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. 


Nicholas R.W. Henning said...

Nathan, well done on a great story. This is the type of information which is so important to document and share with the baseball community in Australia.

Nathan Smith said...

Thanks Nicholas! Tell your friends!

Geoff Roneberg said...

Thanks Nathan ... a terrific story ... lots of great memories from that time ... and now our best wishes go with the next World Baseball Classic Team !! ... Geoff and Sharon Roneberg

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