Haka on the Diamonds

Photo: Baseball New Zealand

In 2012 New Zealand made their debut in the international baseball community. The National Team, the Diamondblacks, nearly pulled out a stunning pool victory, coming just one game shy of qualifying for the main draw at the World Baseball Classic 2013.

“Having beaten Thailand and the Philippines, we lost to Chinese-Taipei, narrowly, in the final,’’ said Baseball New Zealand Chief Executive Ryan Flynn. “After that more and more of our players are playing collegiate and professional baseball, which strengthens our roster and builds depth for our Diamondblacks, too’’.

Baseball New Zealand, founded 2002, is the governing body for baseball in the country.

In this year’s 2017 World Baseball Classic Qualifier New Zealand reached the semi-finals with a win against the Philippines. In the semi’s South Africa was stronger. Now the Diamondblacks have set their sites on the Olympic Games 2020. Ryan Flynn praises IOS´s decision. "It's huge for the diamond sports. Now the rest of New Zealand will finally understand that this is the reason we must focus our attention, and funding, in baseball and softball going forward."

New Zealand has played in an Olympic Qualifier once before, in 1996. At that time Australia defeated the Kiwis. This time the qualification path to Tokyo will be tougher for the Diamondblacks because they are ranked 30th in the world.

Though the Diamondblacks have yet to do it, the Kiwis have made an appearance on the Olympic diamonds once before. In 2000, the women´s national softball team, the White Socks, participate the Games and placed 6th. Currently they are ranked eight in the WBSC Softball world rankings. For the 2020 games six teams would qualify, including three directly from the 2018 championships and three from regional qualifiers to take place in 2019.

The Black Socks, the men´s national softball team, has been very successful in international play, winning the ISF Men´s World Championship six times. They are currently ranked number one in the WBSC Softball world rankings.

Softball has a long history in New Zealand. It was in 1935 when visiting American sailors introduced the sport for the Kiwis. The game spread rapidly throughout the country and it took only three years when the first official softball federation, The Wellington Softball (Baseball) Association was formed. New Zealand entered the field in the international competitions late ‘70s.

Baseball landed in New Zealand in 1888. American Albert Spalding, manager and co-founder of the A.G Spalding Sporting Goods Company, took team of MLB Stars to New Zealand on an exhibition tour to promote their line of goods.

The tour's first game outside the United States was in Auckland on 10 December. Only weeks before, in Wellington, the first baseball game had been played in New Zealand by the visiting Hicks-Sawyer Minstrel Company.

Clubs were formed and teams played informally for a number of years, but it still took 101 years for the New Zealand Baseball Association to form. When it did, it consisted, solely of teams in the Auckland Area, largest region of international settlers.

Baseball gained its popularity in the country during the 1980s, and from the beginning of the 2000´s the sport is played around the country with national senior and youth championships contested annually. Today, baseball is the fastest growing summer sport in New Zealand. “Over the last six years the amount of players has grown from around 600 players to over 7,000. Creating infrastructure around the sport is crucial to continue that growth. Whilst little or no funding is received from central government, we rely on funding institutions such as Infinity, NZ Community Trust and Pub Charities. We also receive funding from the nation’s betting agency, the TAB.

When asking how that kind of growth is possible, Flynn, who started as CEO 2010, answers: “Honestly, just a lot of work and the understanding that we have the skill sets in the country to play ball, as well a strong desire to give our sport a try.”

New Zealand now has organized leagues in two biggest cities, Auckland and Christchurch. “The growth in other centers will see properly organized competition within the next 12 months. Tauranga, Hamilton, Nelson and Wellington are areas that should have fully-functioning clubs and leagues this season.”

With this season Flynn means season that starts in the first summer months November-December in New Zealand.

Rugby dominates in New Zealand and it is considered the national sport. Other big team sports in the country are cricket, netball and soccer. “Baseball is considered a minor sport currently, but this is changing by the day. We believe it will certainly be challenging cricket as a major summer sport in years to come,’’ Ryan Flynn said. “New Zealand has a lot of raw talent and Kiwis have been playing bat and ball games for a very long time. A lot of our athletes are big and have great athletic ability.’’

Baseball New Zealand is collecting a database of player candidates for National Team programs. “We are always searching for Kiwis, around the world, wanting to play for theirs or their parents’ place of birth. Prior to the 2012 WBC campaign, many Kiwis came out of the woodwork to play for New Zealand. This introduced the likes of John and Lincoln Holdzkom, and Max Brown, who all had Kiwi fathers, to their New Zealand roots.’’

In Flynn’s eyes, the future for the baseball in New Zealand looks good. “Currently our U15 team is competing at the WBSC U15 Baseball World Cup in Japan, while our U13 (12U) team is competing for the third time at the Cal Ripken World Series in Aberdeen, Maryland. We continue to build depth at all important age grades and add Kiwi ballplayers to the ranks, from across the globe, who are returning home as we expand.”

With the incredible growth of the sport and such strong showings on the in international youth tournaments today, perhaps we will see a Haka on the Olympic Field in Tokyo 2020.