Australia is not a nation that is synonymous with baseball but with the World Baseball Classic held in Japan in March, Australian baseballer Aaron Whitefield will have the opportunity to don the green and gold for the second time and savour the rare opportunity to represent his country.
Whitefield didn’t take up the sport until he was 18 years old and now at 26 is one of the most successful players in Australian history. Making it to the big leagues on two occasions, he is just one of 35 other Australians to play in the MLB.
After COVID disrupted his first stint in the majors, Whitefield spent time in Australia playing in the Australian Baseball League (ABL) to develop his game but credits his first World Baseball Classic (WBC) appearance at the age of 19 helping pave the way for his success.
“Anytime I get to put on the Australian jersey and get to represent my home, my family, and where I grew up I feel like it is a huge achievement for me. It is exciting to show the world what us Aussies are about,” Whitefield told The Inner Sanctum.
“I didn’t start playing until I was around 18 years old and the success that I have had comes from the people who have been around me, my family, friends, and the guys within the Australian team, especially from the first WBC that have helped me get to the level I am today.”
The lessons from that team have also allowed Whitefield to understand what wearing the green and gold means and how important it is to pass on his knowledge to the newest members of team Australia, most of whom he has played with in the ABL.
“I look forward to playing with all the Aussie guys, I love playing for my country and going back (to play) whenever I get the opportunity so that kids can see. I know some guys don’t do it but I think it is a fantastic opportunity to put on the jersey with all the boys I came up playing with,” he added.
The last WBC held in 2017 was early in Whitefield’s career and provided a chance to experience the game at the highest level and learn from some of Australia’s most experienced players. Whitefield has always tried to replicate this with his time in the ABL and pass on his knowledge as a way of giving back to the sport.
“Not everything in baseball is physical and I found I learned a lot talking to older guys on the bench, even if I wasn’t playing I was trying to pick some guy’s ears so I love when I get to speak with the younger guys telling them what helped me so they can take it to their career and hopefully help them later down the track.”
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Fast forward to 2022 and Whitefield was playing within the Los Angeles Angels system, where he spent time with their minor league team the Rocket City Trash Pandas. It was at the Trash Pandas that Whitefield made changes to his batting process which saw him earn a hit in 23 of his 24 plate appearances.
His aggression at the plate made him a crowd favourite in Rocket City and he was soon called up to the Angels whilst on a 16-game hitting streak, the longest in Trash Panda franchise history.
“I changed my mental side because late in games I was giving up a lot of at-bats, I started going in with a confident mindset thinking of each at-bat as one more chance to get a hit, and a lot of that streak came down to my last at-bat and because of my mindset I was able to get some of those hits out late,” he said.
“Towards the end, (of the streak) you could tell the crowd knew what was going on because they would ooh and aah if I just missed out on a pitch. It was fun, people were behind it and for me, it was just about trying to be consistent every day not just for the streak but for the rest of my career.”
The call-up to the Angels was a huge achievement for Whitefield and one that has provided him with valuable lessons about playing in front of huge crowds.
Playing with the Angels, Whitefield has the opportunity to play with two of the game’s biggest names. Whitefield’s fellow outfielder Mike Trout and the once-in-a-lifetime talent, Japanese native Shohei Ohtani both of whom pack out stadiums regularly.
“Having those two guys on the team (Trout, Ohtani) a lot of people like to come out and watch Angels games and it can be tough to communicate with your fellow outfielders when the fans are all screaming,” Whitefield described.
“Doing outfield stuff with Trouty I learned a lot of things about what can happen at a big league game, it is so much louder at that level, so I know the things to watch out for and it’s not as big of a surprise once you are in a big situation in a game.”
As Whitefield explained sharing the field in Anaheim with the pair will allow him to prepare the rest of the Australian team for the noise that will come when they play against Ohtani and his Japanese teammates in the WBC. Crowds are expected to be out in full force to cheer on Ohtani who is the biggest sports star in the country at the moment.
“I think the atmosphere is going to be crazy with all the Japanese fans getting to see Ohtani back on home soil, which will be fun for them and also make it fun for us the ABL have some good crowds but these guys put on a show when it comes to crowd noise.”
In the true Australian spirit Whitefield has taken the opportunity whilst at spring training with Ohtani sledging him about going head to head with each other when the two countries face off in round one of the WBC.
“I have been telling him that he better not pitch that game because we are going to put ten runs on, so he better get out early. He and his translator just laughed at me but it will be really fun to see them over there, it will provide some really memorable moments for our guys in their careers getting to play for their country in a stadium with a crowd like that.
It is also that Aussie sense of humour that Whitefield says makes the team experience different and a lot more fun when playing with a team full of like-minded people.
“It’s a whole lot of fun to play on the same team together with a whole team of Aussies, we all know the same culture, the same jokes and we all muck around the same. Hopefully, we can go out and win a couple games.”
With the tournament being played in Japan the time zone is much friendlier for Australians to tune in and watch a game and that is something that Whitefield is hopeful will help bring awareness to the sport back in Australia and help it grow.
“I hope people turn on the TV and can see there is so much opportunity in baseball, hopefully, some kids see that we are playing on TV and get the itch to play because it is a great lifestyle and you get to travel the world,” he said.
“I hope we go all the way it will make the memories even better but we will take one game at a time and just enjoy every moment and play every innings, if we win and move on it just makes it better.”
Australia will face two big names in Japan and South Korea in the first stages of the tournament and also play against the Czech Republic and China. If they finish in the top two of the group they could go forward to the second stage for the first time in history.
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