Sports

America's Pastime Goes Down Under

If you approach an Australian sports fan and start talking about Willie Mays, Pete Rose, or Derek Jeter, you are not going to have a very good conversation.

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Case in point, I asked Boss and Moko Moanaroa who their favorite players were when they were kids.

"I didn't know much about baseball. It was more rugby league, and cricket and stuff like that," said Moko Moanaroa.

"Same. For me it was BMX, BMX. I didn't like baseball at all," said Boss Moanaroa.

It wasn't such a crazy question for me to ask these two Australians. After all, Boss and Moko are professional ballplayers.

The two are playing for the Lowell Spinners, a minor league affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. Boss and Moko are ethnically Maori, their family roots are from New Zealand. They were raised in New Castle, Australia.

Boss is the younger of the two. He is 20. Moko is 21.

Boss said their father was a softball player and introduced them to baseball. "I didn't really like it, but my brother did," he said. "I only played baseball basically because he did."

I asked Moko what he liked about baseball.

"I liked the hitting part of baseball," Moko said. "I liked to see how far I could hit the ball and stuff like that."

They can both hit the ball really far. They're big, powerfully built guys. Boss is among his league's leaders in home runs with five.

And he pointed out, "I've got three triples too." One of the most exciting plays in baseball.

Moko has been getting less playing time this season and has one home run this season. No triples so far.

Boss was the one who got this journey started. A Red Sox scout found him in Australia, and then at age 17, he signed a contract. Two weeks later he was on his way to Florida. He was too young to come on his own, so elder brother Moko acted as chaperone.

"They said, well, since you're here, you might as well play some games as well," Moko said. "They put me in two games, I hit a home run in the first game, hit the fence my second game, and they gave me a contract from there."

At this point, you might be thinking: Why was a Red Sox scout even looking in New Castle, Australia?

"If Major League Baseball wants to stand for the best players in the world, then you have to recruit globally," said Paul Archey with Major League Baseball. He said the Major Leagues are always looking for the next Roberto Clemente or Sammy Sosa. That search includes looking Down Under.

Archey was Major League Baseball's first employee in Australia back in 1990. (He's now in New York.) Today, there are 28 scouts working in Australia. Archey said developing baseball in Australia isn't only about finding the next diamond in the rough. It's a marketing strategy too. When foreign players do well, so does the global business of baseball.

"Your television partners become much more interested, they show more games. They want to show their local player, which also leads to greater presence in merchandise, sponsorships…" said Archey.

Last winter, or summer in Australia, Major League Baseball helped launch the Australian Baseball League, a short 40-game season with six teams. Crowds were small, on average about 1,100 fans a game.

Archey said there'd be nothing better to boost attendance than for an Australian superstar to make it big in America. It's worked before.

"Chan Ho Park for Korea, Mariano Rivera for Panama, Fernando Valenzuela in Mexico. I could go across all the countries," said Archey.

Point taken. But those players grew up in countries where kids play baseball.

In Lowell, I watched the two Moanaroa brothers take batting practice. They hit the ball as hard, or harder, than anybody on the team. But they just haven't played as much.

Mastering baseball takes time, said the Spinners' hitting coach, Rich Gedman. (Red Sox fans will remember Gedman as an all-star catcher for the team back in the 1980s.)

"It's a repetition game," Gedman said. "It's something you have to do over and over and over and over and over again, so that you've been in many situations. Not necessarily hitting, but certainly in the field, where you just to have see plays and you've got to know where balls go."

The brothers have a long way to go before they can even sniff the grass at Fenway Park in Boston. Still, Gedman said the Moanaroa brothers are among his hardest workers. And he wouldn't bet against them making it.

"As long as they believe they can, there's a chance it could happen. And that's probably the main thing. It doesn't really matter what me and you think," he said.

The night I saw the brothers play about 5,000 fans came to watch, close to a sell-out. By American standards, Lowell is a fifth-tier baseball town. (The Lowell Spinners are a Class A, short season ball club.) But for Moanaroa brothers, playing in Lowell might as well be like playing at Yankee stadium.

"In Australia, this would probably be a big league stadium," said Boss, who added a caveat with a laugh. "We (Australians) don't really have stadiums."

His brother, Moko, said that even if there aren't tens of thousands of fans cheering them on, 5,000 still feels pretty significant, "They're all behind us, cheering us on. It helps us a lot."

  • July-25-Ej-34.jpg

    Credit:

    JOHN CORNEAU

    Joe Moanaroa (center) with his sons Boss Moanaroa (left) and Moko Moanaroa (right). (Photo: John Corneau/Lowell Spinners)

  • July-14-Ej-4.jpg

    Credit:

    JOHN CORNEAU

    Boss Moanaroa(left) with brother Moko Moanaroa. (Photo: John Corneau/Lowell Spinners)

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