Having emerged from the Tonbridge Bobcats youth programme, Will Lintern realized the “American dream” of many young baseball players in Britain by getting a place at Menlo College in California, where he was able to play the sport every day. Will was a member of the London Mets’ championship-winning squad of 2008 and has played for Great Britain on many occasions, most recently as starting catcher against The Bangers in Taunton.
Thanks must again go to Matt for posing the questions and to Will, of course, for taking the time to share his thoughts.
Where did you grow up and how did you get into baseball?
Where I grew up is quite an interesting question. I was born in South Africa and moved to California when I was four; it was here in the town of Belmont that I first discovered baseball. My father, having previously travelled across the United States of America, had already become a baseball fan courtesy of a visit to Dodger Stadium when he was 21. It was 1988 when we arrived in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Oakland A’s were enjoying the fortunes of a team managed by Tony La Russa and starring the Bash Brothers (Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco). The first televised game I saw with my father included back-to-back home runs from McGwire and Canseco. We knew this would be a pretty interesting team to follow and became keen Oakland fans. From here, living and growing up in America, and having parents who were both very keen for my brother and me to play as many sports as possible, it was a natural progression to play baseball and join the local little league. The rest, as they say, is history.
You came up through the Tonbridge Bobcats youth programme and through the junior ranks of the GB National team. What was it like playing youth baseball in Britain and who were your main influences along the way?
My main influences were Alex Malihoudis and Nick Carter. Having moved to England my mother was very persistent, badgering the local council to start a local youth team; eventually that persistence paid off and it was suggested she try the next town over, Tonbridge. It was here that I found the Tonbridge Bobcats and Margaret Borley, and of course met Alex and Nick. I immediately took a shine to the older players and was fascinated by their dreams of playing baseball in the States. It wasn’t until later that I realised just how influential they had been as Alex ultimately provided a reference to a former coach at Menlo College in California, where I would eventually study and play baseball.
I loved playing baseball in Britain. We played games every week, practice never stopped for the holidays and there were great rivalries with Burgess Hill, Maidstone, Greenwich and later Windsor. Margaret Borley had a lot to do with this experience as she was never overly focussed with winning and losing but was more concerned that each player had a fun and fulfilling experience whilst enabling the older and more experienced players the freedom to develop their skills.
Whilst I cited Alex and Nick as my two main influences as a young player, there were so many other people who influenced the type of player I wanted to become and gave me the opportunities to develop; the guys at the Tonbridge Royals/Bobcats and particularly John Carter and Dickie Gofton who welcomed a 14-year-old catcher into their team, Josh Chetwynd, Gavin Marshall, Martyn Dutton, Dave Donaldson and Ben Gogan as players on the GB National Team, and of course Vince Garcia and Paul Vernon who were the coaches during my tenure with the Junior National Team.
Once I had been invited to train with the GB Junior National Team my eyes were opened to a whole new world of baseball where I was encouraged not only to reach my full potential as a ballplayer but also to reach beyond what I had previously believed to be attainable. This ultimately led to my decision to play in the States.
You spent four and a half years playing college baseball. What was the experience like and what were the highlights from that period for you?
The decision to go to Menlo College and play four years of baseball was the best decision I ever made; the experience was like no other. For a British kid growing up dreaming of playing baseball in America, to suddenly be thrust into sunny California playing 4-5 hours every day, it was a dream come true. There was, however, a very steep learning curve, facing up against players who were all bigger and stronger than me and had been playing almost every day for the past ten years. This did not discourage me as I quickly acclimatised and took matters into my own hands. First up was the size and strength. I hit the weight room very hard, lifting 4-5 times a week, and the ‘All You Can Eat Buffet’ in the college cafeteria ensured I was consuming more than enough calories. To tackle the matter of game experience I was very fortunate to be taken under the wing of the team’s starting catcher Jim Goethals, who I would work out with for an additional 2-3 hours at the field (including off days). Whilst my mentor graduated after my sophomore (second) year and signed with the Houston Astros organisation, he would return in the fall and winter as an assistant coach and I continued to learn from him right up until the day I graduated.
Looking back, what I miss most is the everyday simplicity of the game. Going out to the field every day at 12:30, playing catch, fielding balls in the outfield during batting practice (shagging) whilst talking with your friends and team mates, then getting your work in. The highlights of my four years may seem rather odd to the casual player or fan, and sure I love looking back at remembering the journey I made from a young scrappy British kid to a team captain and starting catcher, but it is the simple things, the everyday tasks that are aspects of the game that make it all the more perfect.
Back in Britain, you have played in the British league for Brighton and more recently for the London Mets. Has the standard of play changed over the years you have been involved?
The standard of the league has changed. I think that the first two seasons of the National League – 2001 and 2002 – were the most competitive with Brighton, Bracknell, London and Windsor all having very strong rosters that were equally capable of winning the title. The strength of the rosters was definitely bolstered by the presence of many foreign national players; however, Brighton featured many British players and were league champions in both ’01 and ’02 much like the 2007 London Mets. Since then, with the exception of the 2008 London Mets, which some people are referring to as the best team to have ever played in the British domestic league, the strength of the teams has diminished. I remember witnessing the first signs of this in 2003, right before I left for Menlo. I think the reason for the lower standard of play is two-fold: 1) there are significantly fewer foreign nationals playing in the National League, and 2) the teams from 2001 and 2002 have failed to replace their departed or retired stars with new young talent. I look at my time from the GB Juniors and only three players – Liam Carroll, Stephen Brown, and myself – have made significant efforts to improve by going to university in America. There have been a few other players who played a year or two in Australia or continental Europe, but even worse is the number of former Junior National team players who no longer play. For a group of players who made playing baseball for their country a high priority, that is quite a significant drop-off. It’s hard to imagine the England under-19 rugby, football and cricket teams losing so many players from their sport.
I think ultimately the responsibility lies with the clubs. For the sport to grow and the people involved to have a more fulfilling experience, every club must invest a significant amount of effort into building and sustaining a youth programme. These strong club links will help to form identities for the young players and encourage them to remain a part of something much bigger and more holistic than their own individual identities. That is why I was so pleased to be a part of the London Mets this past season, because Neil Warne has established a successful youth programme that will serve to fuel the future successes of the London Mets adult baseball programme.
For British baseball fans who may be unaware of the National Baseball League, can you tell us a bit about the level of competition and what a season in the top tier of British baseball is like from a player’s perspective?
The season is always the best part of the year for any ballplayer and this past summer was no exception. I had a tremendous amount of fun playing with the London Mets, which included some former mentors (Alex Malihoudis and Josh Chetwynd), some former foes (Simon Pole), and then my brother George, who has been on every British team I played on from Tonbridge to Brighton and then London, and also the GB Junior National Team. I think that fans of the sport will be pleasantly surprised with the standard of play in the National Baseball League. The 2008 London Mets have been touted as being the best team to have ever competed in the British leagues. Whilst the standard is lower than what is played in the USA or in some countries on continental Europe, fans can expect to see some very good, highly competitive and very fun baseball.
The Great Britain senior team will be looking forward to the World Cup in September. How far do you think the team can go in the tournament?
We are entering the World Cup as underdogs and we’ll face some very stiff competition, particularly from Japan, and must be realistic in the team’s expectations.
However, I am a big believer that if you enter a situation – whether it be athletic competition, a job interview or any other matter in life – not expecting to win it is almost impossible to leave victorious. The odds seem to be stacked against us, but in a group shared with Japan, Nicaragua and Russia where a single victory could see us advance to the second round, anything can happen, and that is both the beauty and the challenge of international tournament play. In knockout tournaments all it takes is one upset for a team to gain momentum, and then it is anyone’s game. Burnley accomplished similar feats against both Chelsea and Arsenal in the Carling Cup this year, and assuming we can field our strongest lineup I see no reason why GB can’t rattle a few cages come September.
You are the Coach-in-Residence for the West Midlands. What does the role entail and what’s the most enjoyable part of the job?
Being the Coach-in-Residence for the West Midlands puts me on the ground as a missionary spreading the word of baseball throughout Birmingham, Coventry and Rugby. My job has many facets, including being a resource to the baseball and softball clubs of the West Midlands and entering new environments such as the schools of Birmingham, Coventry and Rugby to encourage more kids to take up baseball and softball. The most enjoyable part of my job had been the delivery within schools and local clubs, where I have been able offer hundreds of excited youngsters the opportunity to try baseball. It was only a few weeks back that I was talking with one of my summer assistant coaches about how Thursday afternoons from 3:30-4:30 at the Cardinal Wiseman School in Coventry were some of our fondest memories, as 50 boys and girls would sprint across the playground at the end of school to play baseball. Those days always provide me with even more inspiration, knowing that baseball has a very real chance to become a popular summer sport.
Your fledgling coaching career has also seen you become involved with the GB Cadets, first as an Assistant Coach and now as the Head Coach. Can you tell us a bit about the Cadets (how youngsters can get involved, what competitions you participate in, etc.)? What’s the most rewarding part of coaching young baseball players, particularly Brits who traditionally might shy away from the sport?
I had a lot of fun as the Asssitant Coach to Adam Roberts on the Cadet National Team in 2006 and that experience inspired me to take the post as Head Coach. The Cadets (aged 13-15 in the year of competition) participate in one competitive tournament per year. We finished 2nd at the European Qualifier in Turkey in 2008, and will compete in the same tournament in 2009 as only the winner is promoted to the European Cadet Championships. I also try to take the team to another preparation-based tournament, where the focus is on player development rather than winning. The team prides itself on being winners, which is different from the result of winning. You can’t always control whether you win or lose, especially in international tournament play, where one loss can determine the outcome of an entire campaign, but each individual, player or coach can control whether they are a winner or not. This means taking pride in winning but understanding losing, being the best team at running on and off the field, being the best dressed and most respectful team, working harder than anyone else, and on the day just playing the game and having fun.
Eleven players graduated to the Junior programme this year, so I am on the lookout for more young talented British ballplayers to travel and compete in the European Qualifier, if there are any players or parents interested in trying out, there will be open try-outs held for all players who are within the age bracket. Further details will be announced via the BaseballSoftballUK and BBF websites.
If there are any youngsters reading this keen to give baseball a try, what advice would you give to them?
For any youngsters out there wanting to try baseball, I say get a glove a ball and a friend. From here all you have to do is play catch and you’re playing baseball. Then try your local sports council or contact BaseballSoftballUK, who will be able to direct you towards your nearest team. But the best advice I have is to give everything a go, because you never know what you might like, and if you like the idea of hitting a ball as far and hard as you can, and then making someone else chase after it, I have a hunch that you’ll love baseball.
In 3 weeks’ time, BaseballGB will publish the fifth in a series of Q&As with Great Britain team members.