Aussie hurlers link up with Kernels
29 June 2016
Throwing a stunning first-up win with Class A Cedar Rapids Kernels after being promoted from Rookie Ball last week, Novocastrian southpaw Lachlan Wells has joined forces with Geelong right-armer Sam Gibbons – who is now in his fifth season of professional baseball with the Minnesota Twins organisation.
While Gibbons has the edge in age, height and professional experience after signing with the Twins five years ago, both players are among the brighter pitching prospects that Australian baseball has produced in recent times and who can be looked upon as potential national representatives well into the future - regardless of how far professional baseball may take them in the meantime.
Australian Baseball Alumni caught up with Sam Gibbons earlier this week.
A product of the Geelong Baycats baseball programme, Sam Gibbons represented Victoria and was scouted at Under 14, Under 16 and Under 18 level – albeit with somewhat less of the fanfare and exposure than others of his vintage.
His potential, his attitude and his projectable talent clearly struck a chord with legendary Minnesota scout Howie Norsetter, who inked a seven-year deal with the then seventeen year-old in July 2011.
Contracted in professional baseball with an iconic organisation renowned for its commitment to give youngsters every opportunity to forge a career, Gibbons is now playing his fifth season – his second with Cedar Rapids Kernels after three stellar years in Rookie League.
It has already been a baseball odyssey for the 22 year-old Australian.
“It's crazy to think that I signed so long ago,” Sam Gibbons told Australian Baseball Alumni this week. “So much has happened in that time.”
“I mean, I was still in high school finishing my secondary studies when I signed - and now I'm in my fifth year of pro baseball in America.”
“As an 18 year-old coming over for my first year I really did not know what to expect and it was pretty daunting, as you would expect,” he said. “But once I had settled in and learned the ropes from other Aussies it became easier to concentrate on what I was there for – to play baseball.”
Five years on there has been a raft of changes – accompanied by physical and emotional growth – as Gibbons has progressed from the relatively benign demands of Rookie Ball to a far more challenging assignment at Class A full season.
“Playing my first few years there wasn’t much travel – apart from going home to Geelong,” he said. “We’d play Rookie Ball during the day and always be back at night in our own beds – well, at least in a hotel that we called home.”
“Now – in the Midwest League – the travel is pretty tough, but it is part of the whole package, I guess. The physical demands are a challenge, though it is largely a mental game that requires plenty of adjustment. You just have to keep yourself occupied on the long bus rides and learn to sleep in any position at a click of the finger.”
“When I look back, one thing that took me time to get used to early on was being away from home,” he said. “There is probably nothing unique about that. You have your good and your bad days, but I always knew that I could call my family and my friends for their support.”
Promoted to Class A Cedar Rapids in 2015 – after three years in Gulf Coast League – Gibbons had a breakout season that saw him card a 7-4 record over fifteen starts for a 2.89 ERA, along the way twice being named Pitcher of the Week in the Midwest League.
Early in this current season he has been used in fairly short spells, starting in just five of seventeen games while clocking two wins and three losses for an eminently solid ERA.
“Last season with the Kernels was something I will always remember. It was so much fun pitching in the playoffs and made it all worthwhile after such a long season,” Gibbons recalled.
“Unfortunately we weren't able to win, but there's so much I took away from it.”
“2016 so far has had its bumps. I was starting in the beginning and was moved into a relief role, but I feel as if I've embraced it and kinda taken to it,” he said. “I've really enjoyed moving into the pen - whether it's been as a long relief or coming in for an inning.”
“You have to be ready to make improvements and adjustments. That's what they look for.”
“My preference would be to start,” he said. “I like having the control of a game and really being able to pitch deep in to it. The plan was to get back into the rotation, but as it stands I'm happy with how my season is going.”
Midwest League offers a physically demanding assignment of around 140 games – requiring a full-on commitment with heaps of travel on a regular basis and provision of limited opportunities for recreational time.
“I don't think some people realise how long it actually is,” Gibbons said. “The 140 game season is tough and as you climb through the levels that number only increases.”
“We usually get around two or three days off a month. In that time I use it to rest – as far as I can. I usually watch a movie or go to the mall. I stay away from the field and baseball as much as I can. Here in Cedar Rapids we're quite lucky to have a host parent program where we all get split up with a teammate and put into a family. Not many affiliates have this set up, so we really are fortunate.”
“You have to be able to turn your mind off, too,” he said. “It's hard at times, but the biggest thing for me after a game - whether it was a good or bad game – is trying to forget about it as soon as possible. And anyone who knows me knows that’s easier said than done!”
“We usually report around four hours before the game. We'll have stretch and conditioning, BP and lift. There's always something to do, so there is not a lot of downtime at all at this level.”
Just last week Lachlan Wells was sent to Cedar Rapids, a relatively rapid promotion after an outstanding 2015 season in Rookie Ball. While he has known – and known of - the Wells twins for several years, Sam Gibbons was reticent on offering assistance to the younger man about making the transition to Class A full season, both on the standard of play and the demands placed on players.
“There’s not much advice I can really give Lachlan that he hasn’t already heard,” Gibbons said. “He’s taken a similar path to Lewis Thorpe in that they both played a great season in Gulf Coast League and were promoted to Low A around the All-Star break.”
“His first-up win with the Kernels tells me that he will do fine. Once he gets out there a few times, witnesses the standard for himself and the nerves settle down he won’t have a problem.”
“Baseball is still really the same sport at each level,” he said. “Sometimes I think it is made harder by the expectations and the pressure you can put on yourself.”
Now on the same team, Gibbons and Wells will have ample opportunity to compare notes and to share their characteristically Australian interest in sport, family and other matters back home, although the frenetic schedule does not allow much interchange with other Aussies playing professionally in United States.
“We don't really have much time to hook up with each other at different organisations – especially when players are scattered right across the country,” Gibbons said.
“Sometimes our paths might cross, which they have a couple of times this year. Earlier in the season and again during the All-Star break I was able to catch up with Andrew Graham - who's managing the White Caps. I also caught up with Sam Holland (Los Angeles Burlington Bees) a couple of weeks ago.”
“It's always good to have a chat with a familiar face, and to hear the accent again,” he said.
Over the course of his professional career Sam Gibbons has enjoyed consistent game time with Melbourne Aces and he has been regularly selected on national squads – including All Star teams and the successful World Baseball Classic Qualifier group. While his focus is quite naturally on progression through professional ranks, we can expect to see him continue suiting up at Australian Baseball League and international level – the latter an honour and a privilege that is embraced by so many of our elite players.
“The Twins seem happy to have me spend some time in the ABL and to represent Australia if I am offered the opportunity,” he said. “I believe that they promote that, as part of a player’s development.”
“I'll always make myself available for national selection and I would certainly love to be on the World Baseball Classic squad for next year. There is no better feeling than putting that jersey on and knowing you aren't just playing for an organisation or for yourself, but you're playing for your country.”
“It is hard not to think about national team opportunities and look at situations where you might be able to represent your country,” he said. “And I know some people talk about 2019 Premier 12 and maybe 2020 Olympics, if Australia happened to qualify, but that is a long way off for me.”
“Right now I am just focusing on the rest of my season with the Twins and making sure that I finish as strong as I can.”
An unassuming and personable young man who has never forgotten where his baseball journey began, Sam Gibbons has retained an abiding appreciation of the interest shown in his professional career by the Australian baseball fraternity.
“I am just so blown away with the support shown by everyone back home - especially in the baseball family,” he said. “It's beyond crazy how many people listen to and watch my games.”
“I think they get a kick out of us here succeeding. I mean, this game we're all so passionate about is a minority sport back home. It's making great leaps forward but it's nowhere near as big as your cricket, NRL or AFL. Yet it's beyond belief how many people are keeping up – not just with me, but with all of the Aussies over here.”
“The support is really appreciated,” he said. “It makes us feel good - as players - to know that people back home are proud of what we are doing, and trying to do.”
Australian Baseball Alumni extends its thanks to Sam Gibbons for his assistance in the preparation of this story. We wish him every success for the current season and for his future, both in professional ball and as an Australian national representative.
Sam Gibbons in action for the Kernels
With Melbourne Aces in 2015/16 season
Sam Gibbons and Lachlan Wells at Cedar Rapids