On his off games as a starting pitcher for the Grand Valley State University baseball team of Allendale, Mich., Josh Bentz frequently drew videotaping duties.
While his teammates took the field, Bentz was up in the press box with a camera taping the game. But that time away from his teammates proved fruitful for the Juneau lefty. Bentz developed a friendship with a local junior college coach, Greg Morris of Grand Rapids Community College, who frequently watched Grand Valley State games and also happened to have a connection with an Australian baseball program.
Early next week, Bentz will fly to Perth, Australia, so he can begin playing pitcher and first base for Perth Baseball Club of the West Australian Baseball League. Not only will Bentz be playing professionally for the Australian team, but he'll be coaching a youth team for Perth's baseball program.
"I'd love it to lead somewhere, but I'm not expecting it to," Bentz said. "But I'll get to see a part of the world I've never seen. If it doesn't lead anywhere, I'm in Australia and I'm getting paid for something I love. I'll be enjoying life."
Bentz will be the only foreigner on the Perth team. As in Japan, Australian baseball teams are allowed up to two non-Australians on the roster. But Perth Baseball Club director Steve Bulgera said Bentz will be the only one for his team. There are 10 teams in the West Australia Baseball League, which Bulgera said is the state's A league.
"I told Greg I needed a lefthanded pitcher, and he put me in contact with Josh," Bulgera said. "There have been some other players from Michigan who've come over to play in Australia. Last year we had five Michigan players, and this year we have about seven or eight."
Bentz is the lesser-known member of Juneau's baseball-playing Bentz family that also includes his younger brother Chad, who is currently a sophomore with Long Beach State's baseball team in California. Chad Bentz, who was born without a right hand like his baseball idol Jim Abbott, was drafted by the New York Yankees in the 34th round of the 1999 amateur baseball draft and will return to the draft pool this summer.
After graduating from Juneau-Douglas High School, where he was team MVP his junior and senior seasons, Josh Bentz began a baseball odyssey that has taken him through three different colleges and a summer program in Michigan.
As a freshman he attended Yavapai Community College in Prescott, Ariz., but transferred to Scottsdale (Ariz.) Community College for his sophomore year so he could hit as well as pitch. He'd been playing in a summer league based in Grand Rapids, Mich., while staying with his aunt, when Grand Valley State coach Steve Lyon saw him play and offered him a partial scholarship to play for the NCAA Division II Lakers.
As a junior, Bentz posted a 4-3 record with a 4.18 ERA and 47 strikeouts in 47 1/3 innings. He also played nine games at first base, with seven starts, hitting .280 with five RBIs, five runs, four doubles and one triple in just 25 at bats. Last spring, Bentz said he didn't get to bat because his coaches thought it might distract him from his pitching, although he did hit in the fall season. Bentz had a mid-season swoon as a senior, but still posted a 2-4 record with a 4.45 ERA, one save and 25 strikeouts in 28 1/3 innings. He said he changed his wind-up this summer while pitching in Grand Rapids -- so he now only pitches out of the stretch instead of a full wind-up -- and his performance improved.
"I'd never pitched much until I got to college, and then I became a full-time pitcher," Bentz said. "I'd always played first base and pitched a little bit in high school."
While he was Grand Valley State, Bentz said he met Morris who'd come watch several of his former players who'd moved up to play for the Lakers. They got to talking, and Morris told him about the Australia program. Bulgera said his nephew, who is currently playing minor league ball in New York, played college baseball in Michigan and spent some time working with Morris.
"Half the season, our games were pretty chilly so I'd go up to shoot video and he'd be up in the press box," Bentz said of Morris. "We started talking and he asked me what I planned on doing after my senior year. He said he's got this Australian connection and put me in contact with them. This is their A team. It's a lot like European basketball."
In Australia, Bentz will be on a nine-month contract that will pay him between $19,000 and $32,000 Australian (about $11,000 to $21,000 American). Perth Baseball Club also has several youth teams in its program, and Bentz will be the head coach for a team of players age 18 and younger. Bulgera said Bentz will be staying with a family whose son, Steven Torby, is currently playing third base in the Minnesota Twins minor league program.
Bulgera said Perth Baseball Club is part of a 10-team league in the area around Perth. The teams play two or three games each weekend, and he said Bentz will pitch once a weekend and play first base during the other games.
"That's why we picked Josh, he can hit a bit," Bulgera said. "In our league you can't pitch on consecutive days."
One member of Perth's team, Michael Moyle, played for the Australian national team in the Olympics last month and also spent six years with the Cleveland Indians minor league system. Bulgera said he had two or three players on the Australian team in the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
Even though Australia has produced a few major league baseball players over the years -- like Dave Nillson, Graeme Lloyd and Craig Shipley -- Bentz said baseball is still a new sport in Australia. He said he'll have a chance to help the sport develop for a year or two, then he'll return to Juneau to finish up his biology degree at the University of Alaska Southeast, with a possible masters degree in the future.
"In baseball, I'm one of the lucky ones," Bentz said. "There are a lot of guys who don't get to play college baseball, and I got to play four years of college ball. Now I get to go to Australia to play a game I love, and I'm going to get paid to do it. It should be fun."
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