Feb 22, 2013

Brett Roneberg chats about the World Baseball Classic

In north Queensland in the mid-90s, teenaged Brett Roneberg was turning heads in the Australian baseball community. After representing Queensland at the Under 18 tournament in 1996, Brett signed with the Florida Marlins following meetings with a bloke called Jon Deeble. He went on to play in the inaugural Australian Baseball League, he represented Australia at a multitude of tournaments, and collected an Olympic Silver medal in 2004.  He spent 11 years in the minors and finished up with a pretty tidy line of .276/.359/.404. And he had one hell of a tournament at the 2009 World Baseball Classic.

Roneberg after signing with the Marlins in 1996 (image credit: http://www.ronebergcairns.com)

Sunday, 8 March 2009. Mexico City. 

Twenty thousand die-hard Mexican baseball fans turned out to cheer on their team. It is the 2009 World Baseball Classic, and Team Australia have entered a hostile territory to face off against Mexico - a country with a rich and extensive baseball heritage. The Australian team is far from inexperienced: some have played in the big leagues, some have years of minor league service, some have played pro ball in Europe and Asia, and some own an Olympic silver medal. But they are a long way from home, and facing a starting line-up with major league experience from top to bottom, and a major leaguer on the mound.

Foro Sol Stadium - Mexico City

As Team Mexico sent major league pitcher Oliver Perez to the mound to face off against the Aussie challengers, few could have predicted the  result that was to come. A record 22 hits, including four home runs, led to a 17-7 mercy rule victory. To the Australians. The Mexican fans pelted the field with nuts and bolts from the stadium, and a group of Australian officials had to be herded into the team bus to get out of the stadium safely. Yet again, Team Australia had shown it could play ball.

The fairy tale didn't quite come true for Australia in the '09 Classic. Facing Mexico again just three days later - after narrowly losing to another powerhouse, Cuba, 5-4 -  they took a 16-1 loss that was over in the sixth inning and were eliminated  from the tournament. The one home run in that game belonged to Brett Roneberg. It was to be his last ever professional at bat.

Roneberg is welcomed by his teammates after crossing the plate in the 09 WBC

The 2009 World Baseball Classic was a remarkable one for the Australian team. They took down one of the best nations in baseball and did it with style. It was a typical display of Australian competitiveness and tenacity, and of the great Aussie tradition of the underdog. Players up and down the line-up put up huge results. These were punctuated by the numbers put up by the veteran Roneberg. In the early stages of the campaign, manager Deeble said Brett was one of the top five hitters in the country. By the end of the tournament, this looked like a huge understatement. Roneberg led the entire WBC tournament in batting average (.714), slugging percentage (1.286) and OPS (2.036). With numbers like this, I thought Brett would be the perfect guy to ask about the WBC in the lead up to the 2013 campaign. I tracked him down to re-live his 2009 experience, and to seek his thoughts on the 2013 edition.

Brett is a busy guy these days. He currently lives and works in both Cairns and Darwin, working in the construction and civil works industry, and he is also planning a wedding for October with his fiancĂ©e Kahlia. After exchanging a couple of short phone calls, I put a few questions to him about the tournament, focusing on his standout performance. Funnily enough the first thing that stuck with him was the bad stomach bug he copped in the build up to the tournament. "I guess one of the things I remember most was being extremely sick up until the third game," he said. It hadn’t been an ideal preparation for the team, with much of the squad falling ill during the build up. Deeble commented at the time that during the trip from Arizona to Mexico, Brett spent "the whole trip in the bathroom vomiting" and some of the other guys weren't much better. "I didn't train in Arizona," recalls Brett, "and when I was batting I was constantly thinking about feeling sick." It seemed to work wonders for him though, and he found some clarity and focus once he hit the field: "There was no pressure at all because my mind was occupied".

This wasn't the first time Brett had experienced a sublime run of form, but it was mighty impressive. Six at bats. Three singles. One double and a home run. Not to mention a couple of important walks, and a sac bunt. Talk about a great time to turn it on.

"I had some good runs of games, like Athens 2004," Brett told me. "My favourite highlights were the 1-0 win against Japan in the Olympics to go through to the gold medal game," he recalls fondly. "We didn't win [at the WBC] in Mexico but we sure opened some eyes around the world. They knew we came to play. Being in the box during the WBC I had some of the best approaches I ever had. I had just a completely comfortable feeling, and it showed in my results."  It seems that the whole team was feeling the same sense of purpose. "We just seemed to gel as a team, it was great. Having the lead up games really helped get us together and we knew we could match it with anyone, we weren't overawed by any of them, everyone pulled for everyone," says Brett. "The great thing about playing for Australia was that it didn't matter how you played but only if you won. Winning as a team was all that mattered."

Shortly after the final game of the campaign, after a humbling defeat at the hands of a vengeful Mexican team, coach Jon Deeble faced a press conference, with Roneberg by his side. Someone asked Brett: "what do you think [the WBC] does for your career moving forward?" Brett's reply: "Speaking of the career moving forward, I'm not playing anymore, it's my last tournament unfortunately. But I've played for almost ten years now for Australia, and it's been an amazing experience. I've seen us get better from a Silver Medal [in the Olympics] now to the pros we've got playing in the Big Leagues." He also remarked on what would continue to be a challenge for the tournament - the availability of the best players from each country. "We have guys that could have been here, we could have been an amazing team, and without those guys we still competed with the best in the world," he told reporters. "It's an experience I'll never forget and something I'll cherish for the rest of my life." Talking with me in 2013 he recalls his final home run. "As I ran around the bases I knew I was finished playing. It was a sad and happy feeling at the same time. But it was great to finish how I wanted to - with a homerun, just like my good friend Paul Gonzalez did in Athens." 

I get the impression that Brett is a guy who really knows his baseball. In the short communications I had with him, he showed real thoughtfulness about the game. I asked him if he'd been following the Australian Baseball League and what he thought about it. "It looks good so far, I just hope it can continue to grow and attract more fans," he said.  "I know it's tough with all the other sports, but the people running it are doing a great job". He says he doesn’t really watch Major League Baseball anymore, but when he does he likes to "watch the game within the game, seeing things that really affect an at bat:  a 'move em over', a first pitch strike or a good pitch behind in the count." He says he still gets around in the local Cairns league [I pity the opposing pitchers] with some people he grew up with but "that's as far as it goes."

As Team Australia continues its lead up to the 2013 World Baseball Classic, the fans at home will be hoping they can replicate - and build on - the remarkable story written by Roneberg and co in 2009. For his part, Brett says "anything can happen in nine innings, we have proved that before. I hope to be watching and seeing it happen again."

So do we.

I highly recommend you check out the veritable treasure trove of information available on Brett's father Geoff's website: http://ronebergcairns.com/brettbcindex.html. It is an incredible tribute to Brett's career, and includes photos, videos, and some amazing behind the scenes insights. 

Feb 6, 2013

Aussie baseballers invited to Spring Training 2013

Spring training is just around the corner, and there will be plenty of Aussies (and ex-ABL imports) plying their wares in the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues.

Image credit: MLB.com
Here is the initial list that I have identified as at today - I think it is quite comprehensive, but I may have missed some, if I have, let me know! The links will take you through to their MLB.com page.

Non roster invitees 
Australian players
Allan de San Miguel - Catcher - Baltimore Orioles
Josh Spence - LHP - New York Yankees
Rich Thompson - RHP - Toronto Blue Jays
James Beresford - SS - Minnesota Twins
Trent Oeltjen - OF - Los Angeles Angels
Matt Kennelly - Catcher - Atlanta Braves
Peter Moylan - RHP - Los Angeles Dodgers

Australian Baseball League import players
Tyler Collins - OF - Detroit Tigers (Sydney Blue Sox 2011)
Adam Buschini - OF - San Diego Padres (Canberra Cavalry 2012)
Mark Thomas - C - Tampa Bay Rays (Canberra Cavalry 2011)
Jack Murphy - C - Toronto Blue Jays (Canberr Cavalry 2012)

Australian players on the 40-Man Major League rosters
Grant Balfour - RHP - Oakland Athletics
Travis Blackley - LHP - Oakland Athletics
Liam Hendriks - RHP - Minnesota Twins

Australian Baseball League import players on 40-man Major League rosters
Brandon Barnes - OF - Houston Astros (Sydney Blue Sox 2011)
Donald Lutz - OF - Cincinatti Reds (Canberra Cavalry 2010)
Didi Gregorious - SS - Arizona Diamondbacks (Canberra Cavalry 2010)
Brandon Maurer - RHP - Seattle Mariners (Adelaide Bite 2010)

Pitchers and catchers report next week, so there will be a flurry of activity coming up. Should be exciting! Would be great to see Ryan Rowland-Smith and Luke Hughes get their name in on the action too.

Feb 2, 2013

Getting to know Team Australia Part Two

Earlier this week I offered some ramblings about what I thought the pitching options for Team Australia might look like.

There's been a few interesting opinions expressed as a result, including:

Looks like there is a fair bit of love out there for Oxspring and Saupold, some mixed feelings around Thomas, and a bit of support for Searle and Rowland-Smith. I still reckon Oxspring is most likely to be the number one starter, and tend to agree with the above sentiments that  after Oxspring,  it could go a number of ways. Time will tell!

So today I thought I might take a stab at a line-up card for the first game. Here's what I came up with:

Here's why I went with it.
  • Beresford is locked in as the starting shortstop, and he's a lead off guy - has done it for the Aces, did it for Team Australia at the World Cup. Obvious choice to lead off. (Although, another option would be to put Kandilas in at lead off and push the rest of the order down a spot)
  • Once Beresford is in at short, the rest of the infield needs to fall into place. The next most obvious selection is to put Harman in at second - I see him definitely in the starting lineup and I don't see him playing any other position (since shortstop is occupied by Beresford)
  • With Harman at second, Luke Hughes would be pushed to either firstbase, third base, or DH. I am tipping DH, because...
  • I reckon we will give this young Walker bloke a real shot. The guy hit 24 doubles, 1 triple and 12 homeruns at A+ last year, and these are very similar numbers to the guy who I think will be on the opposite corner of the diamond, Stefan Welch (although Welch split his year between A+ and AA). Compare the numbers of either of these guys to Justin Huber, the main other competitor for a 1B or DH spot and the decision is pretty clear (Huber has just three doubles and two homers in more than 120 ABs for the Aces this year, in a big decline on his 2010 and 2011 numbers)
  • In terms of the outfield - I fully acknowledge I have a bit of Blue Sox bias, but...- I think Dening, Snelling and Kandilas will form the starting three. I expect Adamson will do an amazing job coming off the bench for pinch run situations and/or to give improved defense late in games - and he may well get a start later in the series - depending on how things go. I'd say he will play a similar role to the role played by Kandilas at the World Cup in 2011). Josh Roberts could be a bit of a bolter - he could take Snelling's spot - but also could feature as a pinch hitter in late innings. In this lineup I'd put Snelling in at five to capitalise on his OBP prowess and set the table for Dening and Walker, if not also clean up the guys above him. Kandilas would slot in at number nine - a spot he has worked wonders in for the Blue Sox in recent seasons
  • At catcher it's pretty much splitting hairs. Kennelly and de San Miguel both saw time behind the dish at the 2011 World Cup, both played AA in 2012, and even though de San has had the better of it in the 2012 ABL, I think de San Miguel should get the edge - but it is a very close run race. Although actually, now that I am really looking at the numbers, I think I could make a good argument for Kennelly as well.... you check it out and see what you think:
Click to zoom in

  • To cut a long story short, de San showed a bit more pop, but struck out more than Kennelly. In the field it was very close behind the dish, de San shows a better caught stealing average, but had 5 passed balls to Kennelly's zero. Tough decision this one!
  • The above lineup would leave Kennelly, Josh Davies, Corey Adamson, Justin Huber and Josh Roberts on the bench. This would give a good mix of abilities to use depending on the situation, and looks to be quite balanced.

Let me know what you think the lineup would/should be - send me a tweet to @ozmlbplayers, or leave a comment!

I am starting to get really excited about the whole thing! Australia should be able to put up a reasonably competitive team, and if they can get a bit of patriotic competitiveness going, I think they could well end up in the second round.

If you haven't already, it would be great if you could check out my application for the World Baseball Classic Fan Cave! Winners are announced after 11 February!