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Playing in the Major League with Justin Erasmus

Justin Erasmus is a four time ABL premiership winner with the Brisbane Bandits, former Red Sox Pitcher, South African and Australian World Cup representative and PlayBook Coach. We chatted to Justin about what it was like playing in the Major League Baseball in America, what makes the Brisbane Bandits so successful and what it’s like growing up in a family of Baseball coaches.

The early days..

How did you start out playing Baseball?

My Dad was involved, he was a coach, my mum was a scorer, my Granddad was a coach. My brothers played, pretty much every Saturday morning, Dad would take us to the Baseball field and I just started off loving it from a young age of 4.

Did you start out playing in South Africa? I was born in South Africa, started playing Baseball at the age of four and then moved to Australia at the age of 7 and I have been in Australia ever since.

What do you remember about your first ever game of Baseball? My first ever game, was a game of T-Ball and back in the day the pitcher had to wear a helmet for protection. I was the smallest kid on the field and playing with guys that were 3 years older than me. There was a photo of me which had made it into the newspaper, the ball was hit completely past me and I didn’t have a helmet on. So my first memory is pretending that I could actually play in the same age as the other guys, but at the same time realising I had to do whatever I needed to do to get by.

Transitioning to elite sport and the Major League Baseball

Going from an amateur to an elite athlete playing in the Major League Baseball, what was that transition like? You go from being this big fish in a small pond, to a tadpole in the ocean. Playing in Australia where there isn’t much Basbeball and then going overseas there is over 100 people fighting for the same position you are in. They are bigger, stronger and they are faster. Being in Australia, you get taught to have mongrel from a young age, it helps you get a long and work harder than them. There were so many people from around the world, that are the same age as you and just a lot better.

Going to America and becoming a professional Baseballer, was that a daunting experience for you? I don’t think it was daunting. I was excited and overwhelmed, I never thought I would go to America and play in the Major League Baseball, so when I got the call the Boston Red Sox wanted to signed me I said ‘Yes’ straight away. I jumped at the opportunity. I wanted to leave school and get over there and enjoy the experience because that was my dream to play professional Baseball.

You represented your home country of South Africa, playing on the international stage at the age of 19. Playing in front of 35,000 people and pitching to the big leagues. How did you handle that pressure at such a young age?

I don’t know! I was nervous, there was 35,000 people. I was in Mexico City, pitching against Mexico. I couldn’t even think, there were so many people, there was drums being played. All I could do was just throw and hope I had a good outcome. I still look back on it now and I get chills, just thinking about playing at that level and representing South Africa.

Representing Australia

You made a decision to represent Australia. Was that a tough decision to make?

For me, it was a no-brainer. I live in Australia, I have had my whole Baseball career in Australia, I have represented Australia at a junior level and when I got that phone call to represent Australia, I was blown away. For me, it felt like the big leagues, it was where I wanted to be in my career and I just wanted to represent my country as best as I could.

Tell us about that phone call… I had a really good season in 2011, there was a World Cup in Panama. The person who called me was also the Head Coach, Jon Deeble. He said “You’ve had a great year, we want to put you into the Australian team.” My reaction was “Are you sure?” Pretty much second guessing why he would want to put me in the team. I then asked “When do I fly out?” About 10 minutes later, once it sunk in I called Mum and Dad. They were on the next flight, wanting to know when they could come and watch me play for Australia.

How did your Dad get involved in Baseball? Through the family, Grandpa was Coach and then his Dad was a Coach. It has just been in our blood since we can remember. Dad represented South Africa in both Baseball and Softball and got to travel the world. He wanted to get me into something he had a lot of success in and something he loved. I loved it and followed in his footsteps and have pretty much done the same thing.

Influential Coaches and Mentors

Who was the coach who influenced you the most as a junior player? As a junior Luke Prokopec, was the coach who influenced me the most. He signed as a catcher, moved to a centre field and ended up being a pitcher signed with the Dodgers. He was 5ft 9, he just worked really hard.

He took me under his wing, and taught me that if I wanted to make it I had to work twice as hard as everyone else. Whatever anyone else did, he made sure that I did more.

For some reason, he just clicked with me and everything he said to me worked. I trusted him and he gave me a lot of opportunities, that other coaches never gave me. He is the biggest influence in my Baseball career.

Have you had mentors along the way? Definitely! Not just older players who have played in the Major League, but also players that I have played with. Especially, being in the Minor League system you are 1 of 2 Australians in the squad. You tend to hang off guys who are higher up, that are further along in their careers, you form a good friendship with them and talk about some of the struggles you are having and they’re having. Making friends with people that are older than you and have been through the hard times. They explain how you can navigate through it. Not just coaching wise, I had David Nillson, who played in the Big Leagues for a long time, he was an All-Star Catcher, and having him coach me is one of the greatest experiences to have as a player.

I think the biggest help that I have had is just with other players alongside me, who are going through the same journey as me, or if they are further along than me or people that have had the journey and are just trying to help out.

Is that something that is specific to Baseball, you are prepared to help your mate out?

For us, it isn’t about who is better than who, but how we can perform together to win. It is dog eat dog in America, because if you are better than me you go up. It is about having the support around you, and not people who just put you down.It gives you more of a drive to be better than the person next to you. If it came down to it at the end of the day, it is mate versus mate, at the end of the day you are supporting your mate, but you also want the best for yourself. That’s just how it is, one day you could be on top of your game and the next you get a phone call saying your career is done.

Along your sporting journey, have you had any one on one coaching for yourself?

I have had one on one coaching with pitching and little tips along the way. Definitely, not as much as I would of liked, it was mainly in a group situation. In Baseball, you get to throw in the Bull Pen and maybe get 5-10 minutes one on one time. I’ve had a lot of one on ones, but nothing in depth, nothing that goes for an hour, or on a weekly basis. It has just been five minutes here and there and then you go on your own and try and implement it.

Do you think having a one on one coach could of had a different outcome on your career?

Definitely! I honestly feel that if I had a lot more one on one coaching and if I had someone who could help me out along the way, not just in regards to pitching, but the knowledge of the game. Things like how to recover, how to get in the best shape to perform. I think that would of helped me a lot. You have someone who knows whats best for you as a person, but knows what’s best for you mechanically, physically and mentally. If I had that one on one help for a lengthy period of time, I think I would have been better and stronger.

Team culture

The Brisbane Bandits have just made it four premierships in a row. Why do you think the team has been so successful?

Honestly it is just a good, fun culture. Everyone from the top of the organisation, from our general manager down to anybody that works for us, that has come to our games and the players. We are all just one big family. I know a lot of people say that, but we are. We are the only team in the league that lets fans come onto the field, every single game. Regardless, if we have won by one run or lose by 15, it doesn’t mater. The boys from the time the game is over and until we get into the change rooms they are all smiles. We get into the change room it is almost like nothing has happening. Win or lose! It doesn’t feel like anything negative, we all warm up together. We have been around each other for so long we have created a very good culture and it is all about having fun and playing for your best mate beside you, instead of being an individual.

Has that been something that was instilled a long time ago and it has just grown, or was it only when you have won the premierships? When the Bandits first started nine years ago, we were all young. We had the older guys, who had their culture, so we had to fit in with their culture and learned off them.

As we started to get a little bit older, we started to develop our own culture. The biggest thing we noticed was to have more fun and actually play for each other, not worry about individual statistics or individual accolades. Just play as hard as you can for each other and be open and honest with each other.

It is difficult to explain, but they are your best mates. You grow up playing with each other, now you are at the top of your sport in Australia and all you want to do is win premierships. You don’t win unless you have a positive culture and I think we have done a very good job. In the last four years, we have been very grateful to have a few Americans come over and a couple of Major League Baseballers, not only Australian, but American and we have a German. They have bought into our culture and have helped us out. Everyone that has come along for the ride, has bought into the culture and love their time with the Bandits.

Becoming a coach…

You are now also a coach, tell us why you decided to coach?

One of the things for me is that I have been lucky to have a fortunate career. I have been able to travel the world and when I was younger I never had that one on one personal coaching. With Baseball in Australia it is only getting bigger and better at the top and we grant to grow it. For me, I want to give players a better chance to have a successful career, being signed to a professional contract is amazing but going to college where you can play Baseball professionally and also get an education all paid for, is happening more and more. I just want to give kids an opportunity to be at the top of their game and get the coaching at a younger age that I never had, because I believe it can kickstart their career.

Is that across the board, do other Baseball players want to give back?

During the ABL season, it is tough. But the culture is the same. We want to give back to kids and teach them the basics that you don’t get taught in Australia, to give the life lessons or the guidance from what Major League clubs are doing in America and bring that to Australian kids so they are going to be on that level playing field by the time they get over there and have a successful career.

You are really passionate about growing Baseball in Australia. What are some foundation skills that kids need to give it a go?

Everyone throws rocks or toys when they are younger. Be open-minded, be willing to try something that has been considered one of the most difficult sports in the world. You are hitting a round ball with a round bat. It is extremely difficult, but that’s what makes it so good. The technique is very simple, you never stop learning about the game or how to improve yourself. If you come with a good attitude, you are super energetic and willing to learn then that is all you need.

Train with Justin Erasmus