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How to build a baseball country

Over a century ago, New Zealanders scoffed and scratched their heads when introduced to baseball. Today, an American CEO and a wave of new players is keeping it alive.

Kyle Glogoski signs for the Philadelphia Phillies with Philadelphia Phillies scout Howard Norsetter.
| Marc Shannon / www.photosport.nz

The train departed our nation’s capital, bound west for the sea. On board were the organizer of the tour, Albert Spalding, his wife, twenty baseball players, a manager and his two assistants, a cricket coach, a few of the players and coaches’ wives, a one-eyed daredevil balloonist named Professor Bartholomew, and a dancer named Clarence Duval.

Together, they would bring their message to the world’s farthest corners: Oceania. The South Pacific. New Zealand. Not as explorers, but missionaries, spreading the Book of Baseball.

The journey, which set off in October 1888, was designed to be a financial disaster, and succeeded. Spalding was fully aware of the hit his fortunes would take, because, as a millionaire sports equipment magnate, he had a hidden agenda. Spalding claimed the tour was to establish with finality that baseball was the “national game” of the United States by parading it across the country and beyond, into lands where it had never been seen. The idea that it would, in his mind, also “create a market for goods” in an as-yet untapped part of the world must have just been a fun bonus.

When figuring ways to fund the journey, Spalding settled on the obvious answer: Baseball! The two teams on the tour, Spalding’s own Chicago club and the other, comprised of “all-Americans,” played every day on fields across the country, from the White House—where they’d met President Grover Cleveland—all the way to Honolulu.

On December 10 they pushed into Auckland, New Zealand, a hair too late to play the nation’s first baseball game (The Hicks-Saber Minstrel Company had reportedly come through and done so weeks before). But Spalding’s group played anyway, with the Chicago team coming out on top, 19-4. A crowd of 4,500 gathered to watch the bizarre display. The local press found it boring.

“I don’t even know how you can find baseball boring, when cricket goes on for about five days,” says Phillies pitching prospect Kyle Glogoski, a 19-year-old Auckland native who signed with the organization this past January.

Glogoski comes from a small, stubborn pocket of baseball that first arrived in his country with Albert Spalding and failed to impress. While the sport has caught on with a passionate fan base since the late 1800s, it has yet to reach the next level of competition on the international stage.

Baseball, depending on the New Zealand observer, still exists somewhere between distinguished and brutish, separating it from cricket, its more regal counterpart. Baseball’s aggressive parts—take-out slides, beanballs, bench-clearing brawls, grown men having full-on public meltdowns, screwballs that move in defiance of natural law—concerned and disgusted spectators in 1888. Over time, while the baseball community has caught on thanks to a furiously-working national organization and the pure passion of thousands of players, coaches, fans, and staffers, it still remains in the background of New Zealand sports culture.

“Mom and dad always loved it as soon as I started it,” he says. “[They] were always going to America for holidays just because I loved it over there, and as soon as I got into baseball, they got right into it and they were picking out favorite teams, favorite players. So they’re very understanding of the sport and what goes into it. They’ve been very good to me in that aspect. And a lot of my mates got more into it ever since I signed. So they’re like, ‘How fast is your fastball now? Do you throw a screwball?’”

Kyle Glogoski with mother Sharon Glogoski,sister Brooke Glogoski and father Gary Glogoski.
Marc Shannon / www.photosport.nz

While those around Glogoski have made themselves more familiar with his passion, he still needs to include some context for his fellow countrymen. As interesting as it is to see the Phillies become more of a presence on the international market, their exposure to the sport’s more remote regions is not quite on the level as other certain franchises.

“I have to use the New York Yankees as an example, just to say what kind of caliber they’re in. ‘You know the Yankees? Philadelphia Phillies is like a Major League Baseball team like them, one of 30,’” Glogoski explains. “Then people understand the picture. A few of my mates knew who they were, guys who follow sports quite heavily. But not too many people actually knew who they were.”

Fortunately, the Phillies have become prominent enough for at least a few of their names to make it overseas.

“I know Rhys Hoskins, he played for the Sydney Blue Sox a couple years ago,” Glogoski assures. “I know Aaron Nola, I think he’s a very good player, he’s a guy who can throw all his pitches for strikes whenever he wants. I was following him before I was even talking to the Phillies.”

The list of New Zealand-born players in MLB is easy to remember, because there’s nobody on it. But over a century after Albert Spalding brought baseball to New Zealand, Glogoski and the next wave of talent from the other side of the planet are looking to bring it back.

‘Off to first base!’

It was not long after Spalding’s tour left the island that baseball died a swift and meaningless death in New Zealand.

By 1889, author C.W. McMurran wrote that despite four teams sprouting up in Wellington, “interest in the game” had “died out.” Cricket remained preferable, but McMurran saw New Zealanders lagging behind in even their sport of choice: “Though New Zealanders can ‘whip’ Australians at football, the latter are simply invincible at cricket. New Zealanders are not anything like as good at the wickets as they are between the goals of a football field.”

During World War II, the Royal New Zealand Air Force practiced baseball in order to create some commonality with their American allies stationed among them. Again, decades passing had done little to change their attitudes, and the locals were disgusted at the informality of the game in comparison to cricket. But the Americans did their best to look as appealing as possible.

Just take this pulse-pounding narration of a video in which U.S. Marines played each other at Athletic Park in Wellington in January 1943:

“Missed! Another ball to go. This one is going to be a ‘googly’ or something. But it doesn’t fool the batter. Off to first base! He won’t make it! Yes he will! No he won’t!

He made it.”

At this game, a separate New Zealand announcer was on hand to explain what was happening to the 20,000 “confused” locals; the largest crowd to assemble at the venue since before the war. To make things even less interesting that day, one team of Marines beat the other 13-0. This wasn’t even the most lopsided contest of the day; elsewhere in military competition, the “Broadway Demons” defeated “Base Camp” 28-6.

Naturally, comparisons to cricket arose among the grumbling throngs, according to the local paper:

Papers Past

“All were agreed they had an enjoyable afternoon,” the paper continued (This statement has not been fact-checked). At least it was something to do besides fight a war.

A few months later in March, an even larger crowd of about 25,000 gathered at Athletic Park for another baseball game. As related in Baseball in Wartime, a Marine and semi-pro baseball player named Darrell Heath recalled some moments during the game in which it was clear the audience had yet to get a firm grasp on baseball’s rules.

“Heath said the New Zealanders were unfamiliar with the game, and he remembers fans cheering routine plays such as high fly balls, and booing home runs as play was halted while the ball was retrieved from the stands.”

By the time Kyle Glogoski and his parents were in the car one afternoon decades later, it no longer took a global conflict to get a New Zealander into baseball. It took a sign on the side of the road.

“Mom and dad were driving by and saw a sign that said ‘come try baseball,’” he recalls. “So they signed me up pretty much the next day and I never turned back. Just loved it from there.”

American baseball ambassadors will travel the New Zealand landscape, introducing baseball to young people and showing them how to play. That’s how Glogoski had been introduced to the sport while attending farming school, and while the foreign nature of baseball had turned off audiences in the 1940s, he had found that he connected with it as a departure from the typical New Zealand sports scene.

“It was just the fact that it was something different,” Glogoski recalls. “Everybody in New Zealand was playing rugby and soccer, and then baseball came along. It wasn’t like all the other sports. It takes a very small amount of people to figure out the game and get good at it. It was just really interesting to me, it was something I’d never tried before, and I just fell in love with it straight away.”

Glogoski started off as a catcher, intrigued by the amount of gear the position required. But one day, while playing in a 15 and under league, his team burned through its supply of hurlers and the coaches’ heads had turned in his direction.

“So they asked if I wanted to get up on the mound and have a go,” the right-hander recalls. “And then they say, ‘Oh wow, he can actually throw pretty hard.’”

The Kittenball Rivalry

Baseball has a surprising rival in New Zealand: Softball.

This is not surprising in that softball is in any way a lesser game, but more so in that United States fails to put the two sports on the same level as professional entities.

“The relationship between the two sports is certainly a work in progress,” Baseball New Zealand CEO Ryan Flynn says. “But there has been some real headway made in recent years. Softball has a had longstanding and proud tradition in this country, and it’s been foreign for me to see the two diamond sports bicker and fight over players, which isn’t common in the United States and elsewhere, but there has been quite a bit of crossover in talent in each direction.”

Softball, like baseball, began in the United States and, upon the advent of the second world war, similarly spread across the seas. Unlike baseball, it was initially known as “mushball” or “kittenball.” Its international governing body, the International Softball Federation, wouldn’t come together until 1965.

The 1973 film A Touch of Class, which filmed in London and featured a scene at a softball game, popularized the sport in the United Kingdom. The scene in question features everything about baseball (and by proxy, softball) that foreigners had found off-putting: A violent collision, a man screaming at officials, and George Segal calling an umpire a “blind son of a bitch” in the middle of a crowded park full of children (He had just collided with one).

Somehow, this is also the scene in which our romantic leads have their meet-cute.

Softball arrived in New Zealand in 1935, played, of course, by American sailors. Canadian W.H. Wilson, a manager of a Ford Motor Company plant in Wellington’s Lower Hutt region, had the equipment to field a team and a pool of players among his employees to start one. New Zealanders’ love of softball is credited with starting during the factory lunch breaks when Wilson’s players would practice.

Unlike baseball, it caught on quite quickly, with the Wellington Softball (Baseball) Association forming in November 1937. In the sixties, softball underwent an explosion of popularity in the country, and from 1966 to 2013, the men’s national team won five titles and the women won one. There now exist governing bodies known as Baseball New Zealand and Softball New Zealand, with national men’s and women’s teams known as the Black Sox and White Sox, both having competed in numerous national and international tournaments.

The Auckland’s Western Magpies are the women’s most recent national champions, and the MVP of the series might be the MVP of all sports, ever:

Jennifer Feret – White Sox national team player – threw two no-hitters against the Dodgers on her way to dual individual honours as the top pitcher and most valuable player of the tournament. She also hit a bases loaded grand slam home run and drove in the winning run in a 2-1 tiebreaker victory earlier in the weekend.

“Relationships have been made, and we expect several clubs including a major softball club in Auckland, the Waitakere Bears, to offer baseball next year, along with their full menu of softball teams,” Flynn explains. “It’s an exciting time to figure this out together, and to provide pathways for all boys, girls, men and women in the diamond sport that has the most defined opportunities for the young person, depending on their skill level, sex and ambition.”

With men’s baseball and women’s softball returning to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Flynn made a pitch in December 2016 for baseball funding from High Performance Sport NZ, a firm that “works in partnership with national sport organizations” to appropriate resources and support for athletes and organizations. While softball received $100,000 of approved funding for 2017 and $150,000 for 2018 (men’s softball received $250,000), baseball’s request was declined. Being the 26th ranked country in their sport wasn’t good enough, according to HPSNZ.

“Fields are being built, clubs are starting and hopefully there’s a point in this country where we figure out how diamond sports work around the world,” Flynn said at the time.

New Zealand’s baseball and softball record on the world stage is not yet distinguished, and their rivalry has alternatively strengthened and scrambled the progress of both. In either case, for those seeking their sport’s highest level, advancement typically means leaving home. As Glogoski learned firsthand, in some countries, baseball is a huge draw, with organized games attracting fans and curious onlookers. But in New Zealand...

“...not so much,” he laments. “If we’re playing top tier baseball in New Zealand, you mainly get friends and families to come down. When I was playing for the [Sydney] Blue Sox, you get a pretty good fan base. The stadium probably only had about 1,200 people at the games on a good day. Even in Australia it wasn’t overly big, but it was growing and getting bigger between communities.”

Striving to make MLB as a New Zealand resident geographically puts an entire planet between you and your ultimate goal. However, the international circuit on which one travels to get there can serve as both a bonding experience and a measuring stick.

“I [was] traveling with twenty-five guys who are all chasing the same dream, all with the same passion,” Glogoski says. “It was just awesome seeing different talent around the world, what they learned, what we learned; some of those European guys are real good, real fast players. So it was interesting to see where I shaped up to the rest of the world.”

Youth Movement

For a teenager trying to pitch his way into the majors, it didn’t matter as much how many people showed up, as long as a few of them had radar guns and stat sheets.

While Glogoski was playing on a 16 and under team in a state championship, 25-30 scouts showed up to watch a few of the tournaments.

“That’s kind of when the dream turned a little bit into a reality,” Glogoski says. “Those guys are always emailing and asking how it was going.”

Things moved quickly from there. “They kept working with me on mechanics and I kept building it up. Then I tried my luck out in Sydney—my mom and dad sent me. I just kept getting better and better and more people were willing to help me and it just went from there.”

In 2014, Glogoski traveled to Mexico to pitch for New Zealand in the World Baseball Softball Confederation Championship, which was where Flynn saw him pitch for the first time.

“I first noticed Kyle’s work ethic, ability and demeanor in Mexico,” Flynn says. “[He] clearly had something different about him in terms of being singularly committed to this goal of being signed by a MLB team when the time was right, and he and his family had a plan in place to do just that.”

The New Zealand national team, called the Diamondblacks, brought Glogoski on board at 15 years old, easily and instantly making him the youngest player on the roster. Glogoski rejoined the national team when they headed to Sydney in 2016 for the World Baseball Classic Qualifiers.

“By no means did I expect to make the team because I was so young, compared to everyone else,” Glogoski says. “The coaches saw a lot of potential in me and I thought I could learn lot from the team, which I did.”

“I think that was good for him; to be mentored at this level and challenged against ex-MLB and MiLB players in this tournament,” Flynn recalls.

New Zealand, in their final WBC qualifying performance against Australia, gave up 11 walks and left nine runners on base in a 9-2 loss. Eliminated before they could get out of the hemisphere, the inviting fraternity of New Zealand baseball players was a consolation prize for a program still trying to make an impression on the global stage.

The baseball world continued to open up in front of Glogoski. He traveled to Florida for two weeks in early 2017 playing for an MLB Select team against Major League Baseball Rookie teams on a tour of Spring Training facilities in the St. Petersburg area. He was his team’s hardest thrower, clocked at 92 mph.

“When we went to the Yankees complex, they had all four fields going at once, infielder and outfielders all taking balls at once. It’s all very smooth, very fast, there’s so little room for error in what they’re doing. Especially when I got to pitch, they’re all very disciplined, they weren’t chasing change-ups, they knew what to look for in each count, so I had to pitch backwards against them and think what they were thinking. When I went over there, I definitely had to pitch backwards, because they were much more advanced than anything I’d faced before.”

With the Sydney Blue Sox in 2017, Glogoski appeared in five games, making one start and throwing 12.1 innings, sporting a 5.84 ERA. Though interest had been expressed by the Phillies, there was a hold-up over deals for Glogoski and other international prospects as MLB teams worked themselves into a frenzy over Shohei Otani. But after all the packets were submitted and Otani went to the Angels, Glogoski got his phone call.

“I was prepared to go to college in Texas,” he says. “I had that all set up if I wasn’t going to sign. And at the last minute, the Phillies came through when they were out of contention for Otani, and said, ‘Look, we really want you.’”

‘These were slim, daunting times’

Eventually, satellite television brought Major League Baseball to New Zealand television screens, allowing residents to view the sport at its highest level of competition, as well as the Mets.

And in 1992, New Zealand became affiliates of the international baseball federation, with the Diamondblacks competing in the Merit Cup in Florida. A brewery-sponsored team tried to qualify for the 1996 Summer Olympics, only to be eliminated by Australia.

It was in this new era that Flynn, an American and former marketing director for Anheuser Busch, took over as CEO of Baseball New Zealand in September of 2009. His job was clear: keep New Zealand baseball moving forward.

“From the earliest days, when you are the only employee of a national sporting body, you do a bit of everything—write press releases, branding, scouting, selecting coaches,” Flynn says. “You even put up canopies for scorers at national tournaments, rake the fields, pick out and purchase and even pick up trophies and medals—and everything in between.”

“I remember seeing four young teenage players on a diamond in east Auckland upon my arrival, and remarking that they were legitimate ballplayers,“ Flynn says. “Soon after I learned that they were honestly the only four players in the country who were playing that hard and at this high level. They pushed one another, but it was one of the only pockets of the sport in the nation at the time. We also had all of the nation’s gear in my small garage at my home when I arrived. These were slim, daunting times.”

“It was quite small here, only a handful of clubs, and for many it was hobby-ish, despite having some immensely talented young men like [former Blue Jays prospect] Scott Campbell and [former Braves prospect] Travis Wilson advance to the brink of the Show,” Flynn continues. “There wasn’t much of a youth development model, as the men’s game played by small pockets of players and expats from baseball countries, as well as by fast pitch softball players, was the focus each year. We had to make many changes, and open the sport up to thousands of young people who didn’t know about the sport or opportunities it presented. This is an ongoing battle in a nation that wasn’t truly a baseball country, but it’s work that we believe in and work that we believe will become easier if a few dramatic initiatives get over the line in the coming year, including the establishment of a franchise in the professional Australian Baseball League (ABL), a true winter league.”

Over the years, MLB has sent players and teams on diplomatic missions to the developing New Zealand baseball scene: the Diamondbacks traveled there for an exhibition game in 2013, and their shores have seen stopovers from player-ambassadors like Brian Matusz, Nick Hundley, Paul Goldschmidt, Mark Melancon, Curtis Granderson, and Didi Gregorious. In November 2017, BNZ was offered a franchise slot in the Australian Baseball League, which was a big step toward widened recognition. A Major League Baseball Australia Academy Program is held in July and August of every year in Queensland, Australia, through which many New Zealand players who have made it to the minor leagues have passed.

This season, Glogoski started out in the Phillies’ Gulf Coast League and adopted the standard ball player regiment: a throwing program, a gym program, and an urge to do “a little bit extra every day.”

A small network has emerged from his MLB world team, from which several have been scooped up by big league deals: “I think about seven or eight guys signed and a few of them were my really good friends. Jess Williams, Brewers; Jared Dell, Padres; those guys are all past teammates. I’ve got friends over at the Detroit Tigers, which isn’t too far from the Phillies in Clearwater.”

With enough friends dispatched into MLB organizations, the isolated popularity of baseball in New Zealand is strong enough for the sport to see returns on the investment it made there over a hundred years ago. A base of 8,500 players now exists, who “participate in competitive and recreational Baseball programmes in various capacities,” according to the BNZ web site. Others have come closer to the majors, like the aforementioned Travis Wilson from Christchurch, who played eight seasons in the minor leagues (seven for the Braves), and Auckland’s Scott Campbell, who was drafted by the Blue Jays in 2006 and played in their farm system until 2009.

“Baseball in New Zealand is definitely on the rise,” Glogoski says, and he’s not alone in believing so. Baseball New Zealand has sworn that more fans are coming, after the response of Padres fans to San Diego GM A.J. Preller scouting the island in January 2017.

“I went down the other week to watch a couple local clubs, just to see what was going on in the baseball community,” Glogoski continues, “and they had so many young kids playing over there, they had about ten games going on at once, all in one little club which was amazing to see. Hopefully, the kids decide to stay with it once they get older just to help grow the sport and give it a bit more promotion.”

“We have to step up both our grassroots efforts and high performance programs, too, on the back of our potential ABL success and expansion of the sport and newfound visibility,” Flynn says. “It is all connected, and we have to keep our pedal on the gas right now.”

At the end of of their time in New Zealand, the players of Albert Spalding’s Baseball Tour likely looked forward to their return stateside: All that stood between them and hot apple pie on a window sill was thousands of miles of ocean. It had been a long trip already, and things had gotten squirrely at times; Professor Bartholomew had at least once pulled a gun on some curious observers who’d begun fingering his balloon.

Some of them would remain behind and continue to train New Zealand players, but the others would board a vessel bound homeward across endless ocean.

Or so they thought, until Spalding made an announcement.

The Great Baseball Revolt: The Rise and Fall of the 1890 Players League, by Robert B. Ross

And thus, the next lesson of baseball’s ongoing curriculum was taught: Baseball never really ends. They just start playing it somewhere else.

References:

  • The Great Baseball Revolt: The Rise and Fall of the 1890 Players League, By Robert B. Ross
  • Press Reference Library, Volume 2, University of Michigan Libraries (magnate)
  • Baseball Beyond Our Borders: An International Pastime, edited by George Gmelch, Daniel A. Nathan
  • From New York to New Zealand: Or, The New Century Trip, By C. W. McMurran
  • Spalding’s World Tour: The Epic Adventure that Took Baseball Around the World by Mark Lamster

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