For the vast majority of us, the dream of playing professional baseball dies at an early age.  I knew it was not to be when I first joined the Ontario Baseball Association’s Clarington Orioles at about fourteen and had trouble getting around on a 55 mph fastball.  It just wasn’t to be.  But for those of us who love baseball, we’re always trying to stay involved in the game somehow.  Some of us write about it.  Some of us coach our kids.  Some of us just watch as much of it as we can on television and the internet.  For people like Stoney Creek, Ontario’s Matt Mills, the journey to stay involved in the game they love is much less straight-forward and much more difficult to explain.

Mills grew up, like many of us did, a fan of the Toronto Blue Jays.  His youth was filled with the memories of a winning baseball team in Toronto at a time when the city’s love affair with the game was like a teenage romance.  New, full of promise and energy, and veiled with the feeling that the love would never diminish.  Like many of us, Matt learned of the game by watching Joe Carter, Robbie Alomar and John Olerud and fell in love immediately.

He began playing baseball in Stoney Creek, just outside of Hamilton, for the town’s local OBA team, the Stoney Creek 1812 and also for his local high school team, the Saltfleet Storm.  A standout on both teams as both a pitcher and a catcher, Mills continued on into his teen years to play for the Hamilton Astros of the AABC’s Mickey Mantle under-16 league before heading to the University of Western Ontario to pursue a degree in Kinesiology.

At Western, Mills played three more years before deciding to transfer to UBC-Okanagan in Kelowna, BC.  Unfortunately, his new school did not field a baseball team.  Figuring it was time to “grow up” he stopped playing baseball altogether and instead studied a second degree in Social Work.

Being a social worker requires many skills, but a key portion of the job is to be able to empathize and understand other cultures.  Wanting to enhance this skill, Mills decided he would finish his degree internationally.  Considering weather and language barriers, he narrowed his choices to three places; South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.  After some thought, he decided he would jettison to the University of Auckland, in Auckland, New Zealand.

Before leaving, no doubt feeling nostalgic about the place and life he was about to leave, a quick Google search was in order: “Baseball in New Zealand”.

Baseball in the deep South

When you think of sports in New Zealand, one thing comes to mind: Rugby.  Adorned in their famous jet-black uniforms, the ‘Kiwis’ have dominated on the world stage for the past sixty years, holding a prestigious history that few countries outside of Western Europe can lay claim to.  Other sports such as cricket and even softball hold more popularity in the island-nation than baseball.

According to Mills, the wives-tale suggests that they flipped a coin to decide between baseball and softball, with the former losing out, but he speculates that there’s a more logical explanation.  “They decided on going the softball route because you can fit more fields into a [smaller] amount of space,” says Mills; the idea is that the construction of softball fields would be cheaper and they would in turn be easier to maintain.

Regardless of the reason, baseball has managed to persist in New Zealand; in fact, one of the first documented games of baseball to be played in the Southern Hemisphere was fought out on December 10th, 1888 in Auckland.  Sports equipment mogul and former professional baseball player Albert Spalding led a team of All-Stars from the United States on a tour of Hawaii, New Zealand and Australia.  During the tour, Spalding’s All-Stars and a team from Chicago faced off against local cricket teams promoting the game in the Southern Hemisphere.

Since then, smaller competitions and unorganized games have occurred, but it wasn’t until 1989 when the New Zealand Baseball Association was formed.  The original league consisted only of teams in the Auckland area.  It wasn’t until 2003 that the league expanded outside of the city-centre with the creation of the Canterbury Baseball Club.  In 2006, the league expanded again to include Northland BC and Manawatu BC.

Only a few Kiwis have ever gone on to play professional baseball with the most notable player being Scott Campbell, a Blue Jays farmhand, who became the first Kiwi ever to be drafted by a Major League team when Toronto selected him in the tenth round in 2006.  Campbell, whose father was Canadian, made the provisional roster for Canada’s World Baseball Classic team in 2009.

The positive side of having an established softball program in the country is that the kids coming into baseball often have an understanding of the basic skill set needed to play baseball.  The Red Sox, in fact, signed 17-year-old catcher Te Wara Bishop, who had been exclusively a softball player, just last winter.

The Google Search

Mills’ Google search netted only a few results, but he took down some numbers and e-mails and set off to Auckland.  Upon arriving in the middle of July 2009, (the offseason for New Zealand baseball) he contacted a couple club teams in the area and agreed to check out the West City Baseball Club, later signing up to play for them.

“I thought, okay, maybe I’ll just mess around a little bit while I’m down there,” says Mills, who says he only planned on being in New Zealand for four months while studying.

Soon after he started, Mills found out West City’s under-17 team was looking for a coach, he jumped at the opportunity.  “It was a very interesting experience,” says Matt, “we had maybe eleven players on our roster and it was hard to get commitments out of them at times…it became really frustrating.”

But Mills stuck with it and started to find that there were opportunities in New Zealand that may not have existed for him elsewhere.

While playing for West City, Mills found great success, leading the team to a championship run that including winning both the Spring and Summer leagues, and the New Zealand National Championship.  He was named MVP and Top Pitcher at the Nationals, while the U17 team he coached also improved greatly under his tutelage.

Although Mills is mainly a pitching coach, his role with West City’s teenage club was much more comprehensive.  “Oftentimes I was the only coach on the field, teaching everything from hitting, to fielding, to pitching, to basic baseball [fundamentals].”

When the Country came Calling

While enjoying his foray in to baseball in New Zealand, coaching and playing for a club team in Auckland doesn’t exactly scream long-term potential, so needless to say, when he found an advertisement looking for coaching help for New Zealand’s national under-17 team, he once again jumped at the opportunity.  The team needed coaches for a tournament in Australia and Mills was given an assistant job; rapidly, he found himself moving up the chain of New Zealand’s growing baseball institution.

He met a man named Ryan Flynn.  Flynn, an American from upstate New York, was the newly hired CEO of Baseball New Zealand.  Previously he had worked for Major League Baseball in Europe, building the game overseas, and more recently he oversaw the Guam program that came within a game of qualifying for the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece.  Flynn is dedicated to building the game in New Zealand the way he did in Guam and one of the first steps to doing this is hiring a quality coaching staff for the national teams.

“Matt is a quality baseball coach,” says Flynn, “a coach that can work with every age, every skill level and in any environment.”  According to Flynn, he’s exactly the type of person needed to help a growing program succeed.  “Matt has had to roll with the punches here in New Zealand.  We’re a developing baseball program, and you sometimes have to pitch in and do things that you normally would not have to do in more established baseball programs like the U.S.”

Mills suddenly found himself in a situation where he was being trusted to guide some of the country’s best young arms.  “We instantly felt enough confidence in his abilities to have him guide our nation’s top young pitchers in our most important national team trip to date: a trip to Seattle last summer,” says Flynn, “Two of his players are now pitching for top high schools and summer programs in the Seattle area, and others are on their way to colleges in America in the next year to two years.”

Flynn notes Mills’ intelligence for the game as a reason he has risen so quickly in the ranks.  “He’s incredibly respected across the nation as a student of the game, someone who understands…where our program is and where it’s heading.”

A few months after the Seattle trip, Auckland was chosen to host the Oceania Athletic Association U16 tournament in January of this year and a top-end coaching staff was put together including Mills as the pitching coach, Campbell as the hitting coach, his brother Aaron as the manager and former Dodgers farmhand Cola Yeh as the fielding instructor.

To promote the tournament to the public, Baseball New Zealand hired Yankees centerfielder Curtis Granderson to drum up interest.  Granderson spent over a week, touring around the country’s baseball facilities and ended up colour commentating the opening day games on the national broadcaster SKY TV.  The Yankees even documented his trip for a six part series that was released on MLB.com.  Mills got the opportunity to coach with him and also got to throw him batting practice; a moment he certainly will never forget.

“We couldn’t have asked for anyone better [than Granderson] to help promote the game down there,” says Mills, “it was a huge thrill for our kids and for us as coaches as well.”

Baseball New Zealand has another big name lined up to go through the promotional ringer next winter when it’s expected that Blue Jays rightfielder Jose Bautista will make the trip with his family to help promote the game to young Kiwis across the nation.

The First Full-Time Paid Coach in New Zealand Baseball History

A large step in the development of a new sport in a country is having dedicated people to guide the sport and provide young players with the opportunity to play.  This often requires compensating coaches, something Baseball New Zealand has been unable to do in the past due to budget constraints.  “In New Zealand, all coaching services are unpaid volunteer positions,” says Mills, “I was putting in forty hour weeks with no car while sleeping on a couch.  You get some funny looks in New Zealand dressed in a baseball uniform riding a city bus with two giant bags of baseball gear.”

The success of baseball in New Zealand recently culminated with an invitation from Major League Baseball to put together a bid to participate in the qualifying round of the World Baseball Classic, to be held in the spring of 2013; the bid was later accepted.  Mills was named to the provisional coaching staff for the WBC team and was invited to speak at the Press Conference, called by the Director of MLB Australia/Oceania Tom Nicholson.

After the press conference, Mills, worried about his lack of experience coaching professional players, asked Nicholson if there were any opportunities to do so.  He tells Mills of a spot in an MLB coaching exchange with the Arizona Fall League, an instructional league for the game’s top prospects, held throughout Arizona each fall.  Mills, as he has done from day one, jumped at the opportunity, signing a one-year contract to become the first full-time paid coach in New Zealand baseball history.  “I still can’t quite believe everything that’s happened,” says Mills, “It’s definitely surreal and I think it’s going to be amazing.”

Baseball in New Zealand, and indeed, baseball for Mills seem to be picking up steam.  While the game continues to grow in Auckland, Canterbury and elsewhere, Matt continues to play an integral role, learning and growing as a baseball lifer.  Both Mills and the country he now works with are on the verge of making it big.  A country that twenty years ago didn’t even have an official governing body is now about to show what it can do at the World Baseball Classic, while Mills, just two years after thinking he was done with the game is about to become a professional baseball coach.

Mills still plays and coaches at the club level, having moved to Bayside Westhaven BC, but it’s clear he has a future coaching on the national level.  Although his focus currently is on growing the game in New Zealand, there’s no doubt that Mills would one day love to ply his trade on this side of the Pacific coaching professional ball in North America.  “Long-term, absolutely, it’s something I would love to eventually be able to do.”

Flynn agrees that Mills has a bright future in the game, “We feel incredibly fortunate to have ‘found’ Matt,” says Flynn, “We hope [he] stays with us for a long time, and we see him establishing himself as one of the top coaches in the region…working with our top national teams.  I can honestly see him working with a professional baseball club at some point, at which time I’m sure [he] will always attempt to help Baseball New Zealand take the next step on the international baseball stage.”

Both Mr. Mills and Mr. Flynn would like me to inform anyone who has New Zealand eligibility (parents or grandparents who are from New Zealand)  and currently plays any level of adult baseball that they are looking for players to try out for all of their national teams, including the WBC team.  If interested, please e-mail Matt at matt.mills@baseballnz.org or check out their website.

Travis Reitsma is the resident fantasy baseball “expert” here at Getting Blanked, but you’ll find he writes about other ‘interesting topics from around the league’™ as well.  You can find more of his work at Baseball Canadiana and you can follow him on the Tweeter where he is known to spit hot fire.

**Special thanks to Canterbury Baseball Club for the background information on New Zealand’s baseball history