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Sunday, February 26, 2012

No. 14 on Baseball America's Top 100: Albert Almora

Though the Tournament of Stars is a showcase of the best ball players from across the country who are all hoping to be seriously considered for the national team, for one player it might seem like home.

No, Albert Almora isn’t from Cary, North Carolina, where the tournament is held and has been each summer since 2007. The Hialeah, Florida native doesn’t even have relatives in the area, as during his time in the city he stays with a host family just like many of the other players.

But, USA Baseball has provided a spot for him to show off his talents since he reached his teen years. Almora twice played for the 14U team, in 2007 and 2008, helping Team USA win two gold medals in Guatemala along the way. He played for the 16U team two times as well, in 2009 and 2010. The center fielder has also already played for the 18U team, getting the opportunity for the first time last year.

His standout talent has not only been evident to USA Baseball year after year, but the high school coach who started playing him at age 11, Eddie Gorriz, knows firsthand how much Almora has to offer.

“He’s one of the best baseball players I’ve ever seen,” Gorriz said. “I don’t think there are expectations for him. He practices and trains as hard as humanly possible. And with that comes good stuff. I’m constantly just trying to remind him that he works so hard and should just leave the rest up to whatever happens. But I’ve never seen anything like him.”

While Almora’s dominant presence in USA Baseball made him feel at ease at the tournament, he didn’t want to get too comfortable in his familiar surroundings.

“I don’t want to say I’m getting used to it, but it is more relaxing,” the 17-year-old said, after his first game of the tournament. “Not to come out with a lot of pressure, I just get to come here, have fun and enjoy the game.”

In the tournament opener, playing for the Babe Ruth Baseball team, Almora led off and went 2-for-3 with two walks, a double, a stolen base and four runs scored. His team plated a total of six runs in the 7-6 loss to the National Amateur Baseball Federation team. The young leader attributes his success on the diamond to being assertive and making things happen.

“I’m very aggressive,” Almora said. “Obviously, being in the outfield is one of my best abilities. But just to go out there and try to win every game by being aggressive, that’s what I think is the most important thing.”

The Mater Academy senior is not only a smart baseball player, but his maturity stands out both on and off the field. It’s not surprising that he would bring that aspect to his game, because baseball is a large part of how he has developed as a person.

Almora has played high school ball since sixth grade, and as a junior varsity fielder until eighth grade, when he started for the varsity team. While his time spent with much older players greatly affected his game, he thinks it’s all been helpful to him along the way.

“It’s a great honor,” the center fielder said. “To be playing with older guys and more mature guys, and having to live up to what they were putting out there. I was a 12-year-old starter in high school playing with 18-year-olds so I had to mature really early. And I’m really happy that I did.”

The young star’s coach didn’t hesitate to bring Almora onto the field with the older players, despite the age difference. Gorriz knew that his fielder could handle it, and saw a rare level of maturity from the then 11-year-old.

“From the second I met him I knew he was very mature,” Gorriz said. “He was little but he almost handled himself like an adult. He was such a nice kid. He was very respectful. And now he’s grown big and strong and even more talented.”

Another huge influence on the development of Almora’s game has been his very close friend, Manny Machado, the first round pick (third overall) of the Baltimore Orioles in 2010. The two share the same philosophy on baseball, and keep each other grounded on the importance of the game. 

“We were at our very first practice together,” Almora said of Machado. “We started together and we just always had fun. We always told each other, ‘Man, who cares what we do? Let’s just go out there, have fun and enjoy the game’. That’s the biggest thing that we get from each other.”

And on the same morning Almora started making his bid for a spot on his sixth national team, Machado got the news that he was being promoted to Baltimore’s High A team in Frederick. When Almora found out, the excitement for his friend was written all over his face, talking about the urgency to get to a phone to congratulate him.

Almora stressed that his family is the most important thing in his life, and his commitment to the University of Miami might give him a chance to stick close to home and play baseball for a few more years. Without being eligible for a draft until next June, it’s hard to say where he’ll end up, but Almora is overjoyed about what’s on his plate right now.

“I’m very excited,” he said of being a future Hurricane. “It’s always been a dream of mine since I was a little kid to go to Miami. I’ve always gone to games with my dad and sat in the bleachers watching pro guys play. I always told him I want to be able to play with the University of Miami. And to get the opportunity, to get the scholarship, I’m very blessed. I’m very fortunate.”

With a bright future ahead, Almora’s current focus is finding success with the 18U USA Baseball team, after having made it past the five-day tournament in Cary, his home away from home.

“It’s an honor to be back with a great bunch of guys and play again. It’s a great experience to be with the top guys in the nation. It’s just awesome.”

No. 21 on Baseball America's Top 100: Joey Gallo

What happens in Vegas is starting to make its way out of Vegas.
Opening up baseball eyes and ears beyond Sin City has been phenom Bryce Harper as of late, the first overall pick in the 2011 draft, who has so far lived up to the hype that has surrounded his play.

Joey Gallo, a close friend of Harper’s, is hoping to get some looks of his own, starting at the Tournament of Stars as he competes for a spot on the USA Baseball junior team roster. Gallo thinks his friend has opened up baseball in Las Vegas.

“He’s changed it around,” the 17-year-old said. “He makes everybody look at baseball in a different way now. And honestly, it’s probably football that’s the biggest sport out there for us, but most people are starting to look at baseball a little bit and know the game a little more because of him.”

While that all may be true, Gallo is making a pretty good case for the sport as well. As a junior at Bishop Gorman High School this season, the infielder, who is also beginning to try his luck as a pitcher, batted .471 with 25 home runs, 78 RBI, 64 runs scored and a 1.198 slugging percentage. His 25 long balls are the second-most for a high school player in state history. Gallo helped his team to their sixth consecutive state title, three of which he’s been a part of, including a national championship title in his freshman year.

The 6’5”, 205-pound Gallo continues to make improvements at the plate. With great bat speed and power potential, he has earned comparisons to Troy Glaus, a fellow third baseman. As a pitcher, his stuff is a little raw, but he hasn’t spent nearly as much time on the mound as he has in the infield.

“I just throw hard so I pretty much just go out there and chuck on the mound,” Gallo said.

In 19 innings this year with the Gaels, Gallo was 3-1 with a 1.12 ERA and 29 strikeouts. Though he stressed that the competition he faced wasn’t the top of the line, the righthander’s velocity reached 95 mph. He only started taking the hill because his dad, a pitching instructor, urged him to do so. Gallo thinks the biggest thing he needs to work on though, is neither on the mound nor in the infield.

“The mental part of my game,” he said of his biggest weakness as a player. “I think I need to work on that to be a little bit better. And I need to stay in the game a little bit more. But I think I’m getting better at it.

“Sometimes I get into my first at-bat and then I take what happens into my other at-bats, instead of regrouping and just letting that go into the past and focusing on what’s ahead of me. I could improve on that.”

Though Gallo thinks he needs to focus more on his mental game, his high school coach Nick Day thinks that it’s something that the young utility player puts more importance on than anyone else, and it may not be as big of a deal as he makes it out to be.

“Maybe a little bit,” Day said about whether or not Gallo has to work on his game mentality. “But he probably puts more emphasis on that than I would. I mean, any 17-year-old is still learning the game and still learning how to be consistent and having the right approach every time he’s at the plate. I don’t notice it that much but he might.”

During the conversations he has with Harper, which aren’t always about baseball, Gallo takes advantage of the opportunity to talk to someone at a higher level of the game, in the hopes of picking up tips to improve his own abilities.

“I’ve asked him how he takes on the game with the mental aspect because it’s a tough game, but that’s about all I’ve asked him about it,” Gallo said. “I’ve been able to use everything he tells me. He tries to give me advice on pitching and how pitchers attack hitters when you get up to a better level but I think he’s helped me out a lot by giving me more advice when I’m at the plate.”

The LSU commit is much more comfortable at the plate than on the hill, and thinks that if it were a battle between Gallo the hitter and Gallo the pitcher, his hitting side would win.

“I would probably hit a home run off of me,” he said. “It’s because I would probably try to beat me with the fastball and I’d probably be ready for it. I know what I like to throw. So I would be pretty prepared.”

Day also found himself leaning toward the batter’s box when asked who he would choose, Gallo on the mound, or Gallo at the dish.

“Joey the pitcher throws the ball really hard,” the coach said. “Joey the hitter hits the ball a long way. So if Joey the hitter gets ahold of one, which is hard to do against Joey the pitcher, well, that’s a hard question. I’ll take Joey the hitter.”

Day thinks the toughest thing that Gallo will have to deal with down the road is making the choice between hitting and pitching. But, as tough a choice as that might be, it still means that there will be a spot in the game for him.

“The sky’s the limit,” Day said. “Somebody one day is probably going to make him choose whether he’s going to be a position player or a pitcher. I think that will be the hardest thing for him because he’s a great baseball player. And when you throw as hard as he does, someone is going to want to put him on the mound. And I think that’s going to be hard for him, as good of a hitter as he is. But whatever he decides to do, he’s got all the ability and all the tools to go as far as he wants to go.”

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Second to none (Day 88)

I fell in love with baseball long before it swept me off my feet.

But sweep it did, just like almost every team that played against the 1962 New York Mets.

My love for the game has taken me from Canada to the United States and most recently all the way down under. I’ve learned that baseball is the same no matter where it’s played, or how much convincing it takes to make someone realize that fact.

Growing up in a hockey nation, it’s not hard to comprehend that there might be places in the world in which baseball doesn’t take precedence over every other sport. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Australian Baseball League, its teams or its players, knowing that baseball is not an Aussie staple. But I’ve been impressed in every sense of the word, of not only the ABL but also of all of the facets of the sport in Oz.

With two years of major league service time under my belt, as a statistician and not anything else more important-sounding, I gained a real appreciation for the intricacies of minor league baseball.

The authenticity of the game somehow changes when you see players building corporate boxes, taking down fences and even picking up garbage off the field. It warms the heart to see children on the field after games, running from player to player to fill their bats and balls with autographs, and to see those players complying with the demand with smiles on their faces.

It’s like Brad Pitt said in Moneyball, “How can you not be romantic about baseball?”

My experience with the Brisbane Bandits has been second-to-none throughout my time in the game. I got the opportunity to take on an array of different duties beyond just the media side of things. My resume can be updated to include my time spent as the team mascot, as a part of the grounds crew, running the sound board, cleaning stadium seats, collecting garbage, broadcasting an inning of a game and what felt like much more.

I am grateful for the chance I was given to write as much as I could, and though I wish I’d be able to touch on a few more topics, I did my best throughout the entire season to provide as much coverage and content on the Brisbane Bandits as possible, and I look to continue to do so. Everyone was more than helpful in providing me with interviews and information and I definitely have to acknowledge that the team was great with media requests.

Much to my astonishment, everyone involved in America’s favourite pastime down under does it for the love of the game. It might surprise you to learn that this is not true for everyone who works in baseball elsewhere around the world. But in Oz, many ball players have to take on a second job in order to supplement their income, and they take the diamond just because they want to play. A very high percentage of the behind-the-scenes staff are volunteers, just giving their time to the sport.

The calibre of competition in the ABL and the level of talent were both, again, impressive. Local talent from around the continent was showcased, as well as that of international prospects from across the globe. The quality of the game played in the league is unmatched elsewhere in Australia, as the ABL really is the equivalent of The Show here.

Playing down under gives a unique set of players from overseas an opportunity to experience a baseball lifestyle that they might never have known otherwise. For a number of guys, this was a dream come true. And what could be better than that?

Where do they go from here?

Baseball will continue beyond the conclusion of the Australian Baseball League season.

With Spring Training just around the corner in America, a number of Brisbane Bandits will be making the trip overseas to keep playing the game.

Looking to impress in the Cactus League in Arizona will be Ryan Battaglia, Andrew Campbell, Mitch Nilsson and Ryan Searle. The 22-year-old pitcher will be heading to Chicago Cubs camp, while the three position players are all affiliated with the Cleveland Indians.

Searle is heading into his fifth season in the Cubs minor league system. The right-hander finished the last North American summer with the Double-A Tennessee Smokies of the Southern League, going 5-3 with a 3.51 ERA. He threw 84 2/3 innings with 11 starts in 23 games for Tennessee, and is hoping to secure a spot in the starting rotation out of the spring.

The three Cleveland prospects all spent time with the Arizona League Indians last season and are looking to move up this year. Nilsson impressed in rookie ball, hitting .358/.419/.507 with a home run and 10 runs driven in through 21 games last year. Campbell appeared in 29 games for the Indians, notching two doubles, a triple, six RBI and five stolen bases. Battaglia spent only one game in the Arizona League before moving to the New York-Penn League for a short time, and his playing time will likely be significantly increased this season.

Heading to the Grapefruit League in Florida are four Brisbane Bandits players, along with manager Kevin Jordan. Josh Warner and Alan Schoenberger will join Jordan in the Philadelphia Phillies organisation, while Justin Erasmus will be in Boston Red Sox camp and Rory Rhodes heads to the Minnesota Twins.

Jordan will be a part of the coaching staff for the Gulf Coast League Phillies this upcoming season, the same team Warner played for last year. The 19-year-old started 10 games for the Phillies during the previous season, and had 12 appearances in total, notching 48 strikeouts and walking only 12 batters through his 54 2/3 innings pitched. With five years of minor league service time already under his belt, Schoenberger will be looking to continue to move up on the farm. The 23-year-old was last with the Lakewood Blue Claws in the South Atlantic League.

Erasmus has played two seasons of rookie ball for the GCL Red Sox and he also spent last year in the South Atlantic League, playing for the Greenville Drive in short-season A ball. The 21-year old has found success at each level, with a combined 1.68 ERA in 96 2/3 innings over the three seasons. In his second year, Erasmus led both the league and short-season ball in saves.

Rhodes batted .261/.363/.389 in rookie ball last year, after tearing up the Gulf Coast League in 2010. In his second GCL season, Rhodes hit .319/.410/.407 in 27 games for the Twins, earning him the promotion to Elizabethton. He will look to move further up the Twins ladder in March, hoping to get a chance to play for the Class A Beloit Snappers next.

Also heading to the United States will be Steven Chambers, after spending his last off-season in the Czech Extraleague playing for the Technika Brno. The 21-year-old right-hander is off to New Mexico to play in the Pecos League.

Going overseas to Europe will be Chris Mowday and Daniel Lamb-Hunt. Mowday is likely headed to the Netherlands while Lamb-Hunt is looking to win his third consecutive batting title in Germany.

Leaving Australia but not quite sure yet where they might play during the upcoming season will be Brisbane’s Italian ace Alex Maestri, along with American imports Jon Durket and Sean Jarrett. Prior to playing for the Bandits, Maestri was last with the Lincoln Saltdogs in the American Association. Durket spent the previous North American season with the White Sands Pupfish, the team Chambers is headed to. Jarrett came to Australia from the Atlantic League, playing for the Camden Riversharks last.

All of the other Bandits will continue to play A-grade baseball for their respective local clubs until the league comes to an end. Brisbane will welcome back many of these baseballers next season, with more accumulated time under their belts. 

Brisbane Bandits Silver Slugger Award goes to Josh Roberts

The end of the Australian Baseball League season means the beginning of awards season, and the first of many honours has been handed out. Josh Roberts is the Brisbane Bandits winner of the SAM BAT Silver Slugger Award, given to the best overall offensive contributor from an individual player.

Roberts led the team with a .308 average, seven home runs and tied for the lead in RBI with 31, making him the Triple Crown winner for the Bandits. He followed up his Most Valuable Player performance for Brisbane in the ABL’s inaugural season with another extremely noteworthy year. 

The right fielder ranked among the league leaders with his average and RBI total, as well as in doubles (15), extra-base hits (23) and total bases (94).

After putting on an outstanding show last year for Bandits fans, and continuing on the same path right from the beginning of the most recent season, the 25-year-old was an obvious choice for the ABL’s first All-Star Game, which took place in Perth in December. Roberts was the MVP of Team Australia, after going 2-for-4 with a home run and an outfield assist in the game.

While Roberts’ bat was potent all year long, the outfielder was even more dangerous at home. At the RNA Showgrounds, the Ipswich native batted .326/.347/.517 with four home runs, five doubles and 16 runs driven in, through 22 games.

From the left side of the plate, the slugger had a better average against southpaw pitchers, hitting .321, but his power came through against righties, with five home runs and 11 doubles, though he did notch more plate appearances against right-handed pitching.

Other team winners of the SAM BAT Silver Slugger Award include Denny Almonte of Adelaide, Brian Burgamy of Canberra, Brad Harman of Melbourne, Tim Kennelly of Perth and Brandon Barnes of Sydney.

That's all folks

Baseball is essentially a game of numbers. And after hitting numerous milestones, superseding many expectations and accumulating a list of firsts, the Brisbane Bandits are winners this season despite an early finish.

They had 22 home games, and 23 on the road for the up to 24-man roster. Narrowly missing out on a playoff position, the Bandits were supported by a team of dedicated coaching staff, round-the-clock volunteers (more than 30 throughout the season) and an endless array of supportive families, friends and fanatical Queensland sport goers.

Nine is the number of games Brisbane took wins from in the first half of the season, though after a slow start, the team came together and ended up finishing strong. The latter half of the season was a source of pride for Bandits General Manager Paul Gonzalez. 

“The highlight of the season for me was the continued improvements this organisation made both on and off the playing field,” Gonzalez said. “We won 11 of 20 games in the back end after the departure of our Japanese imports. It was a true test for our coaching staff, and with the support of our local Brisbane clubs the Bandits fought to the very end.”

Manager Kevin Jordan shares Gonzo’s sentiment over the Bandits finish to the year, and has also acknowledged the impact that the local players had on the lineup, stepping up to the plate when called upon. The additions to the team complimented the strengths of their other teammates, and helping the whole club make strides for improvement.

“The second half of the year was probably the best highlight for us as a team,” Jordan said. “I think that probably getting some of the younger guys like [Andrew] Campbell in and getting them some consistent playing time helped. I think guys that started with us earlier, players like [Matt Roxburgh], got more comfortable. Having [Sean] Jarrett in the starting rotation helped us a lot, and guys like Rhys Niit, who hadn’t been with us early in the year. I could go on and on, there are so many guys that stepped up, that either were there in the first half and got better in the second half. I think we just gelled as a team more after the break.”

Brisbane’s season kicked off with a ‘Moneyball’ film launch, sponsored by Major League Baseball, uniting the players and supporters towards the one goal of having a season to remember. Under the guidance of MLB, several local companies including Alderley Hire, Ready Towing, Subway, Ii Naa Japanese Food and Fielder’s Choice pledged their support to the Bandits and the ABL for the entirety of the season.

Four highly anticipated Japanese imports arrived in Brisbane in late October, courtesy of the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks of the Japan Pacific League. At the same time, star pitcher Alex Maestri made the trip from Italy. Maestri stayed out the season to the very end, becoming Brisbane’s ace along the way and becoming a fan favourite from the start. 

American arms Jarrett and Jon Durket slotted into the bullpen nicely for the Bandits, as did Andrew Marck from our nation’s neighbour New Zealand. With plenty of Aussie talent on the roster, and a number of players returning after the ABL’s inaugural season, team captain Brad Dutton felt the Bandits made strides over last year.

“The group of guys on the team were a year older,” Dutton said of the biggest difference between the first season and the second. “They knew what to expect of the season and of each other. As a group we have become closer, and the new faces like Maestri came into our team and bonded right from the start. Our coaching staff was great, with KJ bringing his knowledge of the game and understanding what the players were going through, and helping us out and having fun on the field. At the end of the day it is a game.”

While the role of the manager is often overlooked and undervalued when giving credit to a baseball team, Jordan made a huge impact on his players and also on the organisation as a whole.

“We improved this year because the guys truly believed that they could compete in the league,” the Bandits GM said. “This is a true credit to the leadership of Kevin Jordan and his coaching staff and the team leadership of our captains [Dutton, Josh Roberts and Simon Morriss].”

Coming from the first base coach side of things and moving into the role of the skipper, Jordan learned  firsthand how different the game can be from a new perspective, and how tough it is from the manager’s seat on the bench.

“I probably took the losses a lot harder,” the first-year skipper said. “More than the year before when I was coaching first base because I was actively involved in every aspect of the game outside of playing.

“You want to win every day. So when you don’t, it’s tough because you prepare the team to win, not just to play the game. It’s a lot of going back and re-evaluating things you could have done differently in the game when you do have those losses, whereas you don’t have that as much when you have the wins because usually that’s when things go the way you want them to. When you lose it’s more of a learning process where you try to figure out if there’s something you could have done different in the game to have a different outcome.”

Including Jordan, several familiar faces returned for a second season this time around, Dutton and Morriss leading the team with always-consistent slugger Roberts dropping football to pick up a bat. Wade Dutton was a standout on defense and David Sutherland made vast improvements on already great numbers last year.

With a busy 45-game schedule, the Bandits still found time for goodwill. Chris Mowday got mowed for the Queensland Cancer Council in November and the Reds lent a hand to raise funds for the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital during the Ballpark Buster. Volunteer Dan Parker also raised funds for cancer with a haircut of his own.

New to the league this year, the ABL All-Star Game saw Brisbane’s top players plucked for both sides of the competition. Justin ‘Bobby’ Erasmus and Roberts represented the Aussie contingent, while Maestri, Yohei Yanagawa, Ayatsugu Yamashita and Kenta Imamiya joined Team World, making it difficult for Bandits fans to choose which side they were on.

Other television coverage for Bandits players was found on 31 Digital this season, as Brisbane launched ‘The Rookie’ in November. The show was hosted by ball enthusiast and Australian media personality Paul ‘Campo’ Campion. This made the Bandits the only team in the league to host their own TV show and it showcased the team to Australia.

The Bandits got a great start to the season at home, taking down the Sydney Blue Sox three games to one in their first series at the RNA Showgrounds. The consensus was that the back half of the season was more successful however. Fresh blood was introduced in December with local club ball talent Campbell, Roxburgh and Josh Warner.

Steven Greer took over in centre field at the tail end of the season, first called in for the series in Perth, and was a huge defensive asset to the club. The outfielder had one home run, two doubles and five RBI through 14 games to go with his glove.

The strides the team made with a variety of different lineups was impressive, and so was the level of cohesiveness reached. Brisbane’s GM believes that the club will be in contention next season, with plenty for fans to anticipate.

“We have a lot to look forward to next year after a strong finish,” Gonzalez said. “I think on the field, with the talented youth that we have coming through the system and the addition of another year of maturity, we will be a strong contender for the Claxton Shield in 2013. We are hopeful to have some arms back next year and if we can land a big bat in the middle of our already dangerous lineup we show true promise after a successful 2011-12 year.”

Jordan shares Gonzo’s expectations for an even better outcome next year, but knows that there are some uncertainties for the upcoming season. He believes the team will certainly fare better if everyone can avoid injuries.

“A team that’s right on the verge of making playoffs, which is what we were this year,” Jordan said of what to look forward to for next season. “Obviously we don’t know what the roster’s going to be for next year.

“Health will play a big part because we, pretty much the whole year, we were able to have the same core position player guys who stayed healthy, as well as our pitchers. Alex [Maestri] from day one, he threw the whole year and he was healthy the whole time. A lot of times when teams aren’t successful it could be from a couple injuries from major players so I think if we stay healthy as a team then we have a real good shot next year of making the playoffs.”

Despite not knowing what the roster will look like next year, there are several players who already have plans to make their way back into the Brisbane black. Many are leaving Australia shortly to head to their American affiliations or independent ball teams, including Battaglia, Erasmus, Steven Chambers, Mitch Nilsson, Alan Schoenberger, Ryan Searle and Rory Rhodes. A couple are heading to Europe, with Daniel Lamb-Hunt going to Germany and Mowday to spend time in Amsterdam.

The core of the team will likely remain the same when another season approaches and as one of the team captains points out, next year is a new year.

“I’ve learnt that we have a team that can make the playoffs,” Brad Dutton said. “With another year under our belt, our team will be in contention to get to the end. If everyone still believes in the Bandits and we keep playing the game the right way, anything can happen next season.”

Why's he calling me meat? I'm the one driving the porsche.

It can be tough to be a rookie.

The fresh meat is expected to pick up extra duties around the ballpark and in the clubhouse, all while learning the ropes and trying to save face with impressive on-field performances. Complaints are unacceptable and rookie status can’t be deferred until a plethora of even newer recruits don the uniform.

The Brisbane Bandits had six rookies this year, qualifying for that title on the basis that they are Australian residents and have had less than 50 at-bats or eight pitching appearances in previous Australian senior national competitions like the Claxton Shield or the Australian Baseball League, or with the senior national team, in the World Baseball Classic, Olympic Games or the World Cup.

Four of those six made it onto the ballot for the ABL Rookie of the Year voting, evidence of what kind of an impact they made for the Bandits and in the league. The Bandits candidates for the yearly honour included Andrew Campbell, Ryan Battaglia, Matt Roxburgh and Rhys Niit, all happy to be taken into deliberation for the honour. 

“It feels awesome to be considered,” Campbell said of the Rookie of the Year award. “It really gives me confidence that my season had a good impact on coaches and other people involved. I certainly was a rookie this year.

“I don’t think my shoulders have recovered from carrying the ball bag all season, oh and doing Brad [Dutton]’s washing. Other than the chores involved, being a young rookie is a good thing because I’m experiencing mature-aged baseball already.”

Campbell was impressive out of the leadoff spot in the lineup, batting .301/.387/.376 through his 26 games on the roster. The 19-year-old outfielder led the team in on-base percentage and notched five doubles and a triple during the season. The Cleveland Indians prospect also managed to drive in eight runs from the top of the order and he stole three bases this year. 

Fellow Indians farmhand Battaglia batted .273/.319/.523 over 14 games, while playing behind the dish. He led all Brisbane Bandits in slugging percentage over that time. The 19-year-old had two homers, five doubles and six RBI.

Roxburgh, in his inaugural season, hit .283/.333/.396 with three home runs, three doubles and 16 runs driven in over his 28 games. The Brisbane native stepped up even more in the back half of the year and ended the season better than he started. He batted .414/.514/.690 over his last 10 games and finished the year on a six-game hitting streak.  

Taking the mound this season as rookies were three young pitchers. Niit was used out of the bullpen, closing out a couple of games and making six appearances in total, throwing 11 innings. The 20-year-old managed to notch two three-inning saves on the year, and posted an impressive 1.64 ERA.

Aaron Thompson and Josh Warner were also on the hill for Brisbane this season. After appearing in three games last year for the Bandits, Thompson only got into two this season. He threw three innings and struck out four. Warner made it into the starting rotation at the end of the year, getting three starts and appearing in six games in total, after getting into seven games last season. The 19-year-old completed 12 2/3 frames through his outings and fanned 12 batters.

Though Niit and Thompson are the only two of the bunch who will still technically qualify for rookie status next season, all of the young players will have to hope for a number of even newer faces to come in before they can be relieved of their rookie duties. When that happens though, the new guys will have a lot to live up to after the impressive show that was put by the rookies this year.

Keep it up, meat.

Baseball in Melbourne

With its competition including the likes of Aussie rules football, rugby and cricket, growing the sport of baseball in Australia is a tough task. However, there’s no better way to compete than by winning, and the Melbourne Aces are doing their best to gain popularity and keep up with Victoria’s sporting powerhouses by doing just that.

The Australian Baseball League has been back in action for only two seasons now, but Aces General Manager Windsor Knox believes that his team is on the right track.

“We’re in our infancy,” Knox said. “It’s like David and Goliath with baseball here. There are eight footy teams, a couple rugby teams, a couple cricket teams and a couple soccer teams. We’re gaining some slow acceptance here. The numbers are climbing but we’re still very, very small compared to the rest of them here.”

Baseball is starting to break in as a contender for fans and local support in Melbourne, and will hopefully continue to gain momentum. The Aces GM knows that the product his organisation provides at the Melbourne Showgrounds is what has allowed them prolonged success, like to continue in the future.

“With the things that we’ve done, and a lot of the teams in the ABL have done, we get families that walk up to us at the end of the game and say, ‘What a great experience’,” Knox said. “It’s not only fun watching the game and the between-inning activities but when you can bring your family of four out for 40 bucks and give value for that with what we do in entertainment it’s great. And that’s what we try to do over the other sports. They don’t have this kind of entertainment package.”

Melbourne will have a chance to leave an impression on at least one more set of fans this season, as Victoria will host the second round of ABL playoffs. The Aces took the second spot in the league standings through the regular season, earning them the opportunity to compete against the first-place Perth Heat in the first round of the post-season. After a series loss, Melbourne now welcomes Sydney to determine who will head to the championship.

“It will be tremendous,” Knox said of hosting another round of baseball in Melbourne. “To host a post-season series is going to help the sport, not only just for the fans but I think for the sponsorship, media attention and all-around membership. So it’s going to be extremely critical for us to try and get that exposure over the next couple of weeks.”

What should be most encouraging for fans of sport in Victoria is that the Aces have made it this far into the season using a majority of home-grown talent. Hopefully the local success stories can assist in the development of baseball in the area and will see young fans turn into ABL players as the league grows.

“We don’t have the same number of imports, or the MLB affiliate players, that Adelaide and Perth and probably to some degree Sydney have,” Knox said. “Most of our guys are Victorian, Australian-born talent. Guys like Paul Weichard, Justin Huber, just to name a couple of the guys, Darryl George, Josh Davies, those guys are all home grown talent. We’ve really relied upon a lot of local guys to help us get to where we are today.”

With post-season time left to play, the Melbourne Aces have a chance to develop the name of baseball in Victoria even further. Knox believes that the success of the organisation will have an impact on fans, and also that they are helped by the calibre of supporters in Victoria.

“It’s a growing and emerging sport,” Knox said of baseball in Melbourne. “And the passion that people have for sport here, not only for baseball, is probably the best of anywhere in Australia.”

Matt Roxburgh, getting the call

When opportunity knocks, someone still has to get up and answer.

That’s what Matt Roxburgh did, not letting the chance pass him by to play for the Brisbane Bandits when it was presented to him.

The 25-year-old outfielder was representing his club ball team, the Windsor Royals, in a Brisbane All-Stars game against the Bandits prior to the beginning of the Australian Baseball League season, and put on a show impressive enough for manager Kevin Jordan to take an interest.

“I got a call from KJ and he asked if I was available to play in the upcoming series,” Roxburgh said. “I had a chat to my bosses because I knew it would mean taking some time off work and they were really supportive and allowed me to play. I was pretty excited about the opportunity to play in the ABL because I knew it would be the highest level of baseball I will get to play in and I got a little taste of what it’s like to play professional baseball.”

While facing a higher calibre of competition would be somewhat of a challenge for any player coming from A-grade baseball to pro ball, the biggest adjustment Roxburgh had to make was getting used to going from having two games and one practice per week to having up to five games plus training and batting practice with the Bandits.

“It’s been awesome being able to play at such a high level of baseball against guys that are in Double-A and the big leagues. It’s exciting,” Roxburgh said. “It was tough the first few series, as I wasn’t used to playing so many games but I eventually got used to it and so did my body.”

Roxburgh also had to make amendments to his schedule for the Bandits, fitting more baseball into his already hectic days, in addition to working full-time as an account manager for Ready Towing, looking after trade customers who move construction and hire equipment machinery from job site to job site.

“I work 10 hours a day, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Friday,” Roxburgh said. “When we have a home series, I finish at four o’clock so I can be at the field in time for stretching.”

Dedication to the game and to a full-time job can be a difficult task, but it was something that the young fielder handled well, managing his time and priorities efficiently.

“It can be hard sometimes, especially working all day and then having to go straight to the field for a game,” Roxburgh said. “And then you don’t get home until 11 or 12 at night and try and cook some dinner and get to bed just to be back up at seven again for work. It’s a little easier on the road, as you don’t have to work so you can get a bit more sleep in, but with my job I still get phone calls on the road about work and still have to sort out issues." 

Roxburgh has a great appreciation for the allowances he gets to play ball and to take time away from his workplace for the sport.

“My bosses are fantastic with allowing me time off, as they are both heavily involved with baseball,” he said. “And they are sponsors of the Bandits and also have a corporate box, so they are always at the games cheering myself and [fellow employee Ryan] Searle on.”

Roxburgh, in his rookie season, hit .283/.333/.396 with three home runs, three doubles and 16 runs driven in over his 28 games this year. The Brisbane native made the necessary adjustments to the league and ended the season even better than he started, batting .414/.514/.690 over his last 10 games and finished the year on a six-game hitting streak. The outfielder’s inaugural season in the ABL was significant enough to garner him a spot on the ballot for Rookie of the Year voting.

The most memorable moment for the Bandits left fielder this season came in his first series against the Sydney Blue Sox at the RNA Showgrounds.

“[The highlight of my season] was probably my first professional home run in the second game I played in,” Roxburgh said. “My family was there to see it so it was pretty special.”

Roxburgh’s family are baseball supporters and are also the reason that he got into it in the first place. A five-year-old Roxburgh saw his older brother playing the sport and began following him around before eventually getting his own start in the game. But the biggest enthusiast and follower of his game has been Roxburgh’s dad.

“He’s followed me my whole life and watched nearly every one of my games,” the 25-year-old said of his father. “And he is always supporting me and giving me advice on things I need to work on.”

What Roxburgh is going to work on this off-season, after finishing out the club ball season with the Windsor Royals, is coming back and vying for a spot in the Bandits lineup again for next year.

“I hope so,” he said of potentially being back in the ABL next season. “I’ll try and stay in shape and get in the gym during the off-season and hopefully get another chance to come back and play.”

The Italian Stallion, il favorito

The man barely needs an introduction.

He was the ace of the Brisbane Bandits this season. He is the Italian Stallion. He is a team leader. He is an Australian Baseball League All-Star. He is il favorito dei tifosi in his native tongue. In English, he is the fan favourite. 

Alex Maestri made the trip from his hometown of Cesena, Italy to take the mound for Brisbane this summer, and in a short time made a huge impression. The 26-year-old not only had a fantastic season for the Bandits on the hill, but has garnered continued attention as the days count down until the winner of the ABL Fan Choice Award is announced.  

As of Tuesday night, the Italian right-hander leads the charge with almost 400 more votes than the next leading competitor, though the contest, presented by Fielder’s Choice, doesn’t close until Friday evening.  

After winning the title of fan favourite for the Brisbane Bandits, Maestri now faces the other team’s picks to be the favorito of the league. Though at first the native of Italy didn’t really pay too much attention to the contest, it has now become a source of fun for him and for people around him.  

“It’s cool,” Maestri said. “I didn’t really think too much about it at first but then I saw my friends back home [in Italy] kind of got into it. And lately it’s been good to be in first and to have a lot of votes coming my way as well. It feels good.” 

Not only does the pitcher have support coming in from Italy, but he’s also gained awareness from American and Canadian Bandits fans, and of course from those in Brisbane. Maestri’s international following is likely what has helped put him ahead of the other candidates by such a wide margin, and is also something to be proud of.  

“It’s awesome,” he said. “I’ve been traveling a lot for the past six years, playing baseball all over the map, and it’s cool to know that I’ve got friends all over the board. It’s great to have that support behind me, for a fan contest or for anything.” 

It should be no surprise to anyone that Maestri is so popular after the season he pieced together for the Bandits. From his first start for the team to the end of the season, his presence on the mound was impressive and he was noticeable right from the beginning.  

In Round 1 of ABL action he earned runner-up honours for the Player of the Week award, something he would do three times in total over the season, also notching a win in that category down the road. Taking his first turn in the Brisbane starting rotation in Canberra, Maestri threw five innings, allowing just two hits and one run with a walk and a strikeout, making his debut in the Bandits uniform.  

The following week, the righty had one of his most memorable outings of the season. At home for the first time he went 5 1/3 innings against the Sydney Blue Sox lineup, allowing five hits, no runs and striking out 10 on the night. That was the first that Bandits fans saw of Maestri, and certainly an indication of what more was to come.  

The Italian Stallion earned an honourable mention once again for his performance in Round 3. In Melbourne he tossed seven complete frames, allowing seven hits, three runs and one walk, while striking out eight more batters.  

Maestri’s Player of the Week award finally came in Round 8 of the ABL. He started off the home series against Canberra with a two-hit complete game, only the third such game of its kind in the league at the time. He allowed just one unearned run, fanning four batters on the night, facing 24 consecutive hitters without allowing a hit between the third inning and the ninth.  

The ABL All-Star followed up his stellar performance with another one in Perth the following week. Against the Heat lineup in Round 9, Maestri went six innings, allowing four hits, one run, three walks and striking out four. With so many fantastic outings to choose from, it’s understandable that more than one performance would stand out on the season in his mind.  

“There were a couple of games, actually,” Maestri said of his season’s highlights. “The first would definitely be the one with Sydney at home where I had those 10 strikeouts. I was feeling pretty good there. And then the complete game was nice because I haven’t really had that many. I never really started when I was in the minor leagues.  

“And then there was the game in Perth when we were on the road at the end of the year. I only went six innings but I felt pretty good there too. Those were probably the three best games of the year for me.” 

This season was a comeback season for the former Cubs prospect in a sense, after having some things to work through and move past from his time in baseball in recent years. Though no one would ever know it watching him this summer in Australia, the right-hander had recent struggles up until he made his way down under.  

“It was really great,” Maestri said of his Aussie baseball experience. “My last two years were kind of bad and I was looking for a place to rebound from that and playing ball here kind of brought me back to life. I just ran into a couple of bad years with baseball and my confidence went down a lot during that time. My last year in Double-A wasn’t good at all but coming here it’s like I kind of found myself again.” 

If a season like Maestri’s can’t help confidence than it would be hard to find an alternative. Fortunately for the righty, and for Bandits fans, the Italian Stallion appeared to have found his groove back, even though he didn’t necessarily get into it right away.  

“Not really,” he said of having confidence coming into the season. “I still had those bad memories in my mind floating around. But then I started pitching well again and I started to feel like I had everything back once more. It was pretty cool and it was a very good experience.”

From the dugout

The role of the manager in baseball is often underestimated.

Though he spends his time in the dugout, on the bench, the game wouldn’t be played without the skipper. He is the decision-maker, the leader, the head of the team.

Kevin Jordan made his debut in the role this season for the Brisbane Bandits, after being a part of the coaching staff last year. Prior to finishing out his major league career in 2001, after seven seasons with the Philadelphia Phillies, KJ was also out on the field for the Bandits from 1993 to 1997 in the original Australian Baseball League. 

The former infielder’s expertise and experience in and of the game were both great assets for Brisbane, as acknowledged by players, coaches and the entire organisation. 

“The level of professionalism and the leadership skills that he brought to the team were outstanding,” Bandits General Manager Paul Gonzalez said. “His ability to work with the younger players was noticeable both on and off the field.

“His adaptation to his new role and his outstanding ability to strengthen areas where we were weak were both key in the push for a top-four spot, which was our goal. KJ had a great rapport with the organisation and was more than accommodating, making an effort to engage with the management team as well.”

In Jordan’s inaugural season as manager, the Bandits finished just short of a playoff spot, ending the regular season in a four-way tie for third place in the standings, and missing out on the post-season because of a tie-break rule. The team finished strong at the end of the year, a good indication of what the future will hold for Brisbane baseball.

“The second half of the year was probably the best highlight for us as a team,” Jordan said. “I think that probably getting some of the younger guys like [Andrew] Campbell in and getting them some consistent playing time helped. I think guys that started with us earlier, players like [Matt Roxburgh], got more comfortable. Having [Sean] Jarrett in the starting rotation helped us a lot, and guys like Rhys Niit, who hadn’t been with us early in the year. I could go on and on, there are so many guys that stepped up, that either were there in the first half and got better in the second half. I think we just gelled as a team more after the break.”

The season was a year-long learning process for Jordan, along with many of the players. The Bandits manager found out the hard way just what the toughest part of the game was, from his new point of view.

“I probably took the losses a lot harder,” the first-year skipper said. “More than the year before when I was coaching first base because I was actively involved in every aspect of the game outside of playing.

“You want to win every day. So when you don’t, it’s tough because you prepare the team to win, not just to play the game. It’s a lot of going back and re-evaluating things you could have done differently in the game when you do have those losses, whereas you don’t have that as much when you have the wins because usually that’s when things go the way you want them to. When you lose it’s more of a learning process where you try to figure out if there’s something you could have done different in the game to have a different outcome.”

Helping the rookie manager’s transition from coach to head honcho all season long were his staff. Coaches are an integral part of any manager’s team and the men behind KJ were no different. Jordan’s closest relationship on the field was with pitching coach Gary ‘Gabby’ Nilsson, who assisted him day in and day out.

“I played with Gabby, so I’ve known him for however many years and he and I are really in tune to each other and were on the same page with what we were trying to do this year,” Jordan said. “It was a tremendous help having him, from the time before the game, after the game, and all the conversations we had.

“We would go over stuff before the game, during the game we would talk about it, after the game we would talk about it, and the next day we’d talk about it. So it’s kind of strange now because I haven’t talked to him in about five days and we were talking every single day throughout the whole season.”

Another indispensable member of the Brisbane coaching staff this season was Shayne ‘Watto’ Watson, also a Development Officer for Baseball Queensland. After playing for the Bandits last season and coming back for tryouts this year, Watson was approached by KJ with the opportunity to take over a coaching role. He embraced his new position and did a great job in his first time coaching professionally.

“Watto did so much for the team,” Jordan said. “He basically went from a guy who was trying to make the team to, over the course of a week, had to make a decision of whether he wanted to coach. And he handled everything great. He has a good rapport with the players because he played with the guys before and he was a really big help." 

Taking over the reins at first base this year was Gareth Jones, Development Manager of Baseball Queensland. Jones was a valuable resource to the team and his absence was noticeable at the end of the year when his primary job took him away from the RNA Showgrounds.

“He takes his job so seriously when he coaches first base,” Jordan said. “He’ll come in between innings he’ll be like, ‘What can I do better? Or what do I need to change?’ So I knew from day one that he really wanted to make sure that he was going to be the best first base coach possible. And I just really appreciated having him there.

“Both him and Watto, they would get there early for early hitting and fungos, and they did everything. They definitely made my job easier because those were things I didn’t have to worry about when I was trying to make my lineup decisions. Over the course of not just each day, but the whole series, they were a tremendous help and I just really appreciate everything they did for me, individually, as well as for the Bandits this season.”