For the first time, the World Baseball Classic committee has extended its hand to New Zealand, acknowledging Baseball New Zealand's growth by offering them a qualifying chance in Taiwan. The best thing about an invitation like this is the calibre of players who come out of the woodwork.
Currently, Baseball New Zealand is scouting the world to identify players to play for their homeland, and Auckland-born Marko Lezaic is one of many looking to step up to the plate.
Lezaic has been hitting his way to the big time, from the age of 7, when he first saw baseball on television. Growing up sharing his athletic talent between softball, rugby league and basketball, Lezaic finally made the crossover at age 17, when his father, Alex, found a local baseball team. "He knew that baseball was the game for me and there were much bigger opportunities in that game for my future."
Since then, with the support of his family, Lezaic has circled the globe in pursuit of his chance on the diamond, including moving to California, USA, in hopes of cutting his teeth in college ball.
"I arrived in San Francisco in 2008, struggling to find a college that would accept me without finishing my final year of high school. After impressing the Santa Rosa coaches with my raw playing abilities and my emotional softball story, they were happy to give me an opportunity to play for their college."
The ‘emotional softball story' was the fact that Lezaic's experience was in softball; that he was relatively new to the game and this put him behind other players. The college accepted him on the assumption that he could make the necessary adjustments, and fast. Lezaic didn't disappoint.
During his three years in a top-level "intensive" training program, engineered by Santa Rosa Coach Damon Neidlinger, Lezaic received a rounded education that was equally academic and athletic - and completely life-shaping.
"I'll never forget waking up early on the cold winter mornings to sponge the drenched baseball diamond, to train and prepare for the coming season. Part of his (Neidlinger's) responsibilities was to make sure we were completing our studies and attending class to ensure our overall success."
"I arrived in California as a young aggressive teenager and I left a humble, matured man." said Lezaic, who graduated with a degree in Social and Behavioural sciences, and a First Responder's certificate.
This gave 24-year-old Lezaic the ability to call himself a utility player. "It built my knowledge and ability to play in many positions by learning different techniques for both my physical and mental wellbeing. It is very hard to become a great utility player, but I know all the hard work will pay off in my future career."
Although confident that he could perform wherever he is placed, Lezaic believes his strength lies at first and third base, as well as on the mound, and to be a Diamondblack, Lezaic will do whatever it takes.
"For me to represent my country would be an honour and a dream come true. New Zealand means everything to me and I would love to show the rest of the world that even though we are the underdogs, we can achieve big things."
For mentors, Lezaic doesn't have to look far from his Melbourne home. This past season, Lezaic played for local team the Preston Pirates, along with Australian Baseball League champions Bubbie Buzachero and Justin Huber.
"Marko is a huge part of the Preston baseball club, and has a huge chance to be a genuine leader on the New Zealand national team" said former teammate Huber, "[Marko's] a true professional who will be an exciting player to watch leading up to the World Baseball Classic".
"Following the WBC tryouts, my number one priority is to play in the ABL to further my career." Through this, Lezaic would like to make his father and extended family in Melbourne, who have "all helped me along the way", proud.
"I've got a lot of respect for all the ABL teams and if not Melbourne, I'd really appreciate the opportunity to play for any one of them."
The WBC tryouts, as Lezaic sees it, is a positive step on his journey, to venture back to his roots, where it all began "I would really like to see Daniel Lamb-Hunt and how he has grown in his game; the last time we played we won a softball championship together."
Catching up with Andrew Marck and the other boys from the 2006 NZ U19 team would also be a highlight. "I'd love to see some of the new faces making that same transition from softball to baseball, and anyone else who is stepping up to the plate to represent our country."
Like the majority of the Diamondblack hopefuls, this is the ultimate rite-of-passage marking his transition from a young boy with a dream, to a man chosen to wear his country's colours.
"I ventured into the US baseball scene on my own, which was pretty rare for a New Zealand athlete." said Lezaic, who travelled on the hope of being accepted in to a program. "I think it proved my commitment to making it in this game, how willing I am to work, and how far I'll go to get there."
"I would like to show my family in New Zealand why I made that move and that I am committed to achieving my goals, no matter how hard they might be. I know that it would be very special for them to see how far I have come, and to see me representing my country."
This story was not subject to the approval of Baseball New Zealand or its affiliates.ma