Australian baseballer Ryan Rowland-Smith said his team is perfectly placed to win their upcoming qualifying tournament and advance to next year’s World Baseball Classic.
The Southern Thunder have named their strongest possible squad for the Sydney qualifiers which run from February 11-14.
The Southern Thunder will vie with New Zealand, South Africa and the Philippines for a spot in the 16-team tournament – baseball’s equivalent of a world cup.
Australia finished last among the teams that qualified for the 2013 edition but veteran Rowland-Smith believes the new squad will have no trouble qualifying for the showpiece tournament.
“On paper, as far as rosters go, we have the best roster, we have the most depth,” he said.
“The toughest thing for team Australia and this is a gift and a curse – we have the elite players on the squad but when you do have a better team, it’s tough to get everyone available.
“If you didn’t have such a good team you would have all your guys available because they wouldn’t be playing internationally, they wouldn’t be playing at a high level in the States.
“Anything can happen but on paper we have obviously the best chance out of all those teams and if we can click we’re going to be just fine.”
Australia’s 28-man squad will be boosted by nine players affiliated with Major League clubs in the US, as well as the likes of long-time servants Rowland-Smith and Trent Oeltjen, who played for the Seattle Mariners and the Los Angeles Dodgers respectively.
Australian baseball reached new heights in 2004 when Rowland-Smith and company won a silver medal at the Athens Olympic Games, before the International Olympic Committee decided to drop the sport after 2008, a decision he feels has limited baseball’s growth in Australia.
“Obviously it was a big hit for us to get dropped out of the Olympics. That’s a huge factor, a lot of sports in Australia are government funded and the government plays a big role in funding for programs, facilities, paying for the best coaches,” he said.
“We need an influx of these Aussie players. 15 years ago we have an absolute influx of Australian players heading over [to the US] and we really need that because there’s so much talent over here.”
The Newcastle native, who grew up replaying just three videotape cassettes of the baseball World Series on his VHS as his only exposure to the game, is now desperate to help inspire the next generation of Australian baseball players.
The left-handed pitcher teamed up with Oeltjen to set up NxtGen Baseball in 2015, a company aimed at training and mentoring aspiring players, an opportunity Rowland-Smith wished he had.
“Just being around the young guys, just seeing in their faces how badly they want it, that’s a special thing for me. One of my biggest goals is to make an impact on these young kids and be that guy they can go to and that programme they can go to, to really help themselves,” said Rowland-Smith.
Between running training camps and working on ESPN’s Game of the Week telecast, the free agent still harbours hope of returning to the Major League, believing his 33-year-old body still has what it takes to mix with the best.
“I’ve been playing baseball for the last 15 years professionally and there is nothing better than playing in the major leagues. Playing in front of 50,000 people was a dream come true for me and I want to extend that for as long as I possibly can,” he said.
“I don’t want to look back when I’m older and wish I was still playing.”