No one has to remind Ryan Rowland-Smith how far he has come from his days of watching major-league baseball on videocassettes in his native...
PEORIA, Ariz. — No one has to remind Ryan Rowland-Smith how far he has come from his days of watching major-league baseball on videocassettes in his native Australia.
The country had no television coverage of non-Aussie sports when the second-year Mariners pitcher was growing up. So, a friend’s father dropped off tapes of the 1992 and 1993 World Series for Rowland-Smith, who watched them for hours, glove in hand, as he dreamed of a life playing in America.
He’d ignore subtle jabs from neighborhood pals pressuring him to play rugby and cricket, or surf the waves near his home in Newcastle, on the country’s south coast. He endured four-hour round-trip car rides to Sydney three times per week to find serious baseball competition.
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Most of all, Rowland-Smith learned to tame creeping self-doubt. Could someone living so far from where most baseball is played make a living at its highest level?
So, no, Rowland-Smith doesn’t need a reminder of where he has been. But if he did, he’d get an earful from a support group that includes a celebrity-fitness guru father, a professional surfer sister he calls “the best athlete in our family,” and a determined gym teacher mother who made certain her son had the best chance to succeed.
“You really had to work to be the best in our family when it came to anything sports-related,” said Rowland-Smith, 25, a surprise pitching success story in long relief for the Mariners last season. “We could all hold our own.
“My grandfather was Australia’s minister for sport and recreation, so he was pretty well-known by everyone.”
Baseball was an odd choice for an athlete in Australia.
“He’s always had a passion, ever since he was little, for sports in the U.S.,” said his father, Rob, in a phone interview from Sydney. Rob is a celebrity sports trainer known throughout Australia as The Sandhill Warrior. “He loves ice hockey, so I got him a stick. He loved the NFL, so I bought him a St. Louis Cardinals helmet and jersey.”
But young Ryan’s baseball hunger wasn’t going to be satiated by team merchandise alone.
He began playing at age 12 after tagging along with his older sisters, Rhiannon and Stefanie, to a weekend softball event. Someone later invited him to play at a state baseball tournament.
Rowland-Smith could pick up any sport quickly.
At age 4, his soccer teammates simply fed him the ball and watched him dribble past the opposing team to score.
“I have no doubt he’d have succeeded at any sport he wanted to,” his father said. “If it was rugby, he’d be a First Grade player — which is our highest level. If he’d gotten serious about surfing, he would have been a professional surfer like his sister. He was always a great athlete.”
Rowland-Smith’s father is to workouts in Australia what Steve Irwin was to crocodiles. There’s a chapter on him in “The Surfing Encyclopedia” for introducing fitness training in the sport. He runs an outdoor training compound dubbed “Muscle Beach” in his backyard, with a 30-foot rope, chin-up bars, a dumbbell station and a boxing area atop 65 tons of sand.
World surfing champion Kelly Slater, Olympic gold-medalist swimmer Brooke Hanson and professional rugby players train there while AC/DC tunes blast from speakers.
Rowland-Smith’s dad is also recognized in California and Hawaii, thanks to a recurring regular role on MTV’s “Surf Girls” reality television show.
“I remember walking into the locker room in Wisconsin,” Rowland-Smith said of his days with Seattle’s Class A affiliate, “and all the guys would go ‘Hey, I saw your dad on TV!’ “
The 6-foot-3, 240-pound Rowland-Smith still occasionally trains at his father’s home. But for all of his expertise, Rowland-Smith says his dad’s biggest impact has been motivational rather than physical.
His parents divorced when he was 3, and he moved two hours north with his mother and sisters, limiting how much impact his father had on his sports career. Instead, the women in his life were crucial.
His sisters could beat him in sports and kept him competitive when he’d dominate the smaller boys his age. During visits to the popular surfing hangout of Catherine Hill Bay, his eldest sister, Rhiannon, a star field-hockey player and future pro surfer four years his senior, would navigate the 8-foot waves without fear.
“My sister was crazy,” said Rowland-Smith. “She’d go into any size waves. I was always a bit, sort of timid. I remember driving over that hill and hoping the surf was going to be small, and she’d be like, ‘I hope it’s big, I hope it’s big.’ “
They bonded in those waves. His sister counseled him on everything from girls to avoiding steroids — a subject she wrote a thesis paper on.
But Rowland-Smith most credits his mother, Julie White, for helping him reach the majors. She spent years raising her children and shuttling them to sporting events on her own.
She encouraged her son to follow his baseball dream when there weren’t enough players around to field a proper team, or when others scoffed at his passion for a sport few understood.
“You’d be shocked at how little known baseball is around here,” White said in a phone interview from Newcastle. White was a longtime high-school physical-education teacher and sports coach before retiring last week.
Rowland-Smith wanted to be a catcher, but figured out by scouring through baseball cards that left-handed catchers didn’t exist in the majors. He became a power-hitting first baseman instead, then switched to pitching.
When Rowland-Smith had a chance to play baseball at the New South Wales State Institute of Sport, his mother made the four-hour, round-trip drive to Sydney three times per week.
She also nursed his ego through the times he was cut by an under-14 state baseball team and, later on, an under-19 national team.
“A lot of it was politics,” she said. “It was hard on him.”
Rowland-Smith could have lost his enthusiasm for baseball. But he already had been scouted by pro teams and his mother urged him to stay positive. In November 2000, Mariners scout Barry Holland offered him his first contract.
Advice from both parents has helped Rowland-Smith through his career.
His father, ever in the public eye, counsels him on how to treat others.
“I talk to him about his humility, keeping his feet on the ground,” his father said. “I told him to remember the support staff of the Mariners, the people back home who helped get him where he is.”
His mother reminds Rowland-Smith about “the underdog spirit” of the Australian people. “You just have to keep at it, keep at it, keep at it,” she’d tell him in tough times. “And all of these other flash-in-the pan people will drop by the wayside.”
Rowland-Smith kept at it, winning a silver medal pitching for Australia at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. He was called up by the Mariners last May, launching his career with a strikeout of Ken Griffey Jr.
Back when Rowland-Smith was still watching baseball games on tape in Australia, having graduated to recording them off an obscure sports channel in the middle of the night, Griffey was one of his first heroes. Now, the player he had idolized from a half-world away had gone down swinging.
The Mariners aren’t sure what comes next. Rowland-Smith could be throwing long relief this season, or heading back to Class AAA to work on his development as a starter.
But no matter what happens, he’ll always have that Griffey moment. The end of a journey monitored by his family from afar.
“I’d made it,” he said.
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or firstname.lastname@example.org