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Campbell: "True Ambassador" for NZ

scottretiresmlThere's something to be said about being first.

Just as people identify Neil Armstrong as the first man on the moon and Sir Edmund Hillary as the first man to climb Mount Everest, Scott Campbell is identified as the first man born and raised in New Zealand to be drafted by a Major League Baseball team.

Last Friday, the 27-year-old announced his retirement from the game, leading baseball-lovers across the globe to look back on a short but distinguished playing career that will continue to influence baseball in New Zealand for years to come.

Undeniably, being drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 10th round of the 2006 amateur draft is one of Campbell's brightest moments.

"I still remember that day, minute by minute. It was probably one of the happiest days of my life," he said earlier this month from Blue Jays spring training camp in Florida. "It showed people in New Zealand that doubted me that I was actually good at what I did and it was nice to finally get that recognition.

"Being first is a badge of pride I'll always wear," Campbell continued, "I knew then that even if I wasn't to go pro, I'd already done so much with baseball."

Those around the young Kiwi understood the significance of the draft, including his old infield coach at Gonzaga, Dan Evans.

"Scott was very excited to be selected by the Blue Jays but I would definitely say that he took the most pride in being the first New Zealand-born (and raised) player to be drafted," Evans recalled.

"One of the most interesting and impressive things about Scott was how quickly he turned the focus from him being drafted to using that to help other ball players in New Zealand get an opportunity to play baseball at the next level. He is a true ambassador for his country."

Mitch James, an outfielder with the Auckland Baseball Association's Bayside Westhaven Bisons and the New Zealand Junior Diamondblacks, is one young player who has learned a great deal from Campbell's career.

"I was about 10 years old and new to baseball," James said, recalling his memory of Campbell's draft. "At that time, I thought it was impossible to go anywhere with baseball, but then I saw that on the front page of the sport's section and thought, 'it actually is possible to go somewhere!'"

Campbell's baseball philosophy had an immediate impact on James, who met the Blue Jays prospect early last year when he coached New Zealand's 16U national team.

"Scott is so famous in the baseball community, but when I got to know him he was really approachable," James asserted. "I started to look up to him because of his work ethic. He always stressed that you have to work extremely hard to get where you want to be."

Dewald de Klerk is another young Kiwi who has been motivated by Campbell's career. Last year, the Junior Diamondblacks catcher followed in his fellow countryman's footsteps by migrating to the U.S. to pursue his dreams.

"Me moving to America has a lot to do with Scott," de Klerk said. "First of all, just hearing about his experience here [in Washington state] inspired me to better myself as a player. When I got the opportunity to play in the U.S., I knew I had to take it and see how far I could go with it.

"Secondly, he's been a great role model," the 17-year-old added. "Through the coaching and guidance he's given me, I've learned to play the game the right way."

In 2008 Campbell partook in the MLB All-Star Future's game in New York. As the team's only member to sport the flag of New Zealand on his uniform, he saw this event as validation for his years of hard work.

"The Future's game really symbolized for the first time that I had not only made it but I was someone who could play at the highest level," the proud Kiwi stated. "Having an opportunity to play at the old Yankee Stadium, where so many greats had once played, was an amazing feeling."

For those watching Campbell represent New Zealand from 14,000 km away, it was a surreal experience.

"I remember watching the game on TV at 5:30 am and feeling immense pride for him, for our family and for our country," said Aaron Campbell, Scott's older brother. "Not only was this a Kiwi playing baseball at Yankee Stadium, but this was my brother and best friend."

By the following year, Campbell was playing well at the Triple-A level when a labrum tear in his hip halted the upward climb he had been making through the Blue Jays organization. Three surgeries and countless hours of rehab later, pain and discomfort persists.

Sitting on a small wooden bench in 28-degree heat two weeks ago, Campbell foreshadowed his retirement from baseball, speaking candidly about the injury that has forced him out of the game.

"It's not anything I did and it's not anything that I can change. I've done all the rehab the way I was supposed to," Campbell said. "If I don't feel good in two or three weeks maybe that's my body's way of telling me it's time to hang up the cleats and move on with my life."

The look in his eyes matched the tone of his voice -- weary, slighted, but not conquered. Though his days with the Blue Jays organization are over, Campbell is not giving up on baseball.

Later this year, New Zealand will partake in a qualifying tournament for the World Baseball Classic, and Campbell may participate.

"From the perspective of someone who has a deep pride for his country, I'd love to play," the infielder said before announcing his retirement. "I certainly have that passion and that desire to play for New Zealand so I hope I get the chance to do so."

Although his departure from professional baseball makes this decision much more complicated, the 27-year-old has not dismissed the possibility of representing his country on the world stage.

"I have to make the right decisions for myself and for my family," said the newly-wed Campbell, "But I will take all the opportunities that come my way and do what's best for [my wife] Christina and I."

While Scott remains undecided, Aaron Campbell believes his brother will play.

"His retirement from professional baseball has more to do with the full-time, day-to-day grind of playing 160-odd games a year," the older Campbell explained. "Not many people know how physically and mentally demanding that is.

"At the WBC, I'm sure Scott can deal with pain for a week. For New Zealand to be competitive, we'll need his leadership, experience, and confidence."

If Campbell feels that playing is not a viable option when the time for a decision comes, he admittedly will have "a lot to offer" the team in a coaching position instead.

"It would be nice to know that the information I've learned over my years here [in the Blue Jays organization] would be going to some use," the Auckland-native said. "I would eventually like the opportunity to coach at any level."

According to National Development Coach Matt Mills, Baseball New Zealand can certainly appreciate the value Campbell could provide in this type of role.

"I've had the good fortune to coach with Scott before, with the 16U national team and it was a pleasure working with him," Mills said. "His talent as a player speaks for itself with our young athletes, and his ability to teach and pass along that knowledge to them would be a huge asset for our program."

Whether or not Campbell decides to contribute to New Zealand's first ever WBC team, he will continue to be a source of inspiration for a baseball program on the rise.

From Bobby Mattick Field, Campbell acknowledged this by offering up advice for the throngs of young ball players in his home country currently trying to make it in a tough baseball world.

"It's hard to be a baseball player in New Zealand, there's no doubt about it," the Kiwi trailblazer said. "It's difficult not having the facilities, not having that everyday playing experience we have over here [in the U.S.], but you can't make excuses.

"You have to try to keep getting better -- just keep doing what you do, and when you get the chance to play in college or wherever, take the opportunity that's presented to you and do your best with it."

As the interview drew to a close, Campbell stood, but not before contributing one last bit of encouragement for those who will represent the future of baseball in his nation.

"Don't let anyone put you down and don't let anyone else's opinion dictate what you want to do with your baseball career. I had plenty of people tell me that I wouldn't be good enough to play in college or university in the States, let alone play as a professional.

"You need to take that criticism and use it as motivation to get better."

In the words of his older brother, Scott Campbell is "New Zealand's first home-grown success story." He won't be the last.

By Melissa Couto | This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Photo: photosport.co.nz

Melissa Couto is a budding sports writer based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter @throwinsmoke
This story was not subject to the approval of Baseball New Zealand or its affiliates.

 

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