By Melissa Couto/Baseball New Zealand
Nothing solidifies the uniting force of friendship quite like a shared experience of intense baseball training.
There’s a special familiarity that comes from spending long days on a field together, learning the ropes alongside each other, and being there to help one another through it all.
After traveling to the Gold Coast to attend the Major League Baseball Australian Academy Program (MLBAAP) in June/July, four young New Zealanders – Quinten Niu, Khalid Gilbert, Makauley Fox, and Pita Rona – can certainly agree.
“I think we have a bond with each other now,” said Niu. “We’re like brothers.”
As the youngest of the four at 15, Niu found that simply having his fellow countryman around helped him through the experience.
“They picked me up when I was down, they gave me tips, they would watch my swing and tell me what was wrong,” the infielder said. “Just being boys and being there for me, they never left my out of something because I was the youngest.”
Khalid Gilbert, who lives in Hamilton, insists that the MLBAAP strengthened his friendship with the three Auckland natives, both on and off the field.
“After spending nearly a month together, you get to see how they really are away from the baseball field,” the outfielder said. “You get to spend time with them and learn things about them that help you become better teammates and better friends too.”
Pitcher Makauley Fox agreed with his fellow New Zealanders.
“Living with the guys was a lot of fun,” Fox said. “It definitely helped, especially through the first few days where it was the Kiwi boys and the Aussie boys.”
“We’ve made friends with the Aussie guys too, though. We’re all baseball players and there’s a certain given camaraderie that comes with that.”
The last of the four, Pita Rona, who took part in the MLBAAP as a signee of the Baltimore Orioles, also found comfort in the presence of familiar faces.
“Having people to go to when you didn’t have anyone to talk to was helpful,” Rona said.
All four knew each other, previously having played together on the under-18 national team, but their bond began growing from Day 1.
“The first day was really nerve-wracking for me,” said Gilbert. “I was the first player to arrive at the academy so it was a little daunting seeing how big the other players were, but some of that nervousness faded when the other New Zealand players got there – it was relieving. After that, the excitement kicked in when we got out onto the field and started training.”
Though described as exciting, the training at the MLBAAP consisted of long days of arduous work.
Following a 6:30am breakfast, the young Kiwis would make their way to the field for 7:45am where they’d train until lunch time. After lunch, a game would be played and a debriefing would be given by their coaches. They’d then eat dinner and return to their rooms by 9:30pm where they’d sleep and prepare to do it all over again the next day.
But this was exactly what the New Zealanders expected.
“I knew quite a lot [about the MLBAAP] before I went over,” Gilbert said. “I expected it to be very busy, not a lot of downtime, and that all we would do was baseball day in, day out.”
Despite knowing what the training would entail, actually getting on the field and playing every day took some getting used to.
“I wasn’t used to running and playing every day, but I loved it,” Niu admitted. “That’s what I hope I can do in the future, play every day in the MLB.”
Each of the boys agreed that getting the opportunity to play so often was highly beneficial.
“Playing at least one game every day was the best part of the program,” Fox said. “The knowledge that you can gain from doing drills is great, but limited. Even when I wasn’t pitching, I was able to watch the other players and learn from how they played.”
But it wasn’t just playing that was important; it was who they were playing with and against – Australians who have had more training than their New Zealand counterparts.
“The Aussie boys were very strong baseball players and playing against and training with them was very beneficial for me,” the 16-year-old Fox said. “Being able to compare myself to guys my age, I could see where I need to be.”
Gilbert fully agreed with his teammate.
“The Australian guys were really good baseball players. You could tell they’d been playing for a while and that they were the best from their country,” he said. “There was a lot of competition for game time, which was good as it kept everyone honest and made sure no one was slacking off.”
For Gilbert, playing with Australians offered him hope for his own continued development.
“I expected more players over there to be absolute superstars and that I could never be like them but I realized that they’re no more talented than me,” the 16-year-old said. “It just takes hard work and determination.”
Forcing the New Zealanders to work hard were world-class coaches, another perk of the program.
“The coaching here was the best,” said Rona. “This was the best place for me to come to learn about the sport and I thoroughly enjoyed it.”
Having never experienced a training program on this scale, the Kiwis could not believe just how many coaches it takes to fully train blossoming talent.
“There were specific strengthening and conditioning coaches, pitching, infield, outfield, and hitting coaches,” Fox explained. “There was really no aspect that wasn’t covered.”
Bythe end of the program, each of the young New Zealanders had learned a great deal, not just about baseball, but about dedication, hard work, and the importance of the relentlessly pursuing their dreams.
“One thing that really stuck with me was that there are a lot of really talented baseball players out there, so you really need to try to set yourself apart from them whether it be through hustling in and out of the field, taking that extra two minutes to clean up the dugout, or even something as little as running out a pop-up,” Gilbert said.
“If you can set yourself away from the crowd in a good way, you will be noticed and good things can come of it.”
The boys return home with the lessons of the MLBAAP fresh in their minds, lessons they won’t soon be forgetting.
Fox sums it up perfectly.
“It was one of the best baseball experiences of my life so far,” he said upon his return to New Zealand. “The strong competition and the world-class coaching made for a fantastic three weeks away.
And the boys I was rooming with were great. It was great to go through that experience with them”