Powell’s bat change
Kieran Powell has had an enviable life as a professional cricket player. He has traveled the world playing a challenging game in balmy weather, while earning a lot of recognition and good money.
But Powell, a star batsman who has played internationally for the West Indies, has chucked that all aside, for now at least, in a long-shot gamble to become a professional baseball player.
A year ago, Powell did not even own a baseball glove and had never played in an organised game. But last summer, fuelled by a dream, he bought his first glove at a California sporting goods store and began a baseball immersion program that he hopes will vault him into the big leagues, doing something no other professional cricketer has apparently ever done.
His progress, while incomplete, bears watching
Last week, Powell, 25, was invited to a tryout at the New York Mets’ spring training facility in Port St. Lucie, Florida, his second workout for the club. He has also worked out for the Milwaukee Brewers.
On Wednesday, scouts from about a half-dozen other teams were expected to attend a showcase workout in Bradenton, Florida, to see if his athletic abilities might translate to a baseball diamond.
“I just need the opportunity to show what I can do,” he said in a telephone interview on Monday, “and I’m pretty sure that I will progress through the ranks pretty quickly.”
Others have flirted with the idea of making the crossover from cricket to top-flight baseball, or at least wondered about it. Ed Smith, a right-handed batsman from England, worked out at the Mets’ spring training camp in 2001. He also wrote a book, Playing Hard Ball, which compared the two sports.
Ian Pont, a fast bowler also from England, actually had tryouts with several teams in the late 1980s, including the Philadelphia Phillies.
And two pitchers from cricket-loving India – Dinesh Patel and Rinku Singh – were signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2009 and their story was depicted in the film Million Dollar Arm. But they were not professional cricketers and Patel is no longer in organised baseball. Singh is, but has not come anywhere near the major leagues.
According to research done at the Baseball Hall of Fame, no known professional cricket player has successfully made it to baseball’s top level.
Powell yearns to be the exception, and he has impressed baseball professionals like Ryan Jackson, the Cincinnati Reds’ hitting co-ordinator, who says he has a chance.
Jackson is one of several coaches to have worked with Powell during the player’s six-month quest to sign with a baseball team, and he said in an email this week that Powell “has made tremendous strides in a short period of time”.
He added that the 188-centimetre 86-kilogram athlete profiles as a potential centre fielder and lead-off hitter with a swing that could produce gap-to-gap line drives.
Another of Powell’s recent coaches, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorised to speak publicly about the player, said he had a decent arm and excellent speed. He agreed with Jackson that Powell had made rapid progress in only a few months, suggesting greater potential.
But converting a cricket swing to baseball is no easy task, especially at age 25 (Powell turns 26 on March 6). During a cricket swing, the bat is swung vertically, going from low to high as the batsman attempts to hit a bowled ball in any direction. In baseball, the hands start higher (at or above the shoulders) and the bat then moves horizontally during the swing. The bat is smaller in baseball, which could make it more difficult for cricket batsmen familiar with the broad, flat side of the cricket bat.
Still, the hand-eye coordination is essentially the same.
As for catching baseballs in the outfield with a padded glove instead of bare hands, Powell is all in favour of that.
“We use gloves in cricket warming up,” he said, “but when I started using the glove regularly, I was like, ‘Wow, baseball definitely got this part right’.”
The son of a West Indies cricket official, Powell grew up in Nevis, one of the islands that forms the federation of St Kitts and Nevis. He became a top prospect as a teenager, playing for the Leeward Islands’ under-15 and under-19 teams, and later for the West Indies team as a left-handed opening batsman.
He played in Sri Lanka’s domestic league for Tamil Union, and ventured around the globe in international cricket matches against stars like India’s Sachin Tendulkar.
But after a public spat with the West Indies Cricket Board over an excused absence from a 2014 test match against New Zealand, Powell stepped away from international cricket and has not returned. That dispute, he says, was not the genesis to pursue the American pastime.
Rather, he says, he relished the challenge of pursuing cricket’s diamond-shaped American cousin.
“I never knew,” he said. “Having played baseball for a bit now, I wished that I had played it when I was younger.”
Over the past few months, Powell has made up for lost time by binge-watching baseball. He sometimes catches two to three games a day on television along with watching videos of specific players and situations: Juan Pierre and Dee Gordon bunting, for example.
“I’ve watched a ridiculous amount of baseball,” he said. “I’ve been watching baseball nonstop.”
And when he was not viewing it over the last several months, he was playing it.
His first foray into the sport came last American summer when he was invited to work out in California with some former major league players and coaches. He kept it quiet from the cricket world because, he said, he first wanted to make sure it was a plausible venture.
The early feedback was positive, so from there he went to the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, to work with its staff. He said he showed up at 8am and worked until 4pm, then drove to Sarasota, Florida, for extra work with Jack Voigt, the Mets’ Class AAA Las Vegas hitting instructor.
On the last day of 2015, Powell went public, issuing a statement of his intentions. He was ready to show the world how a cricketer could finally transform into a baseballer.
“I look like a baseball player now,” he said, “instead of just a rough-cut diamond that needs a whole lot of polishing.”
Powell does not lack in confidence. According to an official with one of the teams expected to attend the Wednesday showcase, he was asking for a signing bonus close to $1 million – the general equivalent of a low second-round draft pick.
Powell says some cricket players earn more money than baseball players, depending on the player and the league. He knows that, for a while at least, he would have to ride buses on the minor league circuit.
“It’s definitely not about the money,” he said. “It’s about the opportunity to do something different, and to do something big with it.”
While the Mets have watched Powell, he has not yet grabbed the attention of their top brass. The New York Yankees are not in pursuit, one official said.
But some team may well take a chance that the latest baseball adventure by a cricketer – this one very athletic and young – could produce that rare uncut gem.
“I’m not expecting to walk in and be the star,” he said. “I know I have to put in my work. But I also know my capabilities, and I know that I am capable of doing this.”