Surfers playing in Major League Baseball are nothing new. Barry Zito, starting pitcher for the San Francisco Giants, was the first person to ever surf what has now become a popular break in Fiji. Kevin Correia, who throws for his hometown San Diego Padres, was good enough in his early years as a surfer to earn a sponsorship from a local Pacific Beach surf shop. Former players Ryan Klesko and Brent Mayne were also avid surfers, joining Zito regularly for surf trips. The buck doesn’t stop there; a new guard of surfers is appearing in Major League clubhouses, trying to make their respective clubs while dreaming of catching far-off waves.
Two of the players are starting pitcher Ryan Rowland-Smith of the Seattle Mariners, and relief pitcher Geoff Geary of the Texas Rangers. Both players share similar stories: Grew up surfing, love it with a passion, and are now trying to make the rosters of their respective teams.
Rowland-Smith was born and raised in Newcastle, Australia and has surfed practically his entire life. "Surfing has always been part of my life, ever since I was a little kid," said the Mariners' left-hander.
When asked if surfing helps him with his pitching, Rowland-Smith said, "The jury is still out on that one. Obviously, paddling is good for your shoulder strength. People have told me it's good for that, but I still wonder if surfing really helps that much. I am still trying to figure that out."
Roland-Smith recalls a childhood of weekend trips to Catherine Hill Bay with his older sister Rhiannon, who is a pro surfer in Australia. "I remember being a little kid, maybe 10 years old, living about 45 minutes from the beach and driving to Catherine Hill Bay with my older sister, Rhiannon, to go surfing,” said Roland-Smith. “My sister is an amazing surfer. Always has been. The waves got really big there and I hated it, because I was intimidated by them. But Rhiannon loved it and my mom would drive us there on weekends to surf. My sister, who is four years old than me, would torment me because she knew I was afraid of the big waves.
“I am good with it now,” added a smiling Rowland-Smith, "but I remember being scared."
Rowland-Smith, who is battling for the fifth and final starting rotation spot on the Mariners pitching staff, said the winter cold didn’t stop him and his friends from joining the dawn patrol prior to going to school. "Even in the winter, we'd get up early, grab our stuff, catch a bus and surf for about two hours before going to school," said Rowland-Smith. "It was freezing, but we didn't care. We wore full body suits. In the summer, we'd surf every day. It was the culture that I grew up in. Everybody I knew surfed."
Geoff Geary shares a slightly different story. Born in Buffalo, NY, Geary moved at an early age to Carlsbad, CA and started surfing when he was 10 years old. Geary has been playing professional baseball for over ten years, yet still surfs everyday when he goes home during the off-season. "I love going back there," said Geary, who is fighting for a relief pitching job with the Texas Rangers. "I'm not what you see on TV, the guy who's doing the 360 in the air. I can hold my own. I can ride the bigger waves, the ones that you hope don't suck you under."
Geary rides both long and shortboards, but finds it difficult to talk surfing in the clubhouse. "Last year I decided to buy a shotgun and go duck hunting," said Geary. "It's hard to talk to a bunch of guys in the bullpen that you pretty much live with more than your family and talk about surfing. Basically I'm sitting in the corner talking about myself."
Rowland-Smith and Geary aren’t the only two surfers still getting acquainted to life in the big leagues. The Washington Nationals have a trio of players who have surfing backgrounds. Center fielder Nyjer Morgan became a huge fan of surfing during a winter 2006 trip to Hawaii to play Winter Baseball. There, he met fellow National Devin Ivany, who was going out every morning to go surf. Ivany took him out one day, where Morgan ended up being seasick. "It was pretty funny his first day," said Ivany. "But Nyjer enjoyed it. He's a real trouper. He kept at it. Most people wouldn't have gone back in the water. He said, 'Let's go.'"
Like most other surfers, Morgan became hooked. "I just fell in love with it," said Morgan. "Devin took me to Sunset Beach, and when I saw those guys out there (including Gerry Lopez), it's unreal. The surfers really don't get recognition. It's such a struggle to get out there. The paddling is the hard part."
Devin Ivany, who is trying to make the Nationals roster, grew up surfing Florida’s east coast. "When I was younger, I surfed a lot," said Ivany. "We used to go to Sebastian Inlet, West Palm Beach, a place called Reef Road and anywhere up the coast where we could find them, we were going. I still like to get out there as much as I can."
The third leg of the Nationals’ trio of surfers is right-handed pitcher Collin Balester, whose father Tom builds custom-made surfboards that are well-known in the Huntington Beach area. Despite owning 40 boards by the time he was ten years old, Balester wasn’t good enough to be at the pro level. "I wasn't THAT good," said Balester. "I was always scared of the waves that went over my head....My dad always wanted me to do the 20-foot waves, and I was like, 'I could die.'"
Balester commented that a lot of his teammates make fun of him for his surfing fashion and style, which includes flip flops and torn tees. "All these guys are from the Midwest," said Balester. "Some of these guys on the team have never even seen surfboards in their live....I think they're just jealous, that's the whole thing, they're jealous about the lifestyle that I live."
|Collin Balester dropping a shaka.|
Balester did have great things to say about his new teammate Nyjer Morgan. "Nyjer is a great guy. He can relate with a lot of guys. He is knowledgeable about that kind of stuff. He likes to have fun -- surfing, hockey and all that kind of stuff. You can always talk to him about anything."
Morgan even had Collin’s dad Tom build him a specially designed surfboard. "He's been doing it for about 25 years," said Balester, referring to his father. "He grew up just kind of enjoying doing that kind of stuff and it turned out to be owning his own business and he's done a good job in Huntington Beach. He's well-known around that area."
Morgan requested to have his personal nickname, Tony Plush, designed on the board. "I sent the money out to Collin's father and he mailed the board back to me, and I have a board now," said Morgan.
The stoke is addictive, and very hard to shake. Just ask these surfing Major Leaguers, who spend their playing days dreaming of waves to come. "Surfing is good for you in many ways,” said Rowland-Smith. “It calms you down and is social. It's good to be out there with your friends, and it's good for your mind and body. It's unbelievable."