Opinion: A day out at the baseball: The Auckland Tuatara experience

Opinion: A day out at the baseball: The Auckland Tuatara experience
Photo credit: Photosport

You got the sense as soon as you turned down McLeod Rd that something special was about to happen at the Auckland Tuatara's home opener on Friday.

They don’t just roll out roadside signs for any old event in Te Atatu South, and you'd expect nothing less in the heart of West Auckland, long a stronghold for diamond sports in New Zealand.

But could this sleepy old park nestled among the suburban mangroves truly be capable of hosting a professional sporting event, let alone an entire season's worth of fixtures? And more importantly, can this baseball team capture the attention of a nation where softball rules the diamonds?

Any doubts (refer to the above) were immediately dispelled as you turned past the Waitemata FC clubhouse where a pristine, full-sized, outfield revealed itself, looking resplendent in the Waitakere sun and every inch an Australian Baseball League ballpark.

As with most things Tuatara, it was the product of a community effort - a good old fashioned Kiwi muck in from locals and the modest, yet rapidly growing, baseball community. A tweet was sent out the day prior imploring anyone within eye-shot to come down and help get the ballpark ready. They came in their droves, and the result was impressive.

The Friday 3pm start time was far from ideal for attracting a sizeable crowd, but there were plenty of families on hand to fill the stands, eager to witness a rare slice of NZ sporting history in the flesh.

The announcing team at work.
The announcing team at work. Photo credit: Stephen Foote

The Tailgate area was a masterstroke. Modelled on the time-honoured American sporting tradition of eating and drinking out the back of a vehicle as a pre-game warm-up, the Tuatara opted to extend that through the entire match, keeping the gates on the utes down as the food and booze flowed down the rightfield line.

This is where you could find the Kiwi celebs out and about, including the likes of that TAB guy and multi-channel/platform sporting pundit, Nate Rarere. Rarere bought a tarpaulin along with him in homage to the Tuatara's unveiling, where one was used in lieu of a curtain when the franchise's name and logo was first revealed. It got a fair old flapping after every base hit. This really needs to catch on.

The rest of the afternoon was punctuated with all the delightfully endearing teething issues you might expect from such an occasion. The immensely overpowered t-shirt gun sending shirts sailing over the stands and into the mangroves beyond. The big screen that was quickly demoted to scoreboard duties after pitchers complained that’s its placement allowed batters to see what kind of pitch they were about to throw. The crowd stumbles over the lyrics of "Take me out to the Ball game" during the seventh-inning stretch, an institution in any US ballpark.

Just as the quaint feels start to prevail, you stumble across a lone man crouched behind the protective screen at homeplate holding a speed radar gun. Only a scout for Major League Baseball franchise, the Cincinatti Reds, no big deal. The 30-year veteran is livid the Philadelphia Phillies recently snaked his club for the signature of the Tuatara's ace Kiwi pitcher, Kyle Glogoski.

The game itself was perfectly scripted for the home side - Jimmy Boyce slinging heat from the mound from the outset to give the Tuatara a lead they maintained until a flurry of late runs from the reigning champion Brisbane Bandits saw them tie the game.

The Reds scout in action.
The Reds scout in action. Photo credit: Stephen Foote

That set the stage for pinch-runner Ayrton Laird – a teenage development player – to streak to homeplate in the game's final inning to clinch an historic victory and book himself a one-way ticket to the back of a Speights bottle top.

It was a bold move from Steve Mintz, the Tuatara's mercurial manager. The North Carolinian is the archetypal baseball coach, as if he'd been cast to play a movie about himself. The soothing southern drawl, the 'sir' or 'maam' for the end of every sentence. I couldn't spot any chewing tobacco, but it had to be tucked away somewhere.

"It's just been an unbelievable day," Mintz said, radiating pride.

"Since we've been home we've been out trying to prepare our ballpark to get it ready…we got it ready and then we came out here today and we won a ballgame.

"We want the community to be out here, we want them to be as much a part of this as the players and the coaches are.

"This is New Zealand's team - we understand that and that's the way we want it to be."

A makeshift guard of honour formed to clap the victors off the diamond as the shadows drew longer, kids flocking for autographs and proud family members engulfing the players.

One of those was Yazz from the North Shore, one of the many volunteers on hand. I'd spotted her in the stands earlier, easily claiming the prize for most enthusiastic supporter– no mean feat among a hoard of passionate baseball diehards - as she offered up a dance move for every musical interlude.

"That was the most incredible experience," said the "proud mum" afterwards. "It's been years and years and years in the making and worth every single bit of heartache.

"This creates a pathway for all our little kids – all these little guys that you see out here who are junior baseballers.

"The baseball community in New Zealand is a family. We get in there and we do what we need to do."

So we can assume you'll be back for more games, Yazz? It was a question that probably wasn't worth asking.

"I'll be here every game. Every game."

The Tailgate party was a hit.
The Tailgate party was a hit. Photo credit: Stephen Foote

And there's probably nobody who better exemplifies that Tuatara spirit than CEO Ryan Flynn, who could be frequently spotted doing ice runs for the Tailgate party chilly bins.

The American native laid the bedrock of the Tuatara's foundations nine years ago, and seeing his vision realised clearly had him a touch overwhelmed, and rightly so.

"It's really emotional," Flynn admitted. "My wife called and was crying – it's really special.

"It's everything when you dedicate a lot of your life to this, to get to this point – you couldn’t be happier. It shows that our kids can play with anyone right out of the gate. Just a lot of joy.

"Everybody chipped in, even the players. It's a great story to tell. Someday we'll look back at this as maybe the beginning of baseball in this country."

Over the past 10 years, Flynn has been on a baseball pilgrimage down-under, spreading the good word of his nation's favourite past-time, and to great effect. 

He believes the talent on offer in New Zealand is exceptional, and that it's only a matter of time until they get their 'Steven Adams', a talisman to sway the casual Kiwis sports fan to another level of interest.

"When the Breakers started a lot of people didn’t know the rules of basketball, but now a tonne do. We've got 150 college players – that's a good model for us.

"We have a bunch of kids that can be world-beaters - see the world and get college educations, make millions of dollars and put it back into their community.

"Look at all the kids running around, they're throwing a baseball around. I've been waiting for that day for a damn long time."

Softball has obviously been Kiwi kids' diamond sport of choice, and while the global success of the multi-time world champion Black Sox is undeniable, the reality is that the long term opportunities it offers its players are minute compared to that of its small-ball cousin.

Post-match autoographs.
Post-match autoographs. Photo credit: Stephen Foote

Flynn acknowledged the role softball plays with an elaborate family analogy that made me instantly feel I may have been too hard on them.

"I don't want to knock them, they're our sister/brother sport, they're from the same mother and father.

"But the way the world works, these boys have big opportunities in baseball and kids from all over the world try to get somewhere with the game and now we have a core group of kids that are really playing at a high level.

"We've got kids in our system that will be Major League baseball players – no doubt in my mind."

Knowing how much had gone into making the day a reality - the culmination of a load of hard yards by plenty of passionate people - it was difficult not to get swept up in the positive vibes.

The Tuatara may be a professional side, but it has the essence of everything that's great about grassroots sports in NZ, a refreshing dose of sausage sizzle mentality on a professional level. Pro grassroots? Yeah, let's go with that.

"I've been here for 10 years and I always wondered why it wasn't a little more popular than it is," offered Rick, an American age-group level coach who was in attendance.

"I'm glad to see it and hopefully it keeps going. It's the perfect team for Auckland and New Zealand."

Preach, Rick. Preach. Get the whanau along and judge for yourselves.