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Lord of the Diamond

Alexander Bisley



Stop worrying about rugby. I know we lost the Rugby World Cup in a crap effort last year. I know we haven’t won it since 1987. But – besides slowly becoming desensitised to the pain and disappointment – I’m over the national obsession (and endless hand-wringing) with the All Blacks. I have a team – we have a team – of undisputed world champions. Champions of a major sport played by hundreds of thousands of people in more than 150 countries. They’ve convincingly won the World Championship, held every four years, three times. The two times before that they came second; the time before that they won. They destroy oppositions that earn mega bucks. They don’t earn a bean for their troubles; they do it because it’s their passion and they love it. They waste the Aussies every time they play them and are incomparably better than the South Africans! Basically, during the last twelve years, they’ve socked it to everyone. I’m talking – of course – of the Black Sox, our national softball team. Why not join me and convert to softball?
Sure, I still love it when the All Blacks play at their best. But why not acknowledge the other considerable achievements of New Zealand sportspeople. There is more sport in Heaven and Earth than rugby, league, cricket and netball. Softball for starters.
My informal, unscientific research has shown that many people don’t have the foggiest who Jarrad Martin is. He should be a household name. He is the captain of the Black Sox. He is a great player and leader. He is an old-school sportsman: hard-working and direct; generous and with a sense of community; down-to-earth and unpretentious; upbeat and friendly. In two words: maximum mana.
Martin is Maori, his tribe is Ngati Mutunga (a sub-tribe of Te Atiawa). The big hitter who plays first base has represented New Zealand 116 times. He debuted for New Zealand in 1991, aged only 17, versus Australia. He’d recently moved to Wellington from Waitara in Taranaki, where he grew up, to further his softball career.
He became captain in 2001. Filling the shoes of the legendary Mark Sorenson was a real challenge, but he’s succeeded. On Sunday February 8, in Christchurch, Martin’s Black Sox convincingly beat the Canadians 9-5 to win the 2004 World Softball Championship. With ten runs, Martin was the tournament’s third highest scorer.
Martin says it was the sweetest of the three consecutive world cup victories. It was special winning – for the first time – on home soil, with the support and expectations of the fans. “It was a great experience. We’re a team that plays through adversity quite well. We had a lot of things happen [such as serious injuries] throughout the whole pre- tournament build-up. Just to come through with flying colours is something I’ll remember for a lifetime.
“It’s been a long process. We’ve had twelve years to work at it… Winning the third one at home is a pretty amazing feat.” Helen Clark turned up and threw the first pitch of the tournament. “I thought she did pretty well.”
Training for the tournament was hard-out. “Not going to give our secrets away are you?” he laughs, before telling me of intense practise sessions, particularly gym work focussing on speed and power.
Martin cites Sorenson, All Black captain Buck Shelford and Hurricanes Captain Tana Umaga as major influences on his captaincy. One can see similarities. Martin says that, like Umaga, his style of leadership is to show by doing rather than saying, keeping the vocal side of things to a minimum. “It’s about leading on the field.”
Martin, NZ Softball Player of the Year in 1996 and 1999, was awarded New Zealand Maori Sportsman of the Year in 1999. “That represented a whole lot of things eh. Mostly my family and my roots. It was a surprising award, I was sort of thrown in there at the last minute and then I was awarded the award. I regret not being prepared to win that. I was just nervous and blown out of the water that it happened. There were a lot of people I didn’t acknowledge and so if I get I chance I’d like to acknowledge all these people now: players, coaches, especially my mother and father. That was a great honour.”
Softball is a proud family tradition; it’s why he got into the game. “Originally it was because my dad used to play, eh. When I was a kid I lived at the ball park. All my mates played cricket, I wanted to play cricket, but Dad persisted by taking me. All my uncles played, my mother played, and it was like obviously I’ve got to follow in their footprints, keep up the family tradition. It just sort of happened from there.
“As a young kid, as you do, I had dreams and aspirations to be a good player, but unbeknown that you were going to captain your country, that’s something else… I’ve done a lot of hard work over the years. I’ve probably been fortunate I’ve been in the right place at the right time, like a lot of guys. But also, like I say, the hard work I’ve put in has paid off. Now it’s a matter of deciding what happens next?”
The Canadians, who behaved in a rather unsporting manner throughout the tournament, are suffering chronic sour grapes on being socked for the third time. They ludicrously accused NZ of cheating. The International Softball Federation’s board investigated. They totally cleared NZ – who came up smelling of roses – but the whole incident put a dampener on things. “It kinda took all the spotlight off our victory. It was hard to think what was the NZ public thinking [about it]? They were probably thinking ‘maybe they did cheat.’ It really was a bit of a disappointment… But, nothing come up. We were confirmed as champions. The only thing we were waiting for was the drug testing results to come back in. We thought if this can happen something else may happen.”
The drug tests came through with flying colours, Martin laughs. “The two or three that were drug tested had a lot of medical treatment done on themselves in the previous two weeks. So it was like “Aw.” We’re pretty cautious about the stuff we take, and lucky that we don’t take illegal substances.”
The Canadians still can’t get over losing. Now, they’re trying to claim they are perfectly happy with coming second as they were playing out of season. As Martin rightly points out – NZ was playing out of season in the previous two championships and it didn’t make any difference. The very lucratively paid Canadians are embarassingly, shamelessly scrabbling for excuses as to why they were well-beaten by a much better team of non-professionals. (Martin, for example, makes his living as an electrician). Martin says the Canadians, like the Americans – who put in an even poorer showing, are “overrated and overpaid.”
True to Maori tradition, Martin sees his whanau as “the most important thing.” They still live in Waitara; he may well go back some day. “There’s been a lot of things happen up there in the past. I think the town’s doing OK now. They’re opening up the freezing works again, that’s another seventy to a hundred jobs.”
Being from a sporting family, sport was always Martin’s passion. He represented Taranaki at golf – which remains in his master plan – and rugby, playing second five-eights and centre for his High School First XV. “I liked getting in among the rough and tumble.”
Martin’s life has not been without its difficulties, illness in 1993 effectively put an end to rugby. “Rugby, that was another love of mine. I had an illness which [meant] I had to have a heart valve replaced [in ‘93]. And then because of that I wasn’t allowed to play… rugby anymore.” He visited a cardiologist a couple of weeks ago. “Everything’s alright. Touch wood.”
The Black Sox have a strong Fellowship. “We’ve been involved with each other probably the best part of ten years… The camaraderie is second to none. We have a few problems, we are able to sort them out like grown men. That’s the beauty about this team. We have the trust instilled in each other. We respect each other’s decisions.”
Martin enthuses about The Lord of the Rings and its Oscar™ success. Coincidentally, each member of the Black Sox – as they did after the last two championships – are getting a ring to commemorate the victory.
How does Martin see the Black Sox’s style? “I just think we’re a bunch of smooth criminals. We’re a pretty classy bunch. When you’re looking at ‘Smooth Criminal’: Michael Jackson he had some rhythm. That’s what we have. We have rhythm and a bit of character. That’s a name I think we could live by for quite some time: the Smooth Criminals.” In this interview, Martin shows himself to have a winning sense of humour; the team likes to have fun. “A winning team’s a happy team…It’s only a game…”
Martin gives props to coach Don Tricker. “He’s been a great help to a lot of our players. We’ve had good coaches beforehand like Mike Walsh. Don bought a lot of softball smarts and life skills to the team…the actual culture of the team comes into play. A lot of the guys are thankful for what he’s done for the team, and for their life skills as well…Don’s a great coach, but he’s a bit dry on the humour. You know our team, we have a lot of laughs. He probably just adds to the mix from a different perspective. He is bloody dry.”
My informal, unscientific research suggests that most people think the Black Sox should get significantly more coverage in the mainstream media. Bar the uninformed, harsh dissing a couple of journalists such as Graeme Hill have given the Black Sox, Martin is content. Martin is such a compelling subject for a profile I can’t understand why no-one whatsoever in the mainstream media has featured him. “Like I say, my sole job is to play the game. I leave the media stuff to the media. ..It’s no big deal. The more media exposure you get the bigger your head gets, some people are like that. You can’t point the finger at one or two guys. There’s a whole seventeen other players that play. Just for you to get all the glory out of it and not all the others as well is a bit tough… So I think that’s the way that softball has been covered is good…especially the World Champs, the coverage they had with newspapers and TV, that was phenomenal.”
Club softball is also very important to Martin. Five of the Black Sox, including him, are from the Poneke-Kilbirnie team. What’s his pitch to get young people to play? “I guess it’s a fun game to play. It only takes a couple of hours to play. I’m not going to stab cricket in the back, but you can stand out there [playing cricket] for a whole day and not touch a ball. You can actually have a Saturday when you play softball… It’s been a great game for me and it’s exposed me to a lot of things in life, not around just here but around the world. You gain a lot of experience from it in all respects.”
He reminds aspiring sportspeople they need to get an education. “Get a qualification behind ya. Because once your sporting career’s done, you’re not going to be a bum, but things aren’t going to work out as good as you wanted them to.”
Martin says government support for softball is “pretty good.” What about the discrepancy between the funding of softball and other sports? He remains generous. ‘I don’t know how they work all that out. Like we’ve always said, control the things you can control, that’s one thing we can’t: because softball’s softball, rugby’s rugby, cricket’s cricket. We’ve just gotta live by what we’ve given. We’ve made good headway when we’ve just worried about what we’ve got to achieve, and not what we’re gonna get. You know ‘Are we gonna get a Ford Falcon next week?’ All that’s not that important to us.”
There is something very refreshing in Martin’s for- the- love- of- it attitude. He wisely points out that though, on the plus side, professionalism “gives you no excuse [to lose],” it has its pitfalls. “I don’t know how the game would be if it turned professional. I’m sure when you look at rugby, New Zealand were the benchmark for a lot of countries…”
Martin loves being captain, but it has its downsides, for example the mental toughness required and the massive responsibilities. Though he was never a bad boy, becoming captain meant the end of “certain antics…” He’s still mulling over his future. “To play at the elite level you’ve got to do a lot of extra work. For me it takes a toll on the mind, too. You lose a lot of sleep. Cos’ you’re up early training, you’re out late at night; you don’t really have time to yourself, you don’t really have a life. But that’s something I chose to do, I wanted to be the best… Like I say you’ve got to try and have a balance, but it’s hard to find that balance because the focus is [and has to be] solely on winning the championship.”
New Zealand Softball has more than 30,000 people playing across all grades including children’s, social and premier softball. (Then there’s those who play informally). Looking at funding in the 2002/03 financial year, New Zealand Softball received $128,000 from SPARC and $696,148 from the New Zealand Academy of Sport. It is impossible to pin down exact figures, but the taxpayer and ratepayer contributed (and will probably continue to contribute) untold millions, whether they wanted to or not, to the America’s Cup. (Similarly, Wellingtonian ratepayers paid Tiger Woods tens of thousands of dollars to play golf in Paraparaumu).
In my opinion, there was something very off-putting in Team NZ’s corporate nationalism/patriotism. One convincing example: Team NZ’s eschewed local business, getting their lucky red socks made in dodgy Asian sweatshops. They then had the chutzpah to demand that everyone from Cape Reinga to the Bluff be patriotic and buy them. Plenty of well-meaning people did.
The Black Sox are as magic as our 2003 yachties – self-proclaimed black magic –were boring and hopeless. The Black Sox’s passion for the game is as appealing as the yachties in-it-for-the money performance/ manner was depressing. The Black Sox are as genuinely and authentically Kiwi as ‘Team NZ’ was a phoney corporate construct.
Helen Clark’s government’s funding for yachting can hardly be argued on utilitarian or social democratic rationale. Many more New Zealanders play softball than go sailing; rich people who come here to sail (and buy our foreshore) don’t count. Should the New Zealand government be doling out all this money to subsidise such an elitist sport?
Martin, generous and philosophical as ever, takes a different view on yachting. “I think it’s a pretty demanding sport…In terms of their [financial] support, like I say: rugby’s rugby, softball’s softball, yachting’s yachting.” Uncharacteristically, he then pauses. “They are given the opportunity to do a whole lot of things because financially they are able to, I just think that’s great for them. I support every sporting code that’s out there. Obviously, I was disappointed with the America’s Cup losing, but you can’t win ‘em all. I’m sure next time round they’ll be successful.
“Yachting’s kicked our butt a couple of times in terms of the sports awards [the Halbergs – the accolade for New Zealand’s best sports team]… I’m probably happy for Russell Coutts and Alinghi, and I hope that we might be given a chance to be able to gain that award.”
It would be a disgrace if the Black Sox didn’t win at the Halbergs early next year. “Yeah, it’s hard because obviously there’s a lot of money tied up with that, sponsorships and stuff. And you’ve got to keep people happy, in terms of your money people, your corporates. That’s probably where we missed out. [But] we got the important award, that was the world champs.”