AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- On the surface, the differences between the Diamondbacks and the Diamondblacks, New Zealand's national baseball team, are many. The Arizona franchise plays one of its nation's most popular sports, whereas America's national pastime is still in its infancy on this island nation of 4.5 million.
But as a contingent of D-backs, headed by president and CEO Derrick Hall and National League MVP finalist Paul Goldschmidt, found out on Thursday, there's far more in common than meets the eye.
"I think if you look at all the countries in the world, you can say that New Zealand is probably the one that is the most on the rise when it comes to baseball," said Hall. "We're very excited about the opportunity here. With the popularity of softball already in place, that's an easy conversion for us."
Indeed, one of the two most popular sports in New Zealand is men's fast-pitch softball, a sport for which the Kiwis have won numerous world championships. Softball is surpassed in popularity only by rugby, and on Thursday afternoon, Hall, Goldschmidt and Craig Shipley, the special assistant to the general manager, visited Eden Park, home of rugby's world-famous New Zealand All Blacks, for a clinic and autograph session with hundreds of youngsters. The visit attracted every major media outlet in the country and brought attention to a sport that has seen youth participation grow from 900 to 6,000 in the last three years.
The D-backs, who will open next season just over the Tasman Sea in Sydney, (for tickets and travel packages, visit www.dbacks.com/Sydney) took advantage of a promotional trip to Australia to make a stop in Auckland and spend time with their near namesake, the Diamondblacks. Watching baseball being played at Eden Park had many in attendance visualizing the possibility of one day playing a Major League game on those hallowed grounds.
"I think we're working toward that goal," said Goldschmidt. "It's something we would love to see happen. It takes time and a lot of hard work, but the way baseball is growing here in New Zealand, it's definitely possible."
The sport has numerous key allies on the ground. The incoming U.S. Ambassador to New Zealand is Mark Gilbert, a former outfielder for the Chicago White Sox, who will be the first big leaguer to serve as a foreign ambassador. The country's prime minister, John Key, is a huge baseball fan, as is the U.S. Consul General in Auckland, Jim Donegan, who was present at a welcome dinner for the D-backs on Thursday evening. The contingent was treated to a traditional Maori greeting and dance.
Such players as Curtis Granderson, Mark Melancon and Nick Hundley, among others, have visited New Zealand, but this marked the first time that a Major League team sent a delegation that included multiple senior executives and a player of Goldschmidt's caliber.
"We hope that an organization that's progressive, like the Diamondbacks, will understand that while they put money into the Dominican Republic and some teams are in China and Mexico and Venezuela, why not New Zealand?" asked Ryan Flynn, New Zealand Baseball's chief executive. "We could be the next big thing in the baseball world. We've got the athletes, we've got the standard of living. ... I think we just need somebody to help us get over the top and be the tipping point."
For the D-backs, understanding the global future of the game is of the utmost importance. At the same time that they were visiting New Zealand, the franchise was being represented at an MLB-sponsored player workout in Brazil by Mack Hayashi, director of Pacific Rim operations, and the team's Brazil-based scout, Kelvin Kondo.
The trips to Australia, New Zealand and Brazil are a continuation of the club's efforts to grow the sport internationally and find talent around the world. Last year, Hall, GM Kevin Towers and D-backs legend Luis Gonzalez led a goodwill delegation to Japan, and the team has made five trips to Mexico over the past two years, including a recent visit to Guadalajara alongside Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton.
Earlier this year, the franchise hosted games of the World Baseball Classic at Chase Field, and in March the team will host the first regular-season Opening Series in an emerging market during the two-game series in Sydney.
Josh Rawitch is the D-backs' senior vice president, communications.