RYAN Rowland-Smith has spent the past 15 years living the dream, using his rocket left arm to propel him to Major League Baseball.
Being a professional ball player is all the 33-year-old has known since signing with the Seattle Mariners as a teenager in 2000.
The left-handed pitcher has travelled the globe playing the game he loves and reached the highest level the sport has to offer.
But Rowland-Smith, who lived in Wangi Wangi and Hamilton in his formative years, has never forgotten where he comes from and returns to the Hunter every chance he gets.
“I’ve got a really good group of friends from Newcastle High and we have to see each other once a year,” Rowland-Smith said.
“So I come back to the Newcastle area at least once a year but it’s really limited and every time I leave I’m like ‘man I wish I could spend more time here’.”
Rowland-Smith was back in town last month rubbing shoulders with the region’s best young players at the NxtGen Baseball Camp.
NxtGen Baseball is a passion project for Rowland-Smith and fellow former Aussie major league star Trent Oeltjin, who want to give Aussie kids the best shot at making it to what Americans call ‘The Show’.
“We’ve learnt so much, we’ve got over 30 years professional experience between us, both played in the big leagues, both played in the Olympics,” Rowland-Smith said.
“So the biggest thing for us … is to inspire them. We want these kids to walk away and say ‘man if Ryan can come out here and play as a kid at this same field and now he’s in the big leagues then I can too’.”
Helping Rowland-Smith out at the Windsor Park clinic last month were two other Newcastle pitching sensations - Lachlan and Alexander Wells.
The Belmont brothers are just starting out on their US odyssey, having linked with the Minnesota and Baltimore organisations respectively, but Rowland-Smith believes the pair have what it takes to survive in the cut-throat world of professional baseball.
“It’s the same message we’re sending to a 12-year-old kid - work hard, talent only gets you so far,” he said.
“You’ve got to be passionate about it and work your butt off. From what I’ve seen it looks like they’re on the right path and they’re going the right way.”
Rowland-Smith knows only too well the long and winding road to the top, having spent seven seasons in the minor leagues before making his MLB debut for Seattle on June 22, 2007, against the Cincinnati Reds.
The left-handed reliever kicked off his career with a bang, striking out former Mariners legend and future hall-of-famer Ken Griffey Jr the first time he faced him in the game.
The pair would later become teammates and good friends with Griffey reminded of the accomplishment at Rowland-Smith’s 2013 nuptials to American wife Amanda.
“It’s funny I brought that story up to Ken Griffey - he came to my wedding actually – he’s a great guy,” Rowland-Smith explained.
“I said you know you were my first hitter and he goes ‘really was I?’ ... And I said ‘yeah I struck you out’ and he said ‘at least you’ve got something to tell your grandkids’.”
Rowland-Smith became a key member of the Mariners bullpen and was converted to a starter the following season. ‘The Hyphenator’ developed quite a cult following in Seattle and he soon had a feeling he belonged in the big league.
“Getting there was really tough,” Rowland-Smith said of making it to the majors.
“Staying there for me wasn’t as tough as [it was for] other guys. I felt like once I got there I got really comfortable kind of quick.”
Rowland-Smith became a free agent at the end of the 2010 season after Seattle chose not to renew his contract.
“Once you fly the nest and you become a free agent - I had 10 years at the one organisation - that was a tough period of time because it was kind of that feeling of where do I belong,” he said.
He soon found a home at the Houston Astros, the first of six MLB clubs he would link with over the next four seasons.
He couldn’t crack it for a spot in the major league roster with the Astros, or with the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox the following two seasons.
He linked with Arizona during spring training in 2014, giving him the opportunity to play for the Diamondbacks against the Los Angeles Dodgers at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
Rowland-Smith said playing a Major League game at the historic venue was something he would never have imagined when he started on his baseball journey with the Toronto Tigers aged 12.
“It gave me goose bumps, it was a crazy experience,” he said.
“Here I am growing up in a place where baseball’s not a huge deal and you try and struggle for some sort of recognition and say ‘hey I’m doing something cool’ and then 14 years later in my career to see an iconic place like the SCG packed to watch baseball it was like my career had come full circle.”
Unfortunately less than a month later he was back in Triple-A, the level below the majors, and soon after he was a free agent again.
Stints with Triple-A affiliates for the Toronto Blue Jays and Cincinnati couldn’t lead to more Major League game time and in August 2014 he opted out of his Reds minor league deal to spend more time with his pregnant wife Amanda in Los Angeles.
The pair welcomed daughter Kennedy into the world on February 19, 2015 but a couple of months later he was off again, this time to Taiwan to play for the EDA Rhinos in the Chinese Professional Baseball League.
“I was about to sign with the Texas Rangers [in February 2015] and I said have a got a chance to make this team and they said probably not and I didn’t want to go back to Triple-A,” he said.
“I was kind of tired of doing that, taking steps back. I had the opportunity to go to Taiwan and they said come for three months see if you like it.
“It was fun, it was a good experience. Obviously the money was quite good. But I was sitting over there, I had just had a baby and I thought I’m a major league player, I need to get back, take some time to reset and get back to the big leagues.”
Rowland-Smith’s time back in Australia has allowed him to work on another skill set with the veteran pitcher providing expert comments for ESPN’s coverage of the Australian Baseball League.
But returning to ‘The Show’ is still very much the focus for Rowland-Smith, who will make his comeback from knee surgery for Australia at the World Baseball Classic qualifiers in Sydney on February 11 to 14.
After that he’s heading to Arizona to trial for a couple of Major League teams during spring training.
“It’s not the situation where I expect to jump straight into a Major League roster,” he said.
“But I expect to get back to the big league at some point if someone gives me a shot.
“The hunger’s definitely still there and if it’s not there 100 per cent then I would have to reconsider at that point.”
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