Kiwi learning from the Dawgs in Okotoks

by on December 22, 2012

MakFox

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Makauley Fox’s world tour: after pitching for New Zealand — win over Thailand 12-2 and The Philippines 10-6, before a 9-0 loss to Chinese Taipei in the World Baseball Classic qualifier at New Taipei City in Taiwan — he headed to the Okotoks Dawgs Academy in Okotoks, Alta. Photo: John Lee ….

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By Melissa Couto

Makauley Fox stood on the pitcher’s mound in Xinzhuang Stadium in New Taipei City, Taiwan last month, staring down Johnny Damon as he stepped into the batter’s box.

There it was — an unknown 17-year-old lefty from Auckland, New Zealand, facing a two-time all-star and two-time World Series winner, and pitching masterfully to give New Zealand its first win of the World Baseball Classic qualifier.

But what did Fox’s Kiwi friends think of his efforts against Damon?

“The guys know who Johnny Damon is were pretty excited,” said the 6-foot-3 hurler, now training with the Okotoks Dawgs in Alberta.

Baseball may still be a fairly unpopular sport in Fox’s home country, but if New Zealand’s participation in the first ever WBC qualifier is any indication, it’s certainly growing there.

And Canada has had a lot to do with that.

Out of the 28 players on New Zealand’s national team, four were either born in Canada or have parental roots here. More impressively, nine have spent time developing their skills or playing in Canada at some point in their lives.

Jamie Wilson and Landon Adelman were born in Canada, while the father of Aaron Campbell and Scott Campbell was born in BC.

Players Reagan Hoet, Andrew Marck, Dan Tan, John Lee, Daniel Devonshire (a Blue Jays 37th rounder in June from the Colby College Trojans), Max Brown, Adelman, Wilson and Fox trained in Canada at some point.

Fox, who joined the Dawgs for a four-week winter training session following the WBC qualifier, is the latest to be added to that list.

“I knew that I needed to get out of New Zealand to get some serious coaching, and this was the best place for me to come,” Fox said of his decision to leave sunny Auckland for snowy Alberta. “Being alongside like-minded people who push you harder every day is great, and the coaching staff is fantastic.”

In Okotoks, New Zealand’s top pitching prospect is training under a coach he knows quite well in Greg Wolfe, a man who spent six years as the National Development Manager and Director of National teams with Baseball New Zealand before returning to Canada.

Wolfe coached Fox in Auckland five years ago, and though he’s only with the Kiwi pitcher for a few weeks this time around, he and his Dawgs staff may have already impacted the youngster’s future.

Since arriving in Okotoks, representatives from a dozen NCAA schools have been flying to Alberta to watch Fox in action. Scouts from three different MLB teams, wanting to discuss international free agency, have also made an appearance.

Like Fox, Wolfe believes that for New Zealanders wanting that extra push, training overseas is the way to go.

“Off-island training is necessary for young players to learn about baseball culture,” Wolfe said. “Learning about the everyday aspect of the game teaches players what to expect if they were going to make the jump to the next level.”

That type of baseball experience doesn’t necessarily have to happen in Canada, but oftentimes it works out that way.

During his time with Baseball New Zealand, Wolfe sent numerous players to train in his homeland — partly because of familiarity, but mostly because he was confident they’d be heading to a great baseball environment.

“It was comforting to send players to a place that I was familiar with and knew they would fit in and continue to develop,” he said. “But the sole purpose was to help them to continue to grow and get them exposed to a faster game.”

Though he’s helped many young New Zealanders realize the next step on their baseball journey, Wolfe isn’t the only Canadian who’s had a hand in developing the sport on the island.

And he’s certainly not the only Canadian to have trained Fox.

Hamilton-native Matt Mills, now the pitching coach with the McMaster University Marauders, and the manager of the Etobicoke Rangers junior team, spent the last three years as Baseball New Zealand’s National Development Coordinator where he worked closely with the young lefty and other talented players.

According to Mills, over those years, Fox transitioned from an “unpolished kid” to someone focused on seriously furthering his development.

“He eats, sleeps, and breathes the game now,” Mills said of his former player, whose fastball tops out at the high-80s. “He’s no longer just a kid from New Zealand who likes baseball — he’s a ballplayer — and he’s getting far better training in Okotoks than he would if he stayed in New Zealand.”

Even Ryan Flynn, the current CEO of Baseball New Zealand, would have to agree with that.

With limited resources at his disposal, Flynn welcomes the international opportunities provided to his top players.

“We never turn away those who want to assist us,” Flynn said from Auckland. “We’re glad the bonds formed between our players and foreign coaches are strong enough to continue to produce results for these young men, no matter how far away those coaches are from New Zealand soil.”

Though Flynn, an American by birth, is grateful to every nation who’s helped his program, he believes that Canada’s involvement has been quite noteworthy.

“It’s safe to say that without our Canadian connection, our baseball program wouldn’t be what it is today,” Flynn said. “I’d imagine that every single player who has come through our system has benefited from the expertise, passion, and dedication of that group of fantastic (Canadian) coaches.”

A world away in Okotoks, Fox also understands how significant Canadian influences have been on his own development.

“Having guys like Greg Wolfe and Matt Mills … who know and understand the game, has been imperative,” Fox said. “For me, being able to learn how the game is played — not just physical skills, but the mental side of competing at a high level — has probably been their greatest contribution.”

But while the American-born Flynn and the New Zealand-born Fox express gratitude, the Canadians see it differently.

Wolfe, in typically humble Canadian fashion, believes his nation is simply one of many that can afford to help a young baseball program.

“(New Zealanders) will continue to look for a more developed place where they can get more out of the game,” he said.  “I’m always willing to help a young player or coach find that place.”

For Mills, however, it’s more than that.

As the 29-year-old sees it, Canada’s global involvement in the game is a symbol of how far this nation’s baseball program has come.

“Not so long ago Canada might have been seen as a country that needed a big brother to influence the baseball program here,” Mills said. “Now, to be ranked sixth in the world, and to be playing a part in helping grow the game internationally — that feels pretty good. I’m proud of that.”

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