By Adrian Pratt, U.S. Embassy Wellington
Ryan Flynn sounds like a man on a mission. That mission is to grow baseball in New Zealand. He’s done a pretty good job of it, too, increasing the number of baseball players from just under 1,000 to more than 6,000 in less than three years.
Flynn, who played college baseball at St. Rose, is the American-born CEO of Baseball New Zealand. When you speak to him you get a sense that this is a man who loves his job and believes in his mission passionately. He talks as fast as a Nolan Ryan pitch and is just as focused.
He’s set himself some lofty goals: “We believe we could be as large as cricket in the next eight to 10 years,” he said.
Though baseball’s been played in New Zealand since the gold rush days of the 1870s, it took off big time in 1942 when the Ford Motor Company employees played it here in large numbers. U.S. servicemen, arriving in New Zealand, later that year also brought with them their love of the game. Some huge games between U.S. Marine Corps teams drew more than 25,000 spectators to the old Athletic Park in Wellington.
Flynn, who was born in Bethlehem, N.Y., is unsure why New Zealand as a country opted for men’s softball after such strong beginnings in baseball, but it very decidedly did. There are more than 40,000 softball players in New Zealand. Flynn wonders why. To be blunt, you can’t get a softball scholarship to college and there certainly aren’t any softball big leagues.
The rapid growth of the sport in New Zealand is being noticed in baseball circles, Flynn said. In fact, the New Zealand national team has been invited to the World Baseball Classic qualifiers in Taiwan in November. If they finish in the top four out of 12 of that qualifier, New Zealand will have the chance to play ball against some of the best baseball players in the world in the WBC.
“It’s very significant to say that we’re the only non-ranked team to be invited to the World Baseball Classic,” Flynn said. “It’s a huge shock to the baseball world that the Kiwis have been invited.”
The profile of the game is rising.
Earlier this year, 17-year-old Pita Rona, who had just switched codes from softball a few months ago, was signed to a seven-year contract by the Baltimore Orioles. His cousin, Te Wera Bishop of Wellington, signed with the Boston Red Sox last year. But, while a few Kiwis have signed with Major League Baseball clubs, no New Zealander has ever made it out of the minor league teams and started in a big league game. (Travis Wilson almost made it onto the Atlanta Braves roster.) But they’re getting closer.
In addition, Kiwis are now regularly heading to U.S. colleges to play baseball, Flynn said.
“Kids are starting to dream the bigger dream,” he said.
Flynn is excited about the potential in New Zealand. He believes theres some real talent – playing softball. “You’ve got world class kids,” playing a sport, he said, that, after high school, really has no outlet. He believes New Zealand could rival Australia, ranked number 10 in the world, in baseball. The Aussies have nine players in the big leagues at the moment, Flynn said, making a boatload of money.
“If Australia can do that, we can do that,” he said.
Further boosting the sport’s standing are some very special and powerful supporters. Max Key, son of Prime Minister John Key, last month bunted in the winning run in his side’s Under-18 National championship – while the prime minister was in attendance.
Yes, Flynn sees a lot of momentum in New Zealand and plans to “build, build, build” up the sport here.
“It’s an exciting time to be a part of baseball in this country,” he said. “It’s one of the biggest games in the world. I think it’s going to blow up in one of the most beautiful countries in the world.” Ryan Flynn