Dedication is the key, above all else
6 September 2015
The Australian Under 18 team this weekend wrapped up its campaign at the Baseball World Cup in Osaka, posting big wins over Mexico, Brazil and Czech Republic to qualify for the Super Round – where it dealt an historic loss to Cuba before going down narrowly to South Korea in the bronze medal playoff.
It was an outstanding effort by the Australian team, most of whom had come fresh from the MLB Australian Academy Programme on the Gold Coast, where they had been mentored, coached and prepared by a staff of quality baseball people.
Now the Texas Rangers Director of Pacific Rim Operations - and recently serving as Pitching Coach at the academy – former Major League hurler Jim Colborn was not at all surprised by the success of the Under 18 Australian side against world-class opposition.
A Major League pitcher from 1969 through to 1978, Jim Colborn represented four clubs in a stellar career spanning stints with Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee Brewers, Kansas City Royals and Seattle Mariners that produced a record of 83 wins and 88 losses for an ERA of 3.80 and the distinction of a no-hitter over Texas Rangers in 1977, when he won eighteen games for the Royals.
For so many former professional baseballers, playing statistics represent just a part of a person’s legacy to our great game. Jim Colborn is no exception, having subsequently served as a revered baseball coach and a professional scout during the decades since his playing retirement.
He is currently the Texas Rangers Director of Pacific Rim Operations and he serves as Commissioner for the Jim Colborn Baseball League, an independent competitive baseball association - open to high school and college players over sixteen – which operates under the mantra, “Everybody wins in this league”.
The league provides playing opportunities for young people who participate at a low cost thanks to generous sponsorship from the community of Santa Paula, California, where the commissioner grew up and to which he is now – quite clearly – giving plenty back.
At sixty-nine years of age, Jim Colborn shows no sign of slowing his engagement in baseball, and he has been gracious enough to bring his coaching expertise to Australian shores as a man with a wealth of experience in the sport.
While his focus is now more clearly on the development of young players and on his role with Texas Rangers, Jim Colborn has lasting memories of his years at the highest level of the sport in an earlier era that he insists helped define him as a person.
“As time goes by, just the rare opportunity to have been a Major League pitcher strikes me as the greatest of my baseball highlights in itself,” Jim Colborn told Australian Baseball Alumni in a fascinating exchange this weekend.
“At the time – when I was younger - I was always chasing my insecurities, comparing myself to others and anguishing about my shortcomings and losses. Now, I have forgiven myself and just am thankful for having had the opportunity to do what I was able to do,” he said.
“My personal highlights on paper were a twenty-win season where there were 314 innings pitched - and twenty-two complete games. Also, I once pitched a no-hit game for Kansas City (against Texas Rangers). History has made those two things rather special. They were major accomplishments that I have come to appreciate more in passing years.”
While the competition he faced may have been somewhat less accomplished at the time, our research shows that Jim Colborn once struck out 21 hitters in a college All-Star Game in the Netherlands while he was studying in Europe.
Jim Colborn with the legendary Choji Murata
A Masters graduate in sociology from Edinburgh University in Scotland, Colborn – an intelligent and articulate man – is believed to have been contemplating a career as a professor before he was inexorably drawn into the hallowed corridors of professional baseball.
What may have been a potential loss to academia was certainly a gain for the sport.
Dedicating many years of service as a pitching coach – including six with Los Angeles Dodgers and two with Pittsburgh Pirates - Jim Colborn was with the Dodgers when closer Eric Gagne set the Major League Baseball saves record of eighty-four games – a number that remains on the books to this day.
“Gagne’s seasons were a real highlight at the Dodgers for me,” Colborn said. “He won the Cy Young award one year. There were many other pitchers that I felt I helped who did not gain fame – or notoriety - but whose careers advanced and who directly made a lot of money with what I showed them. I didn’t receive any reward from those contracts but I feel satisfied nevertheless.”
“Those kind of successes are as satisfying as having pitched a no-hitter!”
Appointed as Texas Rangers bullpen coach in 2008, Colborn was heavily involved in the signing of Japanese superstar Yu Darvish, who is clearly pivotal to the club’s success in 2015 - although it was a transaction that Colborn now places in a broader baseball perspective.
“Signing any player is always a high point in a scout’s existence,” he said. “Now, when a Darvish, Ichiro or Shin-Shu Choo is involved, it continues to be great for all of us. But, if Brad Simon makes the big leagues – after we signed him as a schoolboy from New South Wales in May this year - it will be a serious highlight. It means you’ve had a major role in the boy’s life.”
“But Darvish? He is our ace and he could lead us to a World Series. That’s how important he is.”
While playing and coaching baseball have occupied the bulk of Jim Colborn’s working life, he has spent some down time as a paid actor - having appeared in heart-warming Kevin Costner blockbuster For Love of the Game and in an earlier cinematic production (1973 All Star Game) that featured a lengthy cast of Major Leaguers all playing, or at least trying to play themselves.
“For Love of the Game was a lot of fun,” Colborn said.
“Making a movie is crazy! They waste so much time and money just to get it right. I was never aware there was any budget involved. I got to know Kevin Costner and another actor, JK Simmons, who just won a Supporting Actor Oscar this year. He has become a good friend.”
“I think I may have earned around $15,000 for my bit part of about two lines, but the residuals continue to trickle in. I think I once got a cheque for $4.75 for the movie’s release in Sweden,” he quipped. “I claim I did the undercover love scenes for Costner but no one seems to believe me.”
As a member of the MLBAAP coaching staff in 2015, Jim Colborn had the opportunity to assess the programme and to take a close look at some of Australia’s emerging young players. He has some clear thoughts on how the programme is managed, on the tuition and the facilities.
“I have always said that although baseball is a minor sport in the eyes of most Australian fans, the comparatively small group that is involved know what they are doing. They are every bit as professional and up on coaching and strategy as any representative group in the US,” he said.
“I really hope - by some miracles - that baseball interest expands within this country. I believe the mentality and weather are perfect for the sport. I love the support the parents give the boys. It is inspiring.”
“The facilities are fine but there are not enough of them around the country,” he said.
“There is always the issue of the politics involved when running any organisation. That happens everywhere. I would like to see us all be aware of the fact that we are working together towards a common goal, not trying to make marks for ourselves individually.”
Clearly appreciating his time at the academy – as a valued guest among baseball friends - Jim Colborn was positive in his assessment of the training group and he was not at all surprised by the manner in which the players acquitted themselves in Osaka, although he remains concerned about the depth of talent that Australia has at its disposal.
“I very much enjoyed meeting these boys,” he said. “They are respectful, committed and they love baseball. It has been a pleasure working with each and every one of them. I am happy to say many have improved since I first saw them. It is no wonder they have done so well in Osaka.”
“In saying that, there is obviously not the depth of talent in Australia as the other strong countries. Aussies train smartly and they train diligently - putting in the time necessary - but the talent pool is smaller due to a lot of factors. That accounts for a lot of the discrepancies in the game over here, I think.”
Jim Colborn identifies what he believes is the key to developing baseball further in Australia, a progression that in turn will strengthen our domestic competitions and the Australian Baseball League while providing greater opportunities over time to more of our emerging younger players.
“I think the biggest improvements for Australian baseball might come with simply playing more games,” he said.
“When I saw them against the Americans, the Koreans and the Japanese, I couldn’t help but compare the number of games these boys have played. My guess is that at the time of the Osaka Under 18 tournament the boys from those other countries probably had five to ten times more experience in practice and in games than the Aussie boys.”
“That is something that in my mind needs to be addressed.”
For a professional scout to sign players to contracts there is clearly a requirement to assess player makeup and the projected capacity to cope with the demands of a highly competitive and tough industry. Jim Colborn offers the following advice to any young player seeking to pursue a career as a professional in the sport.
“I want to see dedication above all else,” he said.
“In pro baseball, the last one to give up is declared the winner.”
“There are so many socially acceptable stories to tell your blokes back home as to why you didn’t make it when you had a chance. There are so many reasons out there to stop going for it. Only the ones who have an undying dream survive.”
“I try to see if boys show that,” he said.
Australian Baseball Alumni extends its appreciation to Jim Colborn for his assistance in the preparation of this story. We wish him all the very best for his continued engagement in the sport and we assure him that he will always be regarded as a great friend of Australian baseball.
Jim Colborn at MLBAAP 2015