Former Sydney GM is first Australian hired from his country’s league
By Tyler Maun / MiLB.com
Jennifer Pendergraft knows what it’s like to have the odds stacked against her. In Matt Cooper, she saw someone who could relate.
This offseason, Cooper broke new Minor League Baseball ground, becoming the first Australian since the resurrection of his country’s Australian Baseball League — and maybe the first ever — to join a Minor League team’s front office in a full-time capacity. He couldn’t have done it without Pendergraft. She couldn’t have done it without some serendipitous turns.
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It was November 6, 2010, on an overcast and chilly night at Blacktown Olympic Park, and the Canberra Cavalry and Sydney Blue Sox were playing the first game in the history of the new Australian Baseball League. Shuttered due to financial difficulties a decade earlier, the ABL had been reborn with the support Major League Baseball. Matt Cooper was a member of Sydney’s skeletal staff, one of the league’s six franchises.
On the night of the league’s pageantry-laden opener, Murphy’s Law was in full effect. The ballpark’s wireless microphone stopped working during pregame ceremonies. A helicopter carrying ABL baseball operations manager Ben Foster and a young fan to throw out the ceremonial first pitch was late. With no working microphone on the field, the national anthem singer sprinted up two flights of stairs to the facility’s tiny press booth. Doing his best to belt out “Advance Australia Fair” while out of breath, he forgot to sing the final line to the song.
“That first game, I remember, everything seemed to go wrong: the PA system, the problem with the helicopter not being able to land because there was a police chase going on,” Cooper recalled. “We had popcorn not working. We had warm beer and cold hot dogs and pies, and 20 minutes before the game, we had a starter without any pants. I think back to that, and I remember I really questioned whether I wanted to do it after that one.”
Sydney’s staff pulled it together. The Blue Sox eked out a 1-0 victory. Matt Cooper was hooked.
“That was when I saw myself taking on responsibilities and trying to help out, and being able to have an immediate effect,” he said. “I think that’s what motivated me to keep going.”
Following the ABL’s inaugural season, Cooper made his first foray into baseball Stateside, joining the Myrtle Beach Pelicans as a front-office intern. He took that Minor League experience back home and rocketed up the ABL ranks over the next four years. For the league’s second season, the late David Balfour took over as Blue Sox general manager. Cooper joined him as assistant GM. When health issues forced Balfour to resign following two seasons in charge, Cooper stepped in.
“I was extremely grateful to be able to learn from David Balfour — everything he taught me — and be able to put that into practice with the ABL, help it grow,” Cooper said. “That’s something I’m really proud of. I don’t think I’d trade that for anything.”
At the helm of the Blue Sox, Cooper led his club to unprecedented attendance growth and even took its games to local television airwaves, a first for an ABL team. The possibility of a return to the Minor Leagues stuck with him.
The right combination
A hemisphere away, Pendergraft had taken a road similar to Cooper’s. Hired by owner Tom Seidler as an executive assistant for the then-Visalia Oaks in 2007, she climbed quickly.
“[Visalia] was brutal when I first showed up,” she said. “We had like six on staff, and that was big. In the past, this organization had had like a max of three in the office. We were ramping up in preparation for all these renovations and facility expanses, but it was a crummy ballpark. [Our offices] were in a condemned trailer from a school that didn’t want it anymore.”
Two years later, she was assistant GM, helping to oversee the completion of massive renovations to Rawhide Ballpark. After three seasons in that role, Pendergraft took over as the club’s general manager following the 2012 campaign.
One of the few female general managers in the Minors, Pendergraft readied for 2015, finalizing staff decisions in January as the season approached. The Rawhide had posted a job listing seeking a baseball operations manager, but Pendergraft, who sifted through applicants while keeping an extra eye out for suitable female candidates, hadn’t found anyone she felt fit the position perfectly. One final email came in. She left it on her phone as a reminder to take down the post.
“Before I file away the email, I see it’s Matt’s, and I saw his email signature,” she said. “I read through his stuff just for the sake of checking up on someone from the Australian league, and reading his cover letter was like reading something that I had written myself.
“He’s what I was looking for.”
A Skype interview followed. Weeks later, Cooper was on his way back to the Minors, the culmination of an odyssey that had started nearly five years before.
“When I was packing up, I actually found a piece of paper that I wrote in my last year of university which had my goals, and it’s incredible how close I was to getting to that,” he said. “I thought that I would actually take an extra year to do this, so I’m pretty pleased to have been ahead of myself.”
From a land Down Under
At the end of February, just four weeks after the end of the Blue Sox season, the lifelong baseball junkie traveled from Sydney to Visalia and hit the ground running. As the Rawhide’s baseball operations manager, Cooper’s duties are wide-ranging and include helping with clubhouse operations, travel arrangements, assisting Pendergraft and other Visalia front-office departments, playing point between the D-backs affiliate and their parent club and more.
“When he first got into town, I had him going around to service clubs with me, giving our presentation about the season coming up,” Pendergraft said. “Our first one was a long drive, like an hour drive, so we got a chance to really catch up and get to know each other. I told him that me being a female in the industry obviously is very rare, especially in my position. If and when I move on, I just really wanted to pass the torch to somebody different. I feel like I was given such an amazing opportunity, I wanted to take a chance on somebody and pay it forward.”
Cooper’s experience in upper-level team management has already paid dividends for his new organization.
“It’s huge,” Pendergraft said. “We don’t have to worry about explaining every little detail and the process of everything. It’s literally just catching him up to speed on how our organization does things and the processes we go through.
“It’s so nice just saying, ‘Here’s a project — do it.’ I don’t have to babysit. I don’t have to tell him how to do it.”
The move has come with its own set of lessons and adjustments for Cooper.
“Where we had one process for ordering a booklet through a printer, that process is slightly different over here,” he said. “Learning all of those things when I’m doing different roles, there’s just that kind of learning curve in every single area. I think it more has to do with the fact that everyone that I’m working with is just very good at their jobs.”
Before he left for California, Cooper got the chance to tell his mentor that he was taking his baseball dream overseas. Former Blue Sox GM Balfour, father of 2013 American League All-Star reliever Grant, was in the late stages of a four-year battle with a rare form of pancreatic cancer.
“I had to text him,” Cooper said, “and he immediately called me back and said he was just thrilled, so proud of what I accomplished and couldn’t be happier. That was a pretty big moment for me. I was really happy to be able to share that with him. He just always wanted to see me succeed, and I think he knew that this was what I wanted and knows that I will be successful.”
Less than two weeks after Cooper landed in the US, Balfour passed away at age 62.
“To be able to set off on this journey and say goodbye to him and show him that everything he’d shown me led to this was incredible,” Cooper said. “One of the things that he taught me more than anything is to enjoy it. It’s hard work, and you get enjoyment out of putting in that hard work and creating success. … Your main job is to make sure that the people underneath you are enjoying what they’re doing. This is a grind. It’s hard work. You’re doing it for not very much money because you love the game and you love that experience of working in baseball. If you’re not having a good time doing it, then what’s the point?”
Tyler Maun is a contributor to MiLB.com and TheABL.com.au. Follow him on Twitter @TylerMaun.
NIACC’s Bradley gives mom, team best Mother’s Day present ever
The sophomore from New Zealand and the NIACC baseball team was down to its last strike. Iowa Central led NIACC 6-5 in the ninth inning and Bradley drilled a solo home run, his second of the contest, to right-center field on a 2-2 pitch with two outs.
NIACC pushed across three runs in its half of the 10th inning to advance to the NJCAA Region XI title game wtih a 9-6 Sunday afternoon at Riverfront Stadium.
NIACC (44-13) plays Southwestern at noon on Monday in the regional title game. The Trojans must top Southwestern twice to claim their second regional title in three years.
The first title game was pushed to Monday due to storms moving into the Waterloo area Sunday.
Sunday’s win over Iowa Central was the 100th career win for NIACC coach Travis Hergert, who has a career mark of 100-62 in three seasons.
Season starts earlier as schedule expands to 56 games
Boasting a total of 168 contests over 14 rounds, each team will play seven four-game home series, with bye weeks eliminated to accommodate the expanded schedule.
The additional games represent a 20 percent increase over last season, which General Manager Ben Foster considers a testament to the league’s fan-first mentality.
“The new schedule, which was designed to maximise home games during summer school holidays, gives fans more chances to see their teams in action,” Foster said.
“New membership and ticketing packages league-wide also make it easier for anyone to get out to a game.”
The new season launches on Friday, 23 October, with reigning Claxton Shield champion the Alcohol. Think Again Perth Heat to host the SA Power Networks Adelaide Bite in an October rematch of the 2015 ABL Championship Series. The 2015 championship victory was historic for the Heat; Western Australia and South Australia are now tied second place on the all-time Claxton Shield titles list with 15 each, seven behind first-place Victoria (22 titles). That same night, the Canberra Elite Cavalry host the Brisbane Bandits, proudly presented by Welldog, at The Fort at Narrabundah Ballpark while the Jet Couriers Melbourne Aces open the new season at home against the Sydney Blue Sox.
Rivalries abound in the early rounds as well, with the Hume Highway Cup between Sydney and Canberra starting in Round 3 at The Fort. Also in Round 3, Adelaide hosts Melbourne as the two teams renew an intense and long-standing rivalry between South Australia and Victoria.
The holiday season brings an abundance of cheer and baseball, with Round 10 starting on Boxing Day and running until 29 December. Two days later, Round 11 action begins with three ballgames on New Year’s Eve and runs until 3 January, meaning fans can ring in the New Year with family and friends at a ballgame.
The playoff formats remain the same with the Preliminary Final Series falling at the end of January and the Championship Series following shortly thereafter in the first week of February. Announcements regarding game times, along with the official date and location of the 2015 ABL All-Star Game, will come in the following months.
By Ben Cameron/watoday.com.au
Two-time championship-winning manager Steve Fish will not return to coach the Perth Heat next season.
Fish has coached the Heat for three seasons, winning the past two national titles and finishing runner-up in his first season.
However, the Heat front office has remained steadfast in its belief of turning over the coaching staff every few years to prevent things from becoming stale.
A former minor leaguer for the Los Angeles Angels, Fish will adjust his focus to a high performance role for Baseball WA.
Fish had worked in both positions for the past three years, but due to concerns over time constraints of both jobs, Fairfax Media understands hasn’t been offered a new contract for the Heat.
The decision comes a week after Perth appointed former halcyon days slugger Tony Adamson as its new CEO.
But the decision on Fish’s future was made before Adamson’s tenure began.
Australian baseball Hall of Famer Adamson said there remained some chance Fish could return to his position.
“Right now we are in the market looking at our options from our manager’s point of view,” he said.
“Steve’s got a very important role with the high-performance division of Baseball WA and he probably needs to put some focus into that.
“He’ll still be involved with our Heat program because that is a high-performance program, but we are looking at all our options.
“He has a high performance role with Baseball WA, which is ever-growing. We just need to make sure he has enough time to do that role justice.”
The Heat is believed to be looking overseas with a number of minor league coaches in its sights for the upcoming season.
With the Australian Baseball League season running November through to early February a minor league manager could come across in the American off-season.
It has been the long-held view of Major League Baseball that the ABL would become a development league for players, managers and administrators.
By Australian Baseball League / Sydney Blue Sox
Most mothers will be celebrating Sunday with breakfast in bed, a nice lunch by the seaside and get showered with presents by her loved ones, but for Kylie Wells she will be missing one of her sons for the first time.
Her son Lachlan is in spring training now based in Fort Myers Florida after being signed by the Minnesota Twins last August.
“He usually brings me breakfast in bed and a big hug and kiss on Mother’s day but this year will be very different,” said Mrs Wells.
Her son’s absence is softened due to his pursuit of his lifelong dream of becoming a major league player. All those long days of training, games and hard work has finally paid off but has led to this tough separation for the family.
“We are all really proud of what Lachlan has achieved but it doesn’t make it any easier,” she said.
Armed with a cannon left arm, Lachlan is in complete control of his destiny and is enjoying every day with the Twins, but life was rocky at first.
“It was difficult at the beginning, it’s all new to me being my first season but I eventually became used to it,” said the Newcastle-native.
His talent and work ethic was noticed by scouts at a tender age and as a result he was signed by the Twins in August 2014.
His arm power especially at seventeen is immense and his future is bright after being clocked pitching at 92 mph (148 km/h).
His day starts at 7 am with breakfast before the morning stretch to prepare for the day ahead. The pitchers then proceed to their own specialised training program which is followed by some theoretical and video work.
The day usually concludes late afternoon and the physical toll makes it tough but he wakes up the very next day to do it again fully aware of what’s at stake. Despite the hardship Lachlan insists there is nowhere he would rather be.
“I know what I signed up for. All I want to do is work hard and be competitive to put me in the best position to achieve my dream,” said the teenager.
Growing up with a twin brother meant everyday was a competition for Lachlan with his brother Alex also a baseball prospect. Having someone to push you every day has certainly been a huge factor for his achievements so far.
“When they were young they were so competitive with each other whether it was baseball or on the Playstation, they definitely make each other better,” said Mrs Wells.
“It’s been difficult for Alex. I think he misses him more because he has nobody to throw the ball to! But he definitely misses his brother.
“Not seeing him around the house has been the most difficult thing, he’s our comedian so it’s certainly a lot quieter.
“As much as it’s tough he is there pursuing his dream and I’m proud of him and support him 100 per cent.”
Competitiveness has been the major factor of his success so far, an attribute Lachlan credits his upbringing and especially his mum for.
“She was a professional netballer and she taught me a lot about competition. She told me never to give up and always bounce back when you fall down,” he said.
“It can be very difficult here because of the pressure and all the talented guys but I always think back to what she taught me, to keep pushing hard for what I want.
“There’s always that daily pressure because you are always trying hard to push for a spot and make a good impression with the coaches.”
Lachlan is aided by fellow Sydney Blue Sox pitcher Todd Van Steensel who is also in the Minnesota Twins system and having a familiar face has certainly helped his transition.
Another familiar face is former ABL pitcher Virgil Vazquez who is his pitching coach in Fort Myers.
“We have great facilities here, amazing coaches and pretty much live and breathe baseball which has improved my game tremendously,” he said.
Lachlan credits many people for his success, including the staff at the Sydney Blue Sox and Baseball NSW.
“When I was sixteen Glenn Williams invited me to the high-performance program,” he explains.
“Glenn and the rest of the coaches down there worked hard with me and training with the best guys in New South Wales helped my progression tremendously,” said the Belmont junior.
There were certainly many people that helped Lachlan with his success but with Mother’s Day approaching he insists that his mother Kylie was the main driving force.
“She is just the most loving and caring person I know and I certainly appreciate all she’s done. She never complained about the long days and the long drives, I’m eternally thankful for her efforts with us!”
The Wells family are due for a visit over the next couple of months but in the mean time Lachlan will continue to push hard for his dream.
With a future in the majors at stake Kylie will certainly have to endure Lachlan’s absence for years to come, but the ‘big hug’ waiting for her on the other side of the world will be worth the wait.
Happy Mother’s Day to all!
The Brisbane Bandits are saying that their ace pitcher Drew Naylor has been a star within the pitching staff of the Kagawa Olive Guyners in Japan during the ABL offseason.
In his most recent outing they report that Drew notched 9 strikeouts and only 1 earned run in a dominant complete game. Posting an impressive ERA of 1.20 from 30 innings and an unbeaten 3-0 record the Bandits are looking forward to getting some good production from the former Phillies minor leaguer in the next ABL season.
No. 2-Seeded Buffs Oust Javelinas for Second-Straight Season in LSC Baseball Championship
KINGSVILLE, Texas – For the second-straight season in an elimination game on the first day at Nolan Ryan Field, the No. 2-seeded West Texas A&M Buffs ousted top-seeded Texas A&M-Kingsville, 11-5. With the win, the Buffs improved to 35-17 overall, while TAMUK fell to 29-23.
WT moves on to face the loser on No. 3 Angelo State vs. No. 4 Tarleton State Friday evening at 7 p.m. ASU and TSU battle at 3 p.m. Friday. Fans can access live stats of the game clicking here.
WT used an 11-3 scoring run over the fourth and fifth innings to battle back from an early 2-0 hole as junior Josh Day capped the run with a grand slam in the sixth inning and the 11-5 lead.
The Buffs got the first two outs of the bottom of the first, but a walk and a doubled down the left field line by Cline Andrews put runners at second and third for the Javelinas. A triple to left center by Hayden Vesely put the Javelinas up 2-0.
WT had a chance in the top of the third with putting two on with nobody out on a single to left by senior Justin Hargrove and a walk, but a pop out and a pair of strikeouts ended the threat.
A two out walk and a missed throw to second put JP Phillips at third for the Javelinas in the bottom of the fourth. A second walk by WT junior pitcher Brooks Trujillo put runners at the corners. Wes Aguilar reached on a fielder’s choice as senior Johnny Gaines made a nice play at third and throw to second for the out.
A leadoff triple down the right field line by junior Aaron De La Paz put the Buffs in position in the top of the fifth. Senior Justin Hargrove beat out an infield single scoring De La Paz for a 2-1 score and senior Ryan March triple home two runs for a 3-2 WT lead with one away. Junior Matt Cole singled down the right field line for a RBI and a 4-2 lead.
A single by Ryan Fickel and a double to left from Clint Wallace pulled TAMUK within 4-3 with nobody out in the bottom of the fifth. Following a walk and a pitching change for the Buffs, a failed pickoff to second and error moved the runners to second and third for the Javelinas. Vesely walked to load the bases. A fielder’s choice RBI out tied the game at four. A wild pitch plated the go ahead run for the Javelinas at 5-4 through five innings.
A walk, single and hit batsman loaded the bases with two outs for the Buffs in the top of the sixth for the top of the order. A walk to March tied the game at five as TAMUK starter Ryan Scott was relieved in favor of Matt Terrones. A walk to Cole scored another run for a 6-5 WT lead. Junior Trace Hansen pushed the count to 3-2 from a 0-2 start and, on the payoff pitch, walked for the third-straight free pass (fourth of the inning) and a 7-5 WT lead. Junior Josh Day hit a grand slam to left for an 11-5 lead as it was his team-leading fifth home run of the season as WT scored seven runs in the frame and 11 runs over the last two innings.
A one out double to center from pinch-hitter Blake Johnson put the Javelinas in position in the bottom of the eighth. Junior reliever Justin McAlister got a big strikeout for the second out of the frame. He then got a strikeout of Amarillo native Larren Artis for the third out leaving a man stranded at second.
TAMUK went down in order in the bottom of the ninth.
WT tallied 11 runs on seven hits with two errors, while TAMUK had five runs on six hits with no errors. The Buffs were led by Day who went 1 for 4 with a run scored and four RBI. March went 1 for 4 with two runs scored and three RBI.
McAlister earned the win in relief as he improved to 2-2 on the year going 4.2 innings, allowing one hit while striking out eight and walking one as he completely shut down the Javelina offense. Trujillo went 4.1 innings, allowing five runs – three earned, five hits, four walks and he fanned three.
DUNEDIN, Fl.–Facing a Toronto Blue Jays extended spring squad on May 6, 2015 Brandon Stenhouse extended his
scoreless streak to three innings.
“It’s the first time I have allowed a base runner,” said the Melbourne native. Stenhouse did get into a bit of a jam during his
shutout inning on the mound allowing one hit while walking two but still not allowing a run.
It appears that Stenhouse could be starting his pro career with the Rookie Level GCL Yankees.
Hayden Timberlake has been released by the Houston Astros after only one year in pro ball. The Queensland catcher spent his rookie season in the Dominican and struggled to adjust to professional pitching hitting .188 in 22 games. With a surplus of catchers at the Rookie level with Houston Hayden struggled to get game time and the Astros were no doubt hoping he could get his hitting up to standard playing in summer ball here in Australia. That he has been released even before the 2015 season starts would suggest that the organisation did not see the improvement they were looking for.
Hayden was signed in July 2013 and then attended the MLBAAP academy on the Gold Coast and was selected as a member of the 2013 Australian 18U team that competed in the U18 Baseball World Cup in Taichung, Taiwan.
By Roger Mooney/tbo.com
RHP Grant Balfour joined Triple-A Durham on Tuesday in what he hopes is the first step in his return to the big leagues.
Balfour was designated for assignment April 18, then released last week. He drew interest from the Cubs and Red Sox but signed a minor-league deal Friday with the Rays.
“For Grant, this is an opportunity for him to have a true spring training,” president of baseball operations Matt Silverman said Tuesday. “He’ll be able to build up his arm properly. He’ll be able to pitch on a schedule, and we hope that he can regain the form that he’s had in the past and get back to helping us win ballgames at the major-league level.”
Balfour left the Rays for more than two weeks during spring training and returned to Australia to be with his father, David, who passed away after a battle with pancreatic cancer.
Balfour had only one bad outing with the Rays this season — his last, when he allowed three runs, walked three batters and surrendered a grand slam to the Yankees’ Chris Young.
“We’re happy that he’s going down there, because we know if he’s able to build himself back up, we know he’s a better pitcher than he showed while he was here,” manager Kevin Cash said.
Balfour averaged 89.7 mph this year on his fastball, down from 91.6 in 2014. But Silverman said that was only part of Balfour’s issues.
“It’s partially velocity in terms of building up arm strength like in spring training, and it’s about executing pitches,” Silverman said. “But velocity definitely contributes to that.”
It’s not often when a 12-year veteran will accept a minor-league contract with a team that released him that same week, but Silverman said Balfour was “eager” to head to Durham.
“He’s a competitor,” Silverman said. “He believes that he has a lot to offer, and he wants to go down and demonstrate that and we believe in him. That’s why we offered this opportunity to him. He knows our staff in Durham, he feels comfortable there and knows that he’ll get every opportunity to build himself up and get back to the majors.”