his sport to explore closer relations with, and even eventually consider a merger with, baseball.

" ... the rewards in terms of financial gains and pathways these guys can take is far greater in baseball than selling raffle tickets outside The Warehouse on a Saturday morning," he told The Dominion Post.

"If they [young softball players] are blessed with an exceptional talent, why limit it to just playing softball in New Zealand, or around the world, when there could be a lucrative career path."

Sorenson, who emerged as softball's most dominant player during his long career with the national men's team, turned down contracts with both the Blue Jays and Kansas City Royals during his time on the diamond. His words resonate with Flynn, who looks up to the former softball great for his impact on the sport, and also his rationality.

Because for all Flynn talk about baseball, the language he's really speaking is one of giving opportunities for talented young Kiwi athletes.

"At the end of the day, it's opportunities for kids. In baseball arguably, there's as many opportunities for kids as any other big sport in the world.

"I want kids to reach their dreams no matter the sport. It just happens to be baseball with me."

Softball New Zealand general manager Dane Dougan, Flynn's softball equivalent, wants to see Kiwi kids well too.

He acknowledges that baseball offers those bigger career opportunities than his sport, but is keen to remind everyone that in diamond sports, softball is the one bringing the best young talent through.

Te Wera's defection will affect the Black Sox, sure, but someone else will step into the breech. "[Te Wera] has clearly been a loss, but softball will survive without him," Dougan says.

Flynn and Dougan know each other well. Dialogue already exists between the sports, and with a study of New Zealand diamond sports by Softball NZ currently taking place, Dougan knows closer links are inevitable for the health of both games.

The way Flynn sees it a Kiwi softball player may get scooped up by an American university, or professional team, but there's no reason why they can't return to New Zealand to help out coaching, or come home and play after their baseball career is over, like Wilson did after his time in Atlanta.

"Everybody's a Kiwi, it's not us versus them, it's diamond sports and they need to stick together," he says.

Up on the seventh floor of the Sky City Grand Hotel, the press conference is coming to a close. The photographers have snapped their photos and the journalists have asked Te Wera the big questions.

Baseball's dream start to 2011 is coming to an end.

AS FOR Te Wera, his baseball story is just beginning. The task ahead of him is a daunting one. The Red Sox sign about 20 young baseball players from around the world every year.

Te Wera, who names Sorenson and long-time Boston catcher Jason Varitek as sporting heroes, will spend a few weeks at training this month with the Red Sox in Florida before heading to the Gold Coast to train at the MLB Academy, alongside other Aussie prospects.

Even if everything goes well, it could be at least five years before Te Wera is anywhere near the big time. But he's confident of making the step up.

"I love a challenge, it will be great. It'll be good to show those Americans how New Zealanders can play."

Deeble rates the youngster's raw tools, especially his hitting and throwing abilities, but knows Te Wera will have to work incredibly hard to make it.

"At the end of four or five years, I'm sure Boston will have an idea of where he's at and I'm sure he will too. It might be a situation where we shake hands and say `you can move on with your life'," he says.

Deeble pauses. "We're hoping that's not going to be the case. We signed him because we think he's got a chance to play in the big leagues and hopefully he can."

Te Wera's truck driver dad stands back.

An imposing figure, Les lives in Wellington but originally hails from Te Kuiti.

He's proud of his son and proud of the mature way he's dealt with the past few weeks. He seen how his son applies himself to challenges, and knows he'll rise to this one.

"It's gonna be tough, real tough," Les says. "But if he handles it the way he's handled the promotion to the Black Sox and the last 12 months as a player, I think he'll do all right.

"What I want to do is to go into Rebel Sports one day and buy a Boston Red Sox jersey with Bishop and 35 on the back," he says.

"That would be great."

AT A GLANCE

Key differences between softball and baseball

Pitching style (overarm throw for baseball, underarm for softball)
Ball size (220mm in diameter for a baseball, 305mm for a softball)
Length of game (nine innings for baseball, seven for softball)
Type of bats (usually wooden for baseball, usually aluminium for softball)
Size of the field (in baseball the pitchers mound is located about 18m from home plate, softball is just over 14m)

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