Chance of a lifetime for Kiwi baseball star

PROUD DAY: Pita Rona has signed a deal with Major League franchise Baltimore Orioles.
PROUD DAY: Pita Rona has signed a deal with Major League franchise Baltimore Orioles.

A week ago, Baltimore was just another name on the map for Auckland teenager Pita Rona.

Now, it's a place that represents not only his future as a sportsman, but also as a young man attempting to do something no New Zealander has done before.

The 17-year-old signed a seven-year contract with Major League Baseball team the Baltimore Orioles in Auckland yesterday, becoming just the fifth Kiwi to sign up with a professional team in the United States.

A New Zealander has never played Major League Baseball, although former Black Sox Travis Wilson came close, missing the Atlanta Braves team by one roster spot after spring training in 2001.

Rona follows in the footsteps of Wellington catcher, and first cousin, Te Wera Bishop, who signed a contract with the Boston Red Sox last April.

A longtime New York Yankees fan, Rona admitted he couldn't quite locate Baltimore on a map of the US but said the opportunity to make the Big Show was one he was going to take with both hands.

"I'm really grateful for this opportunity," he said.

"It can financially set me and my family up for life. I'm actually looking forward to doing all the hard work and trying to improve myself to try and get higher and higher as the years go by."

Rona was offered the contract after being seen in action by top Orioles scouts David Stockstill and Brett Ward on Monday, as he trained with the New Zealand under-18 baseball team in preparation for an upcoming Oceania tournament in Guam.

Scouts often judge the calibre of baseball prospects using five different indicators, or "tools": running speed, arm strength, hitting for average, hitting for power and fielding ability.

Stockstill said that Rona, who has been scouted by the Yankees and Red Sox in the past, had impressive "tools" in all five areas, and can turn into a top baseball player.

"He has a very quick bat, a very quick swing and the ball jumps," Stockstill said. "There will need to be some adjustments to add a little more length, because you have more time with the baseball.

"We see an athlete who will be able to make the transition fairly rapidly and fairly successfully," he said.

Yesterday's signing caps a tumultuous two months for the Rona family, with the new Orioles signee one of three former softball players involved in a controversial axing from the Black Sox just two months ago.

Along with his father, Brad, and Black Sox outfielder Ben Enoka, Rona was blacklisted from playing for the national team after it was revealed they had been playing club baseball in Auckland.

The decision to axe the trio from the squad stemmed from an email sent to all Black Sox players from management warning them that if they played baseball, at any level, they risked being cut from the national team.

First stop for Rona in his baseball journey will be the MLB Academy on the Gold Coast this year, before attending Orioles spring training in Florida in 2013.

After that, there are likely to be visits to the Orioles Dominican academy then back to the Gold Coast, before heading back to the US for outings in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League.

Stockstill, however, said there will be no rush. "It's our job to make sure wherever he goes he can compete successfully," he said.