Elizabethton roster includes wealth of international flavor

By Wes Holtsclaw
STAR STAFF
wholtsclaw@starhq.com

   Over the past century, baseball has been a growing sport across the globe. There is an array of that evidence here as the international flavor within the Elizabethton Twins baseball squad has become quite a local hit.
   From Japanese relief pitcher Hiroyuki Iida (Yamaguchi, Japan) to Australian duo Paul Mutch (Brisbane, Australia) and Jason Pospishill (Sydney, Australia), the Twins sported nine international players on this year's squad until Puerto Rican second-baseman Felix Molina was called up to the Quad Cities club on Saturday.
   Along with Iida, Mutch and Pospishill, Elizabethton sports pitchers Julio DePaula, Angel Garcia (Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico), Dennis Medina (Cabimas, Venezuela) and Tim Henkenjohann (Wilhelmshaven, Germany), infielder Angelo Fermin (Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic) and outfielder Ryan Spataro (Barrie, Ontario).
   "Baseball's an international game and the interest in it has taken off," said Twins manager Ray Smith. "So many countries have baseball federations. A friend of mine is the director of a league in the South Pacific (Samoa, Guam, Fiji, etc.). He always has some interesting stories."
   "The players haven't played as much as we have," he said. "But they have an enthusiastic approach and want to learn to become pretty good players and be able to show improvement."
   The international players have been successful thus far with the Twins. Before Molina was called up, he was hitting .352 and was leading the Appalachian League in extra base hits.
   Spataro and Pospishill have bee among the Twins' leading hitters, while Garcia has one of the teams lowest ERAs and a 2-0 record on the mound.
   For Iida, American baseball is much different than Japan, where he starred on the Tokuyama junior varsity squad.
   "You can enjoy playing baseball here," Iida said through translator and team conditioning coach Taka Kusunoki. "It was so strict in Japan and you couldn't enjoy it as much."
   Iida, who is known for a rifling 90-mph fastball, has played baseball since he was seven. He has enjoyed his stay in Elizabethton and his role as a relief pitcher with the Twins.
   "Everyone is kind," he said. "It's been a good time."
   Baseball is not a major sport in Australia, unlike Japan and many Latin American countries.
   "Baseball's a lot better here, whereas it's not a major sport in Australia," said Mutch. "I enjoy played here in Elizabethton. It's a great town -- there's good fishing and the park is nice. It's one of the best towns I've played in."
   "It's different," Pospishill said. "There's more of a fan base here than I'm used to in Australia. You can concentrate on it here and there's no off-field activities interfering."
   Both players signed as a free agent after offers from other teams, and are chasing dreams like the other players in the league.
   "I'm not an everyday player, but when I get an opportunity, I want to do the best I can," Pospishill said. "In the long run, I'd like to make it to the major leagues. If that doesn't work, I'd like to be a coach or a manager."
   Said Mutch: "I got offered by different teams, but the Twins had the better minor league organization. There are good coaches here and they've helped me out tremendously. It's a long ways from home, but they're looking after me well."
   Canadian baseball is a lot like the United States with the exception of player talent, according to Spataro.
   "It's pretty much the same," the Ontario native said. "There are not as many quality pitchers that touch 90 (in Canada), and the fielding and weather is better (in U.S.). There is more time to play here as well because of winter."
   Spataro is hitting .275 with 19 hits this season for the Twins. He excels in the outfield and enjoys Elizabethton.
   "I like it here," he said. "Everyone is friendly. We've got a good crowd that's supporting us in a small town, and it's a nice field."
   Sometimes, with Spanish, Portuguese and now Japanese languages on the squad, things become different for the position coaches.
   "We have an interpreter (for Iida), so he understands what you're trying to tell him," said Twins pitching coach Jim Shellenback. "The rest of the guys all speak English, but you just don't know what they're thinking on the mound."
   "With Iida, he seems to be having a good time," he said. "But it's hard to get a read on how serious he is. He gives a good effort and that's what I'm happy about."
   Added Smith: "We are well-represented and internationally well-rounded. They want to go out, experience things and showcase their talents like other guys."
   TWINS NOTES: Pitcher Josh Gray (Orange, Tex.) was also called up to the Quad Cities club with Molina, who will be a big loss to the E-Twins' offensive production.
   "He took off this morning," said Smith on Saturday. "It will hurt us offensively, but that's what it's all about. We want to give others a chance to play at a higher level. Our guys have got to fill in."
   "Gray was throwing good as well," he said. "But we're deep and we've got enough to pick up the slack."