The stars align for one in a Million
4 August 2015
Enjoying an eight-year professional career with Chicago Cubs after being signed in 2007, Queenslander Ryan Searle has since been a regular on Australian teams and with Brisbane Bandits in the Australian Baseball League.
A highly regarded right-armed starting pitcher who has experienced the ups and downs of professional baseball as high as AAA level in United States, Searle was released by the Cubs in 2014 appreciative of his time with the organisation while still committed to his career in the sport.
Currently pitching for Ishikawa Million Stars in the Japan Baseball Challenge League, Ryan Searle is enjoying his baseball immensely and relishes the opportunities that the sport may yet offer.
Like so many of our national representatives and playing professionals, Ryan Searle had an early start in the game, one that was related in large part to family connections in baseball.
“I actually started playing baseball when I was five,” Ryan Searle told Australian Baseball Alumni in online exchanges this week. “Aside from playing catch and hitting the ball in the backyard prior to that, I was taken down to the Sandgate Seahawks field that was very close to our home at the time. My stepfather Ray Lane played softball and baseball for a very long time. He was involved with the Hendra All Stars and the Queensland softball team, so you could say that I was effectively destined to become involved.”
An outstanding junior player, Searle drew early attention from professional scouts, who were especially impressed by his performances as a seventeen year-old at the 2007 Under 18 National Championships. They were heady times for the teenager, who found himself very quickly immersed in the maelstrom of professional baseball.
It was an environment that was at once confrontational and challenging, while at the same time rewarding as a journey towards awareness and self-discovery.
“I was lucky enough to get signed by the Cubs after a good national tournament in 2006/2007,” Searle said. “I went to spring training in 2007, got my feet wet and saw how everything worked. At that time – being the hard-headed teenager that I was – I thought I knew everything. But honestly, you don’t. It is only later, when you grow up and mature, that you realise you never truly know anything.”
“I had a few setbacks in my career - including broken relationships, family issues, confidence issues, complacency and inevitably an injury in 2013 when I lost my season to the rehab process,” he said. “Luckily the Cubs had great confidence in me, in my aptitude and ability. They stuck with me throughout the years and gave me all the opportunities to succeed.”
“I will be forever grateful to the organisation for that.”
Universally known as “The Grind” by those who have experienced it, the minor league system has its unique ways of challenging and confronting young men who are well out of their comfort zone and – in the case of Australians signing up to the gig – are literally thousands of miles away from home, from family and from the other reassuring things of life.
“Whilst my career was my journey and mine alone, it is not like I was alone with my struggles,” Searle said. “Everyone has their own personal story and it truly is not an easy path for anyone to take. From the financial stress, to the constant homesickness or pressure to perform, day in day out, "the grind" really does mould you as a person.”
“I'm so thankful for my journey so far and I would never take it back. I've honestly had the best times of my life both on and off the field while on a minor league baseball team. From the eighteen-hour bus rides, to throwing the last pitch to secure a Championship, those are the things you live for.”
“Of course I still have my doubts at times,” he said. “You wonder if you're doing it for the right reasons or if you're wasting your time. These thoughts creep into your head from time to time. But that's where having a solid foundation and a good support network of friends and family come into play. Having people around you that have your back and will be there for you - even if it's just a chat about home or a quick reminder of why you're doing it or how far you've already come.”
“Lean on those who will be there for you, and learn to be there for them in return.”
While Ryan Searle still harbours aspirations of playing Major League Baseball – the highest level of the sport in the world – he has become attuned to the myriad of possibilities that exist and which may become available across the baseball world.
“Right now my main aim for this year and possibly the next is to join an Nippon Professional Baseball organisation – the Asian equivalent of MLB,” Searle said.
“After being released from AA last year, I thought that might have been it for me,” he said. “Thankfully a number of opportunities presented themselves and I chose the path which I thought would be most beneficial to continuing my career.”
“I love to play baseball, so as long as I can continue playing I'll be happy. If an opportunity to join an MLB club presents itself, I'll be ready.”
Aside from his experience and his achievements at professional level, Ryan Searle is a veteran with Brisbane Bandits in the Australian Baseball League and he has been a regular on Australian national teams for the past several years, delivering experiences that he speaks about in glowing terms.
“Any time that you are lucky enough to represent your country is a highlight,” he said. “You are not only playing for yourself but for every single person in the country – especially baseball supporters.”
“It took me a while to realise the importance of this. It is a privilege, not a right. So whenever I don the uniform I do my utmost to represent everyone in the best manner that I possibly can.”
Although the Australian national baseball team does not play as often as many would like – especially on home soil – Searle has enjoyed the confidence of Head Coach Jon Deeble in being a regular starter for the team.
“I've had so many incredible times in the Aussie jersey,” Searle said. “My personal favorites would have to be when we came back from a 0-3 deficit in the World Cup in 2011 and went on to win the next few games and make it through to the final rounds. And of course starting against the Dodgers last year in the opening MLB series and then the boys coming out the next night and beating the Diamondbacks.”
“Anytime that we can walk away with a win is a highlight too, regardless of personal performance. The 2013 World Baseball Classic was a disappointing result for us, but it was a great experience nonetheless.”
Australian Head Coach Jon Deeble believes that Ryan Searle has matured as a pitcher and still has a serious future in the sport at the elite level.
“Ryan is our number one pitcher on the national team at this point,” Deeble said.
“He is a good kid with a really good arm, with quality breaking stuff. I think by his own admission he could have worked harder in the past, but at his age now he has a really good chance of having success in Japan and maybe getting back to the states.”
“He has had some terrific outings with our national team,” Deeble said. “His performance in the MLB game in Sydney last year was first class and I still fondly recall his game against Canada at the last World Championship a few years back.”
“That day he could have pitched in the big leagues, he was that good. It was a dominating performance. Canada had no chance.”
From Chicago Cubs to the Ishikawa Million Stars in under twelve months was some transformation for the Queensland hurler, who along the journey worked around southern summer commitments with Brisbane Bandits.
The opportunity in Japan did not arrive by chance.
“After playing a few months of independent baseball in United States last season I wanted to try to get an opportunity to play in Japan this season,” Searle said. “I reached out to a couple of people who I knew had played here to see if they had anyone they could put me in contact with. Actually it was Jakub Sladek – who I was in the academy with early in my career - who put me in contact with an agent here to get the ball rolling. I had a couple of other options to choose from but I decided in the end that this was the best chance for me to keep my career going in the right direction and try to learn a new style of life and baseball.”
“I arrived here midway through spring training toward the end of March and the regular season is set to end in mid-September. I could be here longer pending playoff hopes,” he said.
The Ishikawa Million Stars play in the Japan Baseball Challenge League and have enjoyed great success since forming in 2007. The Challenge League is essentially the minor league system of Japan, since the NPB teams do not have a full farm system of their own just yet. The Baseball Challenge League and the Shikoku Island league - where Drew Naylor and Alex Maestri formerly played - are the two primary feeder leagues to Nippon Professional Baseball.
Searle has had an immediate impact on the league, posting some impressive numbers over his seventeen games to date – sixteen of those as a starter – for a five and five record. He has pitched one hundred innings (fourth highest in the league), striking out eighty (second in the league) while conceding just thirty-four walks, seventy-nine hits and a solitary home run.
Already serving his adopted club very well indeed, he is currently sitting fifth in the Challenge League with a 1.98 ERA.
“The Million Stars have a history of success and are a very well run professional team,” Searle said. “My teammates are phenomenal people, and they make this journey a lot easier. But really you can't compare this league to any league in the USA. The style of baseball is very different. It's team oriented, small ball. Base running, moving runners, patient hitters. Walks, foul ball after foul ball.”
“The players are incredibly disciplined people. As such it's hard to get them to swing and miss, and it's hard to get them to chase outside of the strike zone. Most guys are defensively sound and are all great athletes.”
Including, Ryan Searle added, one Julio Franco, the Million Stars Manager who played MLB until he was in his late forties and who this season has balanced his managerial duties with onfield playing time. Franco is quoted as saying that he plans on playing until is 66!
“Julio is a one of a kind person,” Ryan Searle remarked. “I've never met anyone like him.”
“I'm so privileged to be able to call him my manager. He brings so much knowledge to the team that I just cannot express enough gratitude for. He spent twenty-five years in MLB but also captained an NPB team. Incredible person and baseball player. As for him as a player with us, he was absolutely tearing the cover off the ball. He hasn't played much recently because he wanted to focus more on managing. It's great to be able to come to him for advice on basically anything.”
“He's such an intelligent man of the world. We’re very lucky,” Searle said.
Included on the Million Stars roster is female knuckleballer Eri Yoshida, who Searle insists works harder than most of the men on the team.
“I think that is simply because she knows that is what she needs to do to keep up with the guys,” he said. “It’s inspiring, really. Watching her work day in, day out, just to get the opportunity to play the game we love.”
An adaptable and sociable person, Ryan Searle has quickly devised strategies that have helped him adjust to a different culture, different lifestyle and different cuisine to which he was accustomed in Australia and United States.
“The language barrier has been difficult of course, but for me specifically I have a translator on the team that helps make it a lot easier,” he said. “My team mates are actually very accommodating. They are an awesome group and are always willing to help teach you the word or phrase for something. I think it's a big deal to them if you just make an effort.”
“The Japanese are such wonderfully kind people. I'm lucky to have the opportunity to have lived amongst them and got to know them on such a personal level.”
“I have settled in just fine into my apartment,” Searle said. “I have my TV, playstation and all the regular luxuries of a normal home. They gave us bikes to be able to ride to the local supermarket and there are a couple of restaurants close by. If we want to go downtown it's about forty-five minutes on the bus.”
Searle stays in contact with fellow Australians Drew Naylor, Mitch Dening, David Kandilas, Steven Chambers and recent arrival Darryl George.
“I’m very happy for Drew and Mitch having their dreams come to fruition by making it in the NPB,” Searle said. “All of the guys over here are doing well and I hope that for years to come Australians continue to develop a good reputation as baseball players here and around the world.”
“There are only around 40-50 spots for imports in the Challenge League and the Shikoku Island League every year. It's difficult to get in, but very rewarding if you make it and do well. It's a challenge of course, but it's certainly a place that will not only make you a better baseball player, but a better teammate and person as well.”
While the immediate task for Ryan Searle is to finish his season strongly with numbers that may generate opportunities next season, he remains open to the possibilities – a message that he extends to all younger players starting out in professional baseball.
“There are so many opportunities to play baseball all over the world,” he said. “As players we are quite lucky in that regard, at this point in time.”
“But none of us should ever be complacent. It is a tough game and as time goes on you have to work harder than before to stay relevant,” Ryan Searle said.
“My advice to young players is, do it before you need to. That will make things a lot easier for you down the track.”
Australian Baseball Alumni thanks Ryan Searle for his generous assistance in the preparation of this story. We wish him all the very best for the rest of this season and for whatever the future may hold.