LOS ANGELES – Jim Kaat is a household name among older baseball fans after a lengthy baseball career, but among fans outside the United States, he may be just as well-known for his post-retirement work with New Zealand and the Netherlands. Kaat’s played for 25 years in the majors, and his résumé includes 283 wins and 16 Gold Gloves, tied with Brooks Robinson for second all-time. The left-hander is the only player ever to pitch during seven different presidential administrations.
Kaat currently works for MLB Network after 22 years as a broadcaster for the Yankees and Twins. He was awarded seven New York Emmys during his nine seasons with the Yankees. The now 78-year-old Kaat spent two months in New Zealand before the World Baseball Classic, working with Baseball New Zealand to offer clinics for coaches and players.
New Zealand has made surprising gains in the past decade considering the first Kiwi drafted by a major league team, Scott Campbell, only started his professional career in 2007. While several other New Zealanders had short appearances in the minors and several half-Kiwis had joined them, the national team had seen very few appearances before it was invited to play in the 2013 WBC Qualifiers.
The Diamondblacks, as they are fondly known, travelled to Chinese Taipei in November 2012 as the only globally unranked nation competing. To everyone’s surprise, New Zealand recovered from an opening loss to the hosts by beating Thailand 12-2 and the Philippines 10-6 to advance to the championship. A very deep and highly rated Taiwanese side secured qualification with a 9-0 victory, but the Kiwis were the talk of the baseball world. Four years later, New Zealand romped over the Philippines in the 2017 Qualifiers, winning 17-7 in a game shortened by the mercy rule, but lost twice to South Africa for a disappointing third place.
Before the WBC Championship game, Kaat overheard our lead writer, Gabriel Fidler, discussing baseball in New Zealand in a conversation about baseball around the globe with Fanrag Sports’ Tony DeMarco, and introduced himself. They quickly struck up a conversation about New Zealand and the Netherlands, and Gabriel asked if he would be willing to go into more detail. Kaat, who has been involved in baseball for fifty years, quickly agreed, and they spoke about his trip to New Zealand, his Dutch heritage, and much more in a far-reaching and fascinating discussion.
With New Zealand currently holding its national championship and more Kiwis than ever playing at American universities, Kaat’s visit coincides with an extraordinary period of growth for the Diamondblacks’ programme. Baseball New Zealand has actively fostered that, hosting a number of major leaguers, including Mark Melancon, to whom we also spoke, and most recently, Didi Gregorius. A fantastic documentary of the Yankees’ star shortstop’s visit is available here. A copy of the interview follows, and is also available at our Soundcloud page for those who prefer to listen.
Gabriel Fidler: I’m here with Jim Kaat and we’re going to talk a little bit about New Zealand baseball and about Jim’s time down under helping the New Zealand programme. It’s something that we’ve been following eagerly in Britain for a while, but with the man here himself, we’ll get his thoughts on it. So Jim, could you explain to us what you did while you were in New Zealand over the winter?
Jim Kaat: Certainly, I’d be happy to. It was ironic that just as I was getting a cup of coffee you mentioned you New Zealand! My wife and I were there on vacation four years ago and we loved the country—both New Zealand and Australia—and when the initiative from the Commissioner said “we want to grow the game,” I knew that New Zealand was sort of a forgotten country.
They don’t have a lot of participants, but I had met Ryan Flynn [Baseball New Zealand CEO] when I was in the States—they had a team play in the Cal Ripken 13U World Series—so we made a connection and I said, “I’m going to come over there for a couple of months and we’ll arrange some clinics.” That’s what motivated me to do it, and the fact that my wife loves to fly fish and I love to play golf, so it’s a great country to go to! I met some really passionate people, some Kiwis and some ex-pats that have moved there from the United States that have headed up programmes in Christchurch and Nelson and the surrounding areas of Auckland. So, that’s kind of what I did, I met some really nice people and a lot of talented kids.
GF: Do you have Kiwi heritage or British heritage or did you simply discover Australia and New Zealand looking for a vacation spot?
JK: Originally for a vacation spot, and then the more I delved into New Zealand—you know it’s kind of a stretch, but I’m Dutch and Abel Tasman, who is Dutch, and actually the name ‘Zealand’ was originally spelled ‘Z-e-e’—the town in Michigan that I was born and raised in is Zeeland, so I have Dutch heritage and some interest in that from that standpoint. But really, it was just because we enjoyed the country and the people and I actually was given a little bit of support from the alumni association, of which I was president of for a couple years, 30 years ago.
GF: Your university alumni association?
JK: The baseball players’ association, the MLB Alumni Association. So, my mission was to go over there, find out what the interest was, create some interest, help some kids, and then, when I get home after the World Baseball Classic, I look to write a letter that the Alumni will look to send out to out to maybe a couple hundred alumni, younger than I am, that might want to go to New Zealand because it’s the summer when it’s our winter. So if they’re stuck in the cold climate, a lot of the players these days have done very well financially and kids may have grown and they gone, so hey: go to New Zealand, have a vacation, help out the baseball programmes at the same time. What they really need—and talking to some teams in the World Baseball Classic: the Netherlands, Puerto Rico—when it started, they needed coaching and facilities. Every country starts somewhere and that’s what New Zealand needs.
NB: The MLBPAA funded the trip through the ‘Legends for Youth’ clinic series, which is explained further in the association’s press release on Kaat’s visit.
GF: You’ve been going down there for a few years now and I know that your level of involvement has changed over time; what have you noticed about Kiwi baseball as its grown in the last few years?
JK: It’s just my second time going there and this was really my first really paying attention to baseball, but the battle they have is really kids playing a lot of softball—that’s the best big sport there—but they want to play baseball. So it’s the skill level, particularly with pitching, being able to transfer from underhand to overhand and then still there’s a lot of desire from parents and organisations—they really don’t know if they want baseball there because they have good rugby, good cricket programmes, good softball programmes. But there is a nucleus of coaches and kids when I ask them [they say]: “I want to play baseball, I see the games on T.V. I know who Clayton Kershaw is.” Even though the numbers are small—the last thing I said to them when I left was, “I don’t know if it will happen in my lifetime, but there will be a Kiwi in the big leagues someday if you keep practising, because they have enough talent to do it.”
GF: Baseball New Zealand has done a really good job in only a few years in going from a fledgling organisation to an organisation that is bringing in players like Mark Melancon and this year Didi Gregorius and actually a host of other players in the past few years. Can you talk about their organisation and how Ryan Flynn is leading that and why that is causing such a quick growth in New Zealand?
JK: I think it’s Ryan’s passion, number one—Ryan Flynn, who is from Albany, N.Y.; we met last summer in upstate New York—it’s his passion, it’s a tough uphill battle and then he has John Fellett from SkyTV on the board, there’s a lot of ex-pats on the board and a lot of Kiwis and they’re not getting a lot of financial help like other sports. There are a couple coaches in Auckland, Dan Tan [for example]. Dan Tan is a young coach that coaches the amateur teams, and he actually has a programme in one of the schools there in Auckland. They’re starting to play it in school, and what I advised him to do is—and the Netherlands were just here, they have a programme called BeeBall and the playing surface is a triangle and kids play off a tee. They start when they’re six old and they keep the game moving. That’s the challenge to New Zealand is to get kids when they’re 5-6-7 years old that are interested in baseball and build from there. Right now they have several kids who are 16, 17 who have only been playing baseball for six months. So looking at it from my perspective, playing baseball as a six-year old kid and playing all the time, that’s what they have to overcome there. Ryan’s passion and the interested board that I met, they’re all on the right track.
GF: I’m sure you spoke to Didi while you were there—I know that your visits weren’t actually joined together, but I know that at times you were in similar places—what were his impressions of New Zealand on his first trip down there?
JK: Well it’s interesting that you mention that, because I know Curtis Granderson has been there, Didi has been there, Mark Melancon—who I spoke with because he’s here in Los Angeles at the World Baseball Classic—I missed Didi because he injured himself and he is back in Tampa, I missed him in New Zealand when he was in Christchurch when I was in Nelson. I had hoped to see Didi this summer, I hope to see Curtis this summer. I know their experience was good, and I read the reports and they’re very enthused about it. That’s really what MLB needs to do is to find some reps like Curtis Granderson and Didi Gregorius and send them over there and they’ll attract a lot more kids than I will and they can also coach and teach as well.
NB: Curtis Granderson visited New Zealand in November 2011, putting on clinics similar to those offered by Gregorius, Melancon, and Kaat. An article in Stuff details the trip.
GF: You mentioned your Dutch heritage and I think a lot of people are aware you have that background. Have you spent time in the Netherlands—I know you’re aware of them, certainly, especially the national team—what do you know about baseball in the Netherlands, for our listeners?
JK: I did visit the Netherlands and I know from growing up in Michigan that we have a businessman named Bob Sullivan in Grand Rapids, Mich. and he took a team over every year [to the Haarlem Baseball Week] because that’s a Dutch area. Ron Fraser, who coached for years at the University of Miami, took a team over. And then I met Robert Eenhoorn when he was a backup shortstop with the Yankees and I was doing Yankee games. I think it was six years ago I went over and did a couple of clinics in Haarlem, where one of their baseball clubs is, and that’s when I saw BeeBall. Then, of course, I did the World Baseball Classic in 2009, where Kenley Jansen was a catcher. I’ve been to Netherlands and looked to the town where my paternal grandfather was born and raised in Tollet, so I’m very familiar with the interest in baseball and the way it’s grown in the Netherlands and that’s what I tell New Zealand: that’s the model for how to grow your programme.
NB: The Grand Rapids Sullivans, for whom Kaat played before he went pro, attended the Haarlem Baseball Week 12 times starting in 1963, winning the event five times.
GF: The talk in the last World Baseball Classic was ‘Wow, the Netherlands can play baseball, no one knew this!’. Of course, as Europeans we knew that the Netherlands had been playing baseball for a long time, but this tournament no one is surprised about how good they are. They have, as it were, arrived. What are your thoughts on that journey over the last four years and the impression that is left in Latin and American fans’ minds?
JK: I think in talking to Hensley Meulens, who is the hitting coach for the Giants and been [the Netherlands’] manager, where it really got a boost was that he organises Curaçao Baseball Week, where kids like Jurickson Profar and Didi and all these kids started when they were kids going to that week. They have an academy there now and so Hensley and some of the former players like Andruw Jones and that’s all it takes—in New Zealand, there’s a basketball player in the NBA, Steven Adams, and when I was there, I kind of kiddingly said, ‘I want to find the Yao Ming of baseball’—but if they ever get a star like an Andruw Jones, or like Hensley, who was the first star to go to the big leagues from Curaçao, then that’s all it takes. The Dominican Republic started back in the 50s with Ozzie Virgil, Puerto Rico the big star was Roberto Clemente, Venezuela had Chico Carrasquel, Luis Aparicio, so every country had to start somewhere.
NB: The Curaçao Baseball Week was started in 2013 to promote baseball on the island, develop local talent, and raise funds for the sport. The MLBPAA offered another ‘Legends for Youth’ event as part of the CBW.
GF: We really appreciate your time. Thank you for talking about the New Zealand and the Netherlands with us and enjoy tonight’s world championship!
JK: Thank you, it was a pleasure running into you and being able to talk about this!
GF: Thank you!
Melancon on New Zealand and Role as MLB Ambassador
Jansen on Baseball in Curaçao: “I Never Stop Helping”
“It Means a Lot”: Balentien and Profar on WBC
Dave Winfield on ‘Pride and Dignity’ of the WBC