Holdzkom brothers pitch in for NZ bid
You could say John Holdzkom threw a curve ball out there and happened to strike it lucky with Baseball New Zealand.
Ryan Flynn, the organisation's chief executive and chief talent scout for the Diamondblacks' audacious bid to qualify for the World Baseball Classic, still has the email in his inbox.
The vague inquiry has resulted in the Californian venturing Down Under for the first time with older brother Lincoln.
They have a Kiwi father who emigrated to the United States as a youngster, and are thus eligible to join the first New Zealand team attempting to qualify for the WBC.
It's a tall order, as the Diamondblacks must beat Chinese Taipei, the Philippines and Thailand in Taipei City from Thursday.
Ryan needed only a couple of key strokes to realise John Holdzkom had made the perfect pitch.
"I looked him up quickly and saw he was six foot seven and threw 101 miles per hour. I emailed him back within 15 minutes," said the upstate New Yorker driving New Zealand's development as a baseball nation.
The correspondence began in September last year when Holdzkom, born and raised in Pasadena, noticed New Zealand had been invited to a regional qualifier for the first time.
A fourth-round draft pick for the NY Mets in 2006 when he was 18, Holdzkom arrived in Auckland on October 25 to join the 28-man roster.
Although his knowledge of Kiwiana is minimal outside of the All Blacks and the All Whites' unbeaten soccer World Cup campaign in South Africa, it has not taken him long to get up to speed.
"You take a look at that locker room, it's about 10 by 10 and we've got 30 guys in there," he said after a Diamondblacks' build-up game at the Sydney Olympic Games baseball venue last week.
Holdzkom spent five mainly injury-plagued years at the Mets organisation and is on the lookout for another MLB franchise after being cut by the Cincinnati Reds in June following a three-month secondment.
The qualifier provides an opportunity to showcase his skills and his trip south has already been a smart career move.
Holdzkom returns to Australia after the tournament to play for Canberra in the national league, and still holds out hope of one day pitching in the majors, even if the odds are stacked against him.
"Only four per cent of players who sign professional contracts reach the Major League. Now I just want to relax a little bit, have fun playing baseball and not put so much pressure on myself."
Holdzkom, who has met only one of his distant relatives in New Zealand, is feeling right at home in what he describes as a unique team environment.
"This is the first team I get to play where winning is the goal.
"When you're in the minor leagues you're kind of battling with your own team-mates to get through to the top of the organisation.
"Personal results are important, teams results aren't. It's an interesting dynamic."
Flynn was rapt with Holdzkom's input and also with the fact that Lincoln, who played triple A ball with the Boston Red Sox, has also bolstered the pitching staff after two years in virtual retirement.
"They're two of our top pitchers," he said. "That was a very fortunate find for us."
Flynn also tracked down Brisbane truck driver Riki Paewai, a 26-year-old with Kiwi parents whose dreams of stardom were dashed when he was released by the San Diego Padres' affiliate in Arizona six years ago.
He returned home and was playing club ball off and on while adjusting to normal life by ferrying frozen products from the wharves to the city's supermarkets when Flynn made contact late last year.
"It was nice to have a couple of summers to myself but as soon as Ryan got a hold of me, once you know you can represent your country and do it in this maiden voyage, it's a dream come true," Paewai said.
He had not pitched seriously for three years but said it didn't take long to get back in the groove.
He echoes Holdzkom's view of the Diamondblacks' set-up.
"There's no bad blood in the team. That doesn't happen too often but we're lucky enough to have it."