The first “Feature Star of the Month” for 2016 goes to 2 players that are the embodiment of the International Stars program – Australian Right-Handed Pitcher Steven Chambers and American Infielder Alex Lee.
Both Steven and Alex have extensive international playing experience and their paths crossed at the 2014 Prague Baseball Week when Steven was pitching in the Czech Extra-League for Technika Brno and Alex was playing for the Tulln Ravens in the 3rd division of Austria. At the 2014 Prague Baseball Week – Steven took home the “Best Pitcher” award by throwing a gem in the championship game against the Czech National Team and Alex won the “Best Hitter” award – helping the International Stars defeat host Czech National Team and repeat as PBW champions. http://praguebaseballweek.eu/eng/zobraz.asp?t=best-players
Currently they are both playing winter ball in Adelaide South Australia – Alex as an import for the Adelaide Angels in the South Australian State Baseball League and Steven as a starter for Adelaide Bite in the 6-team professional Australia Baseball League (ABL).
Alex has 14 stolen bases in 14 attempts in just 24 games down under. He’s also one of the top defenders in the league at shortstop boasting a dWAR of 3.2.
Steven has started 14 games for the Bite, tossing 78.2 Innings and leading the league with 8 wins, compared to 1 loss with a solid 3.66 E.R.A. and only 66 hits given up.
To top it off Steven was named to the roster for Team Australia in the upcoming World Baseball Classic Qualifier that will take place in Sydney Australia from February 11-14 and competing against the national teams from New Zealand, Philippines, South Africa for a spot to play in the 2017 World Baseball Classic.
We had a chance to interview both Steven and Alex to find out more about them and their international baseball careers:
Boomer Baseball International (BBI): How did you first find out about playing baseball internationally and what made you want to do it?
Steven Chambers (SC): Wayne Ough first introduced me to Technika Brno in the Czech Republic. Technika was looking for a pitcher to help them win the championship. I was 20 years old and wanted to further my career and gain experience.
Alex Lee (AL): In high school I worked out with a trainer who played in Italy when he was out of college ball and he told me about how fans threw tomatoes at a player who was in a slump one time. Whether or not that was true, for some reason that image stuck in my head and I was always curious about what baseball (and everyday life) was like in Europe, which made me accept a contract offer to player-coach in 2014 to see what it was like first-hand. No one threw tomatoes at me but ketchup cost 50 cents a packet at restaurants. Sometimes you find things out the hard way, I guess.
BBI: So where did you guys end up playing internationally and what stood out about those experiences?
SC: I played one season at Broward College in South Florida. 2010. Really enjoyed being in a part of the world where the people breathe baseball. It was very competitive and a great challenge.
I then played in Czech Rep. with Technika Brno. 2011 and 2014. Technika gave me a chance and I was fortunate enough to learn and play along side some great players in Roger Deago (MLB San Diego Padres), Matt Lawman (Minnesota Twins – A) and a local legend, Daniel Mraz (Czech National Team). Playing in Czech was the most fun I’ve had in baseball, traveling Europe to play was baseball awesome, and we were lucky enough to win the Czech League Championship in 2011.
I played independent ball in Japan for the Yamato Samurai Reds and Niigata Albirex. 2012 and 2013, 2015. respectively. Playing in Japan was a mental and physical test. The culture is so different and the training was long and intense. Japan has me in the best shape of my life, mentally and physically. I enjoy the professionalism and dedication the Japanese have for baseball. And again, being around and learning from some great players, Mitch Dening (Yakult Swallows – NPB), David Kandilas (Colorado Rockies AA), Darryl George (A).
AL: [Starting in the] Summer [of] 2014 – Tulln Ravens, 3rd league Austria. Lovely people, not a high level of baseball but free beer after games and practices was written into my contract. Had my own apartment a 9-iron away from the Danube River and a purple Schwinn as my wheels.
Winter 2014-15 – Tuggeranong Vikings, ACT State League, Canberra, Australia. Competitively balanced 6-team league in a city with a boring reputation that ended up being a great time. Lead the league in flat tires and dead batteries in my ’97 Toyota Camry.
Summer 2015 – Arrows Ostrava, Czech Extraliga. Played in a stadium with lights and fans who screamed for/at me in a language I could never understand. Strong European league with travel that let you enjoy Prague/Brno on a pretty regular basis. Got to play 50-60 games in 4 1/2 months including a European Cup and Prague Baseball Week.
Winter 2015-16, Adelaide Angels, South Australian Baseball League. Strongest pitching-heavy league thus far. Located in a larger coastal city. Import house has a pizza oven and an outdoor toilet. Spiders everywhere.
BBI: How do those experiences playing abroad compare to playing back home?
SC: Playing internationally demands you to mature and develop on your own, whereas in Australia, our friends and family can support us and help us through the highs and lows.
BBI: And Alex what’s the difference, for you, between America vs. Australia vs. Europe?
AL: Commitment levels vary wildly, but Europe and Australia are the two most comparable to each other in terms of level of play. Some clubs are stacked with former (and sometimes currently) pro and college guys. Teams grab beers together after games and there’s usually not much hostility between clubs. Playing in the US is usually every foreign player’s goal as the level is, on average, higher throughout.
BBI: What is the hardest thing you’ve had to encounter about playing baseball internationally?
SC: The hardest thing I’ve encountered playing abroad was the language barrier in Japan. Now, after three years I can communicate in Japanese with my teammates and coaches.
AL: I think I’ve figured out answers to most of my problems except for washing dishes and how to make lots of money. It was difficult being the only import on my team in my first 3 seasons (especially in Europe), but you have to grow to appreciate those obstacles and find the silver lining because no one feels bad for you getting to live the dream overseas. In Australia, having work lined up outside of baseball has been a recurring issue for many imports, so make sure that the line of communication with your club is clear before you come over.
BBI: What’s your favorite place you’ve traveled to – off the field, and why?
SC: My favourite place I’ve traveled to was the South of France: Nice, Monte Carlo, and Cannes. It’s a beautiful part of the world and we spent most of our days in the Mediterranean Sea.
BBI: I like how Aussies and Canadians spell words like favorite with the added vowel. It’s really the only thing that separates the cultures. And what kind of places stand out for you Alex?
AL: I prefer outdoor-related trips to big cities, so Interlaken, Switzerland and the South Island of New Zealand both stand out in my head. The live music, big city atmosphere, and good weather in Melbourne puts it high on the city list, too, but Budapest is probably #1 regardless of everything I just rambled on about. Ruin pubs and food trucks stole my heart.
BBI: Now both of you guys had experience playing for the BBI team, the International Stars, together at the 2014 Prague Baseball Week and then Alex you also played this past year in 2015. What was your experience with the International Stars program like?
SC: I was very proud to be selected to be part of the International Stars. To be recognized as one of the best international players in Europe was a great achievement. I met a lot of great players and had great time playing in Prague Baseball Week.
AL: This is a lot of questions. We should have just done a podcast because I’m writing this on my phone. It’s been fun playing with all the guys and getting to meet other people who live the same lifestyle as you since there aren’t many of us. A few of us even started a book club to add a new level of intellect to the program. Playing with the Stars also makes travel easier as I can meet up with familiar people on the road in more places and you realize how small the baseball world is. And even though we lost this year at PBW, I really enjoyed playing against my roommate from Ostrava (master chef Petr Čech) and the rest of the Czech National Team.
BBI: So now that you guys are savvy international baseball veterans, can you pick one accomplishment on the field that stands out for you?
SC: My best accomplishment on field was playing for the Australian National Team in the ABL All Star game this season 2015/16. I threw 1.0 inning, 0 hits 0 walks and 1 strikeout.
AL: I love winning. Winning at Prague Baseball Week in ’14 [with the International Stars] was fun, and in some capacity it lead to me signing contracts for the following three seasons. I like that I’ve been able to help every team that I’ve played with win more games, so let’s go with that as my answer.
BBI: Are there any coaches or players that have helped your game out to get it to where it’s at today?
SC: Playing with Mitch Dening in Japan taught me a lot about becoming a professional, the work ethic required and the mental approach needed. Gary Nilsson, Motoyuki Akahori, Andy Utting and Hayden Beard have all been great coaches for me. From game strategy to physical performance, they have all helped me immensely.
AL: I don’t like coaches taking credit for any athlete’s personal accomplishments, but I understand the question. The first person that comes to mind when I hear the word “coach” is my high school track coach. Just a great man that all of us would still do anything for to this day. In terms of baseball coaches, Boomer Prinstein is a gem and has helped me tremendously by giving me an opportunity to showcase myself in Europe. I can say the same for David Burns with IBC. For coaches, I loved playing for Vladimir Chlup in Ostrava this past season. I also had one great instructor who I coached with in Atlanta by the name of Joe Austin who taught me a lot in terms of teaching the swing, which carried over into my own performance once I got back into playing. My college coach Todd Interdonato taught baserunning more thoroughly than anyone else I’ve worked with along with analyzing in-game situations. Finally, from a physical standpoint, Dr. Tommy John, a chiropractor in San Diego and son of the former MLB great, has taught me more from a training standpoint than anyone I’ve ever worked with and has been a great friend and mentor in the process of helping me rehab a back injury. I think you have to take something from every coach you’ve had and acknowledge that you can learn from anyone in any situation. Finally, my mom and dad (but definitely not my sister).
BBI: Last question here and lucky you guys – it’s two parts! What baseball player(s) did you grow up idolizing as a kid and now that kids all over the world look-up to you guys as ballplayers – what advice do you have for them?
SC: I grew up idolizing Derek Jeter, admiring his professionalism and determination to be best the player in MLB. To the kids, I would say don’t let anyone tell you’re not good enough, I’ve been told that plenty and it motivates me more to succeed and progress. And hard work and a flawless work ethic will outplay and outlast naturally ability everyday of the week. Play hard and play for the love of the game.
AL: As a kid I looked up to the local Boston guys. Obviously, Pedro Martinez for his competitiveness on the mound, and Bill Mueller (obscure reference of the day) and Dustin Pedroia as tough outs in the box who approached the game the right way.
What kids are reading this? On the field, learn how to detach yourself emotionally from the task at hand and see things as they really are. Stay even-keeled. Off the field, find constructive things that you enjoy outside of the game to help make you more rounded and to keep better perspective. Listen to Katy Perry and stay on top. I’m out!
BBI: Funny how a pitcher grew up idolizes a shortstop and a shortstop grew up idolizing a pitcher! Anyways, a big thank you to Steve and Alex for taking the time to answer our questions. Check back every month here at the BBI website for the Featured International Star of the Month.