AUSSIE LIVING, IMPORT-STYLE
What the Bandits imports have done, eaten, seen and stayed away from during their time down under
From left to right: Sean Jarrett, Jon Durket, Alex Maestri and Justin Staatz (Brisbane Bandits)
Australian baseball has much to offer in terms of the game, the environment and the atmosphere. Though the novelty of playing down under may be lost on local players, it’s definitely fresh in the minds of those who have traveled to the southern hemisphere, just for the season.
“It has been a great experience that I’ll never forget,” Brisbane Bandits relief pitcher Sean Jarrett said of playing in the Australian Baseball League. “The people over here are so friendly and welcoming. The country is beautiful as well.”
Jarrett made his way to Brisbane all the way from his hometown of Limon, Colorado, three weeks into the ABL season. The right-hander had a 27-hour journey to his final destination that originated in Denver and stopped in Los Angeles, California and Auckland, New Zealand along the way. He was drawn to the league after having heard about it earlier this year from Melbourne Aces Jason Hirsh and Shane Lindsay, and is one of the few foreign players on the team with the least number of imports in the ABL.
“The experience over here has really opened my eyes to experiencing other cultures,” Jarrett said. “Also, it’s great to see America’s favourite pastime played at a high level outside of the States. It makes me want to come back next season.”
Alex Maestri made his way to Australia from Cesena, Italy, on the advice of a former minor league teammate and current Bandits teammate. Though the one-time Cubs prospect wanted to play Aussie ball last season, he didn’t have the opportunity to do so until this year.
“Once my independent ball season in the States was over I started looking for a winter ball league where I could play,” Maestri said. “I wanted to come to Australia the year before but at the time I was with the Cubs and they weren’t willing to pay for me to come here. Being a free agent worked out better for me. I just got a plane ticket and here I am. I have to thank Ryan Searle, being the one who gave me all the contacts I needed.”
Fans of the Brisbane team should also be thanking Searle, as Maestri has emerged as the ace of the staff this year. The Italian Stallion is 4-4 on the season with a 3.25 ERA. He earned Player of the Week honours for Round 8 with a two-hit complete game performance, and was a runner-up for the award in Round 9 of ABL action. He is third in the league with 63 2/3 innings pitched on the season and ranks fourth with 53 total strikeouts and has been enjoying his time down under.
“It’s a great winter ball league,” Maestri said of the ABL. “It’s pretty laid back and there is good competition here. It’s a great way to see this beautiful country, since you get to play in the main cities of Australia.”
The level of competition in the ABL is set to a high standard. While rosters include many young players and local talent, each team has imports and affiliated players, with even a few guys from the majors scattered around the league. For Jon Durket, a lefty reliever for the Bandits from El Dorado Hills, California, just getting on the mound to face the opposition has been a great feeling.
“It’s my favourite baseball experience that I’ve had so far,” Durket said of playing in the ABL. “There aren’t many places you can face big leaguers, other than the big leagues.”
The southpaw came to Australia to play club ball for the Redlands Rays with the hopes of getting a shot at joining the Bandits. Brisbane manager Kevin Jordan saw him throw and gave him a chance to join in on a couple of training sessions with the team, and Durket eventually secured himself a spot on the roster. The original opportunity offered the 25-year-old more baseball and more summer, though it’s turned into what he calls “a dream scenario”.
“It’s an amazing opportunity,” Durket said. “You’re a big leaguer in another country. And for someone like me who hasn’t really been seen in the States and hasn’t gotten a chance to be drafted or play affiliated baseball, it’s a chance to feel like a big leaguer for a season. And it’s a chance to play with big leaguers.”
Facing tough competition in a professional league also gives some players a chance to work toward their futures. As teams make their attempts at winning a championship, many individuals are hoping to gain contracts for the next season of baseball, whether it be with an affiliation in the major leagues or elsewhere in the world.
“It’s a great league to develop skills, since you’re playing against such good talent,” Justin Staatz said of the ABL. “It’s also a great platform for free agents. You can get scouted by MLB teams as well as Japanese ones. And on top of it all, you get to be in Australia, such an awesome country.”
Though Staatz only started two games for Brisbane this season, he originally came to Australia to play club baseball during the 2007-08 season. Born in Santa Monica, California, the one-time Minnesota Twins farmhand made friends with a few Aussies during his time in the minors, who convinced him to play in Oz. The right-hander is now in his third season with the Windsor Royals in the Queensland Major League.
“[What I like best about Australian baseball is] the fact that I get to play baseball all year,” Staatz said. “In the past I’ve had breaks and it’s a pain to get your arm strength back up after one. Also, you’re in Australia. It’s a no-brainer that it’s a great place to be.”
The consensus is clear that the land whose motto is ‘beautiful one day, perfect the next’, is a desirable destination. The imported players have had a chance to visit several different corners of the continent with their travel schedule, and have also taken time on their own to see sites and tour various areas.
“I love the beach, so that’s the first thing I checked out,” Maestri said. “The first couple of weeks I was here we had a lot of days off, so I got to see a good part of the Sunshine Coast, the Gold Coast and then I went and checked out the Australia Zoo. I’ve been all around Brisbane of course and I went to Byron Bay during the Christmas break. Plus, every time we go on the road I explore the city we’re in the day after I pitch.”
Having been to Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Adelaide, the Brisbane Bandits players have made their way across Australia and back. The imports have been to numerous beaches, eaten authentic Aussie food and are even beginning to learn the language.
“I’ve traveled all over the country and seen so many awesome places,” Durket said. “Australia has the best beaches in the world, at least that I’ve seen. And I think it’s Australian to eat a meat pie, because we don’t have them in the States. But I’m a big fan.”
Added Jarrett: “I’ve drunk XXXX Gold, had fish and chips, tried the amazing creation of vegemite (said with a foreigner’s hint of sarcasm), learned some new words and realised Australians don’t use anything but vowels. And the beaches are amazing.”
Though the land down under has much to offer, there are some things that the Bandits pitchers miss from home. While they all miss family and friends, including Staatz’s nephew Finn and Maestri’s three little cousins in particular, certain foods seem to be another common ground. The Italian right-hander misses his mother’s cooking, but the two California boys have a soft spot for Mexican fare.
“Chipotle,” Staatz named as a restaurant he misses in particular. “They have the best burritos in the world.”
Staatz’s left-handed counterpart shares his teammate’s sentiment for the popular burrito chain, and also expresses a longing for American sports.
“I definitely miss Mexican food,” Durket said. “And the NFL. Chipotle is hard to beat. And I’ve tried embracing ‘footie’ and ‘league’ but it hasn’t stopped me from missing a Sunday full of football on the gridiron.”
Though Guzman Y Gomez may have to be a temporary replacement for all Australian burrito needs, the imports haven’t lost quite as much as they might have picked up, including new fears for certain animals that might not be found at home.
While Staatz mentioned dropbears as a source of worry, the fictitious marsupial is unlikely to do any damage. The supposedly vicious and carnivorous koalas are improbably going to drop from a tree and attack, as is their made-up nature, so Staatz might fare better than Maestri has in his encounters with Aussie animals.
“I got attacked by a magpie in my backyard,” the Italian righty said. “I saw a few lizards in my first days here and I thought they were pretty ugly creatures. Then I saw a pretty long snake skin hanging from our neighbour’s tree. That meant a snake just changed his skin the night before. I hate snakes.”
While Jarrett shares the dislike for snakes with Maestri, he also named bats and funnel-web spiders as creatures he’d like to avoid for the duration of his stay down under. Durket, however, can undoubtedly be found scanning for various predators when he’s in the water.
“Well I haven’t encountered a bull shark, but the fact that they’re in canals and pretty much every waterway definitely freaks me out,” he said.
With very few, if any, disadvantages in making the journey across the world to play in the ABL, the foreign players agree that Australia is a great place to play baseball. Also having made friends and seen the love for America’s favourite pastime on the other side of the globe has contributed to their positive experiences.
“I love the atmosphere and the camaraderie,” Durket said. “Being around guys who have so much pride playing in their home country and in front of their loved ones is something I’ve never really appreciated in the States.”