Baseball odyssey takes Huss from Mornington to Czech Republic
2 December 2016
A ten-year baseball veteran with San Diego Padres – which included a period in self-imposed limbo – right armed pitcher John Hussey has enjoyed the highs and he has most certainly survived the lows of a chequered career that included two successful years with Melbourne Aces in the Australian Baseball League.
Still just thirty years of age, Hussey – an intelligent, articulate man with a strong work ethic - has for the past two northern seasons been plying his pitching trade and building his coaching expertise with Technika Brno, a Czech Republic Extra League club with whom he will remain contracted for at least the 2017 season.
Australian Baseball Alumni was fortunate to catch up with John Hussey and gain his insights on a spectrum of matters of interest to our own baseball community.
Starting out with Technika Brno for the thirty-game Czech Extra League season in 2015, John Hussey extended his dual playing and coaching role through 2016, along the way developing a great attachment to the club and to local culture. An attachment that he has happily extended.
“I will be staying here for the winter, and into next season,” Hussey told Australian Baseball Alumni earlier this week. “The club offered me a contract for the off-season to help with some junior trainings and to run the Extra League senior off-season program.”
“I have met a beautiful woman since I have been here and I was presented with the opportunity to not only be with her all year around - but I have also been given a fantastic chance to help build a great organisation at Technika and lay the foundations for a push at the Extra League title for years to come.”
Hussey regards himself as very fortunate to have been involved in some great development programmes – starting with Victorian Institute of Sport and moving into professional baseball – and he has become fully immersed in the possibilities with his adopted European club.
“I really would like to implement a professional way of going about our business at Technika as I strongly believe you are only as good as your preparation,” he said. “As Head Coach I want to make sure I have given everything to this role - and that includes being here for the guys all year round.”
“I am in a unique situation where I do not need an off-season job to supplement my income, and for this I am very thankful to Technika. Housing is taken care of and I live comfortably. This is not something that is available at club ball level, or even the ABL in Australia.”
Over the years there have been a number of Australian players who have tried their hand in the Czech Extra League – one of the European competitions that receives little press back here but which has become increasingly competitive and well-resourced. Surprisingly, to some observers.
A product of Victorian club baseball, Hussey now finds himself in a position to make observations on the standard and the machinations of his own league – and to draw contrasts with Australian baseball - although he is rightly reticent about commenting on what is happening in other competitions across Europe.
“I had Tristan Crawford with me at Technika for the 2016 season and Corey Lyon for the 2015 season,” he said. “But there were a few familiar faces in the Czech Extra League playing on other teams – such as Mitch Nilsson, Scott Mullhearn and Ryan Battaglia.”
“To be honest,” he said, “I have been really surprised with the standard of Czech baseball.”
“I took it all for granted when I first arrived, thinking I could easily cruise through this league - and I was rudely welcomed to the tune of eight runs. These Czech men can play. The standard isn’t that of the Australian Baseball League, although the top two teams could compete. It is much stronger than the Victorian Summer League, especially towards the top of the ladder. I expect this is because it is a nation-wide competition rather than a state-based competition.”
“Most teams also have multiple imports - with a few taking on three per year,” Hussey continued. “The facilities are much better than the Victorian Summer League too, with the top two stadiums being just as nice as any ABL ground. They also run the league well here, and the internet coverage is good - from what I can gather. They utilise a live play by play program whilst scoring games, which means it is easy to get up to the minute updates on any game in the league.”
“As for the standard of European baseball generally, I can’t really comment as my knowledge of other leagues is second-hand. My sense is that the Czech League, German, Italian and Dutch are much stronger then state baseball competition back in Australia - but not quite at ABL level,” he said. “I have heard great things about the standard of the Italian league and it is fairly common knowledge that you need to have AA pro experience to get your foot in the door there.”
While Hussey has now reached a more reflective and perhaps more settled phase of his baseball life, it has only been after a veritable journey since he signed as an outstanding youngster with seriously projectable talent a dozen years ago. He inked a deal with San Diego Padres in 2004 and headed over the United States the following year, playing Rookie Ball and at Minor League level.
After Tommy John surgery and missing an entire season in 2008 he returned to the Padres but found the draining Minor League requirements tough going.
He effectively walked away from the sport, at the time citing a desire to complete his education as he sought to make sense of a range of physical and emotional factors that were at play.
“I really was just fed up with the baseball grind, although there were multiple thoughts and feelings going through my head at the time,” he said. “It was very hard for me to repeat the level I was at only three years earlier. In that short amount of time I went from one of the younger players on the team to one of the older, struggling ones.”
“Yes, coming off surgery and getting the feel for pitching again is very hard in itself, but no-one really prepares you for the fact that you are still getting your feel for pitching back. Your stuff isn’t as sharp as it was before the eighteen months out of the game. You feel great one day and the next you feel like you are back to learning to throw strikes again.”
“By this time – 2010 - I had spent five years in pro ball, I was into my sixth season and I was only at low A,” John Hussey recalls.
“With high expectations as a young kid – where I had progressed level by level each year - it was a hard thing to swallow mentally, knowing that my progress was much slower than I had always imagined,” he said. “Throw in the grind of a baseball season in the Midwest, the peanuts you make as pay, and now this mindset of ultimately failing at the sport you had put so much time into and you begin to second guess your own ability. Why you are doing this and where it is ultimately going to lead? At this age my friends back home were fully qualified tradies or had finished with university and were making real money.”
“You begin to envy everyone who had once envied you,” he said.
“Professional baseball is not only tough physically, but it is mentally an enormous grind and emotionally a roller coaster like something you have never experienced. It is hard to hold onto any relationship, simply because you are never home – and, let’s be honest, baseball was a priority for me over everything and everyone. I just became sick of loving and putting in the time to something which I felt didn’t love me back. As a then 23 year-old struggling in low A, the big league felt further away than it ever had in my life.”
“I really felt I had lost the love for the game,” he said.
After coming back home and spending some time in the Australian Baseball League for the 2012/13 and 2013/14 seasons, John Hussey discovered that the Padres had kept him on their restricted list, even though he had effectively walked away from the organisation that had invested so much time in him – largely through the effort of long-serving executive Randy Smith, who was recently given his marching orders by the Padres after a remarkable period of service spanning two appointments.
“I have actually just tried to reach out to Randy Smith but his email bounced back to me and this is when I found out he is unfortunately not working with the Padres anymore,” Hussey said.
“He was great to me. Everyone within the Padres organisation was. Trevor Schumm and Damian Shanahan need to be mentioned in that regard too. I consider myself very lucky to have landed in that organisation with the people who were around at the time.”
“It was a strange thing going back to pro ball because it wasn’t necessarily that the Padres were hoping I would go back,” he said. “I believe it is a formality that they keep you on a restricted list. More so that you can’t just retire and then sign with another team for better opportunities. I was having a decent year in the ABL. I actually played that season because I had heard it was going to be the last year of the ABL, but then again that rumour goes around every year. I thought to myself I should at least play in my own backyard before that opportunity is gone. Anyway, I was having a decent year and it was Russell Spear who was encouraging me to go back to the Padres. I really owe it to him and getting into my ear about it.”
“We had Travis Blackley playing with the Aces at the end of that season (2012/13) and he was telling me I should head back. Rockies scout Phil Allen also looked into my status and he was the one who told me I was still restricted and contracted by the Padres. With these people talking to me - people I respect - I thought about giving it another chance, and seriously,” he continued.
“I was surprised at how much I was enjoying the baseball in the ABL that year. I had a taste of the real world and it made me realise once again how lucky I was to have an opportunity to play baseball for a living. The chance to play in the big leagues and make good money simply playing sport was an attractive proposition,” he said.
“All of this combined helped me get back in contact with the Padres. They gave me an opportunity and I guess I was lucky I was feeling it at the time. I was throwing well. They took me back. I threw very well in extended spring training (I missed spring training while waiting for a visa) and they threw me into low A again. Sink or swim scenario.”
“Thank god I threw well and it bought me the rest of the year,” he said.
John Hussey had an excellent stint at Fort Wayne in 2013 – carding an ERA of 1.59 - before going to Lake Elsinore and then to San Antonio AA in 2014. Yet even after his solid season with the San Antonio Missions – and re-signing at the end of that year - he was surprisingly released by San Diego in March 2015.
“That release was a shock,” he said, “although I could look back now and sort of understand how it came about.”
“I had been prepared to be released well before that after having some terrible seasons, or even a really bad streak in a season. I can remember calling home at times and telling my folks “as soon as this road trip is done I’m coming home, they are going to give me the flick”, and that would have been easier. I had a good year in AA in 2014. I was carrying a 3.5 into the last week of the season, and gave up eight runs in 1.1 innings to blow my ERA over a 4.”
“I was furious,” he said. “That’s the worst as a pitcher. A hitter can have a bad day and it doesn’t affect their season. A pitcher does and it can change a year. And for anyone who tells you they don’t know their stats, well that’s a lie. We all do, especially when we are competing for jobs. Anyway, I had actually re-signed with the Padres as a free agent at the end of 2014 after my year in AA. I had also re-signed only a couple of weeks after the end of the season - or agreed to terms - so I felt pretty good about the team showing such faith in me.”
“A new General Manager, and with him new minor league staff meant their opinion of me wasn’t that of the old regime - and that’s fine,” Hussey said. “I was 28, with only AA time. That’s baseball – as they say - but I can remember it hitting me hard because I had just re-signed with them. It was very hard having to say good bye to all the staff I had effectively known since I was 18. It’s not something to brag about, but I was the longest tenured member of the Padres organisation. Will Venable in the big leagues was the only other guy to have been with them for as long as I had. We played Rookie Ball together in 2005.”
“It was very hard to say goodbye to people I had known for so long. Trainers, clubbies, coaches. I was never going to see them again.”
While John Hussey had a lengthy stop-start career with the Padres, in one sense – though ironically perhaps not in another – he was one of the lucky ones from Australia cast into the maelstrom of United States professional baseball. There are plenty of young Aussie players who finish up on the scrap heap of pro ball after a year or two – three if they are lucky, or perhaps more if they are attached to one of the more patient franchises. Cognisant of a current push towards raising the international signing age to at least nineteen, John Hussey has some strong and well-considered views on the matter.
“I was extremely lucky to have effectively ten years under contract with the Padres. This is never lost on me, especially since so many younger kids only get one to three years,” he said.
“Of course it is tough for a young kid - especially from Australia, leaving home for another country at a tender age. For Americans it is a little easier - same as Latinos, because they know what to expect. They have seen guys throwing 95, and seen hitters turning on it like it was 85. Aussie kids haven’t.”
“It is great to max out at 90 when you are a junior in Australia, get signed and strut around National Championships - but it is a very sobering feeling when you get to your first spring training and guys have 90 mph change ups!”
“I really don’t believe in raising the age for signing international talent,” Hussey said. “There is nothing like being eighteen in pro ball. You have time to develop under the best coaches, you get to know the program and you have almost a free pass for a year or two. I don’t think they like to hear this, but some people just throw around the argument that at that age the kids just aren’t ready. Especially the Aussies. They entered pro ball too young, the argument goes. I don’t agree. After a couple of years with the best coaching, given every opportunity to improve by playing the best, an organisation simply knows whether you are panning out like they had projected or not. If not, you are out. It is nothing more than this. You either have it or you don’t.”
“A young kid is signed on projection,” he said. “If he isn’t developing like they had gambled on, then it is time to roll the dice on someone else. Professional sports are a very cruel world. Cruel only because the system is so brutally honest.”
“You can always go to school. You can never be young in pro ball again. Being young is a huge advantage,” he said.
Still a relatively young man even now in pitching terms, John Hussey is one of many who have made a successful return from Tommy John surgery – an increasingly more common operation with potential to extend both longevity and velocity. Travelling quite well with his baseball commitments at the moment, he has no lingering desire to make his mark at the highest level in the sport.
“I was lucky to come back very well from Tommy John surgery,” he said. “And this is perhaps another perspective that should be considered in the college versus pro ball debate that everyone seems to have an opinion on. I was young and the Padres took their time with me. A college program wants you back as soon as possible. My surgery went well. I struggled to get a feel for pitching again after I had it, but structurally it has been fantastic. A lot of guys end up coming back stronger because of all the strengthening of the arm they go through during rehab. My arm - knock on wood - has been fantastic the past couple of years but I also put that down to taking time off, or having an off-season.”
“I don’t have any aspirations to pursue baseball again at the levels I once did,” he said. “I am really enjoying my time in Europe as a player coach. I do enjoy teaching the game to the next generation. It’s a very rewarding thing. I am a realist - perhaps too much so at times, especially given my mindset at my retirement in 2010 - but I am content turning 30, knowing I have played at the highest level I could.”
A two-season player in the Australian Baseball League, John Hussey retains an acute interest in the fortunes of the competition – and of the Melbourne Aces, for whom he served as a player, an Assistant Coach and as a staff member charged with helping fulfil administrative and marketing tasks. That experience and subsequent observation as a baseball person detached from direct involvement has enabled him to formulate some considered views on the state of the national league – and its future.
“I love the idea of the ABL and the brand of baseball it is delivering to the Australian public, but we definitely need more local support,” Hussey said. “This is the biggest thing for me. More support from local clubs, more local baseball people going to the game. The only way the sport will grow is by increasing numbers of people in the stands - and that is something we struggle with mightily, in Melbourne anyway.”
“Altona is a terrible location - no doubt about it - but it is all that the Aces have to work with, for now anyhow. We need to stop complaining about this and move past it, because there are other fundamental problems that need to be addressed before we can even think about a boutique little stadium somewhere,” he said.
“Players get paid very little, and I can guarantee that during a season we all lose money being involved with the Aces - or pretty much any club in the Australian Baseball League, I suspect. It puts pressure on a lot of people’s day jobs (travelling interstate Thursday and Friday), we are away from families all weekend and we pay for the travel, the road tolls and missed days of work.”
“Then we look up in the stands and there are 50-100 people! Most of whom are friends or family, mind you.”
“This is a bit of a sore subject for me as I worked with the front office for the Aces a few off-seasons ago, trying to help sell tickets and packages to clubs,” he said. “I was also part of running the Aces coaching clinics, which visited clubs for a small price that went to the players and really only covered fuel and food that night. But something that really bugged me was the attitude of some people I dealt with.”
“What’s in it for our club? was a common attitude that I encountered,” he said. “We are the grassroots of baseball. You need to do something for us. You are a professional organisation and you need to look after us.”
“Now don’t get me wrong,” he continued. “I completely understand this. They wouldn’t be doing the right thing by the club if they didn’t ask, and it is not a personal attack against anyone in particular, but here I am on the other end of the conversation thinking, ‘buddy, I lose money every season supporting the Aces, supporting baseball in general.’ And when I say lose money I don’t mean spend money. We literally lose money.”
Notwithstanding all this, John Hussey is nevertheless a great believer that the Australian Baseball League is fundamental to the long-term growth of the sport through its capacity – or at least its potential - for greater exposure both at home and abroad.
“Yes, I agree grassroots is the most important aspect of baseball in Australia,” he said. “It is the foundation, but the Australian Baseball League clubs are your best chance to grow the sport. If people were serious about the growth of baseball in general, there would be far more support for the best product to expose this great game. I believe too many people think that the players are not as invested as them because the players get paid - when really that could not be further from the truth.”
“I love club ball, I love my own local teams - Blackburn and Frankston in Victoria - but there is a difference between loving your club and wanting it to develop and wanting your rival to develop too,” he said. “I want to see Essendon strong and growing, Waverley, Cheltenham, Melbourne, Newport, Melton, Pakenham and every other club improving year after year. I don’t get a kick out of our cross-town rival – any rival - getting weaker. I want the development of the whole sport. Not just my club - and there is a distinct difference."
"We need to want the growth of the whole sport.”
“Our best advertising is our state-based national league team - in my case Melbourne Aces. Our greatest exposure to the general public is the Australian Baseball League. We need to come together as baseball people because effective and positive exposure will ultimately affect your grassroots club when little Jimmy sees a game and is looking for a place to play.”
“I hate to say it but I don’t see the league surviving for too much longer unless some of the attitudes and approaches change,” he said.
John Hussey is one of our high-achieving players who did not come from a baseball family, or an established baseball background, yet he represented Australia at junior and senior levels before going on to build a lengthy professional career in United States. His fundamental commitment to the game and his love of the sport are evidenced by his preparedness to put something back through his work as a player, coach and mentor in the Czech Republic.
His is an inspiring story despite - or perhaps because of - the setbacks that he encountered. A story that defines him as one of the great success stories of Australian baseball in recent times. Even though he came up short of playing at Major League level, his career has been consistently reflective of the qualities, character traits and attitudes that we most admire in our sporting men and women – determination, commitment, sacrifice, respect for the sport and its traditions.
A preparedness to listen and to learn.
And above all else, hard work.
“I am never that comfortable talking about personal qualities that I might or might not possess,” Hussey said, “but yes, I have always been very proud of my work ethic.”
“I sacrificed a lot for baseball. Throughout high school I missed parties or nights with friends because I had early morning training the next day, or a game. That is very hard to do at that age. I really believe that achievement requires a combination of work ethic and honesty about your own ability – something that has also hindered me at times.”
“That might sound strange, but I have always compared myself to the best,” he said. “It was not the best thing to do at times, but for me it made me work harder. I can remember being cut from the Victorian Under 16 state team, for instance. I was shocked and hurt, but it made me work harder. I really wanted to send a screw you to the staff that year (not a personal slight, but a ‘hey, you really messed up with this decision’). I can always remember a coach telling me, ‘It’s not personal, its baseball’ (and I wanted to send him a baseball screw you, too).”
“So for the next two years I was up before school doing tubing in the living room, doing shoulder exercises and playing long toss with my mum every night. When I say up before school, I attended school one hour away by bus. My bus left at 7.00 every morning, so I was up at 5.00 am. Every night I would take a bucket of balls and my mum would catch them as I went out as far as I could and threw as hard as I could.”
Reflecting back over his baseball career, Hussey is satisfied that he listened to his coaches. He had what he describes as “a strange feeling of wanting to please everyone”. He cared what people thought of him as a ballplayer and to his mind he acted accordingly. He carried himself the right way both on the field and off the field – and he enjoyed consistently solid relationships with his coaches.
“If they said do something, I did it,” he said. “The same with pro ball. I would follow off-season programmes down to the smallest detail. I would diet, I would train, I would get a good night’s rest.”
“I always worked hard, but it took a failure to really cement this quality in me.”
Hussey attributes much of his personal and baseball development to the quality of specific programmes to which he was exposed, to particular coaches and to the demands and requirements that were placed upon him at an impressionable age.
“I really think – in Australia - we can forget how important the institutes of sport were,” he said. “From my experience in Victoria, how important the likes of Sheldon-Collins and Shanahan, May and Ballard were for players my age. And people like David White, who was my pitching coach at Blackburn and who I was very lucky to have available at that level.”
“There were so many kids signing out of the Victorian Institute of Sport and it’s no surprise. Institutes in other states were probably the same.”
“I used to fear those coaches,” Hussey said. “They were tough, they yelled and they didn’t stand for excuses. There was no better way to prepare someone for pro ball. You get to a certain level of baseball - or any sport for that matter - and you need more then skill. You need to be mentally strong and thick- skinned and I really owe it to these guys and the VIS programme for laying the foundations for my transition into professional baseball. I will forever be grateful to these guys.”
“I am quite comfortable in saying that most of the guys my age who came through the Victorian Institute of Sport would feel this way,” he continued. “For the ones who couldn’t deal with it, well they didn’t have what it took upstairs and that’s the honest truth. If you couldn’t deal with someone getting on your ass about something, pushing you to get the best out of yourself then you didn’t have what it took anyway.”
“It is more than ability.”
“I know that lots of people will disagree with some of the attitudes that I might express, but I am a very black and white person. I am very happy and content with what I achieved throughout my baseball career and that’s because I can look back and genuinely say I put in the work. I will never doubt or wish I could have done more,” he said.
“Even when I walked away from the game at professional level it was the best thing for me. It made me realise how lucky I was to be involved – and still be involved - in this great game.”
Australian Baseball extends its sincere thanks to John Hussey for his assistance in the preparation of this story - including his identification of insights and challenges that might be applied to all aspects of human endeavour, in or outside of a sporting context. We congratulate him on an outstanding baseball career and we wish him all the very best for whatever his future in baseball may bring.
At Technika Brno
With Melbourne Aces