Jon Deeble is known as Mr Baseball in Australia. A player, coach, scout and manager through his 30-plus years in the sport, the nickname is not a surprising one. As the pitcher in Australia’s first ever win at an Olympic Games and head coach of the national team that won a historic silver at the Athens 2004 Games, he could quite conceivably have a middle name of ‘Olympic’. Deeble is perfectly-placed to pass judgement on the sport’s return to the Olympic programme in Tokyo in 2020.
“The Olympics are a pinnacle of the sport,” Deeble said. “You talk to the guys who played in 2004, the ones in the major leagues, and they will tell you the biggest thrill was the Olympics. Make no mistake about that. That holds up for the American guys who won in 2000 (Sydney Olympic Games), if you talk to them the Olympics is right up there with being in the major leagues.”
There is no doubt that extraordinary, Hollywood-style tales such as Australia’s march to the final in 2004 help make baseball such a natural fit with the Olympic ideals.
A team of amateurs – featuring among others, a personal trainer who plied his trade by day on Sydney’s Bondi Beach and a shower accessories salesman – stood up to the mighty and very nearly conquered them all.
You talk to the guys who played in 2004, the ones in the major leagues, and they will tell you the biggest thrill was the OlympicsJon Deeble
“We lost the first two games and thought here we go, Sydney (2000 Games at which Australia finished second to last) again,” the head coach said. “But to the players’ credit, we rattled off six wins in a row, beat Japan twice in three days”.
While Deeble modestly puts it down to talent, belief and the work of renowned Australian sports psychologist Phil Jauncey, the players have always loudly praised the monumental efforts of their head coach. Not only did Deeble, and his staff, change the mind-set of the team, allowing them to beat the Japanese squad, but they also provided a remarkable advance scouting network, despite a severe lack of resources.
It is this sense of purpose and pride that makes international baseball so attractive. Deeble lists the little-known baseball hubs of Western Europe and Latin America as the places most likely to provide Australia’s main rivals in the race to snatch one of the five qualifying spots for the Tokyo 2020 Games.
“If you look at the last WBC (World Baseball Classic) the Japanese spent millions on their preparation as did Taiwan and Korea. We had AUS$40,000 to spend,” Deeble said. “We were still able to compete with them.”
The current Australia team is a wonderful throwback to past eras of sport. More than half the team still work for a living yet they stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Major League Baseball (MLB) players on multi-million dollar contracts, such as Warwick Saupold (Detroit Tigers), Peter Moylan (Kansas City Royals) and Liam Hendriks (Oakland A’s).
The talent coming through the Australian system, a system led by the indefatigable Deeble, continues to be enviable.
“We have got 100 kids in college (on baseball scholarships), 40-50 kids in the minor leagues and four in the major leagues,” Deeble said. “We’ve got some really good arms coming through.”
As well as being Australia’s head coach, the 55-year-old also runs the MLB Australian Academies. Despite both of these roles being effectively voluntary, the workload is “nearly full-time”.
“You are always doing something, trying to find places for people to play, trying to work with different countries, organising the academy kids, talking to and tracking the players, advance scouting, all that sort of stuff,” said the man whose actual day job is as a Pacific Rim scout for MLB side, the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Somehow he is fitting it all in, and his magic is rubbing off. Australia finished second at the last U23 World Championships and were fifth in the 2017 U18 version.
“The drive is to see Australian kids playing baseball and for us to get as high up the ladder as we possibly can,” Deeble said. “The pinnacle is to see our young players sign professional contracts to get in the major leagues. There is nothing better.”
Naturally, and of course quite rightly, Deeble credits the enormous amount of work fellow coaches and managers have put in to achieving such outcomes, but it is hard not to wonder where Australian baseball would be without him.
Son to a father who was a once-in-a-generation player and to a mother who represented Australia at netball, softball and baseball, Deeble was born with a ball and mitt in hand. A left-handed pitcher, he threw his nation to its first ever Olympic victory, against Canada at the Seoul 1988 Games. Subsequently, he spent 16 years as a scout for the Boston Red Sox and was responsible for bringing such luminaries as Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Okajima into the big leagues.
You would be foolish to bet against him leading another unfancied team to the Olympic podium in three years’ time. After all, this is a man who is still affectionately dubbed “enemy number one” by the Japanese baseball community for masterminding those outrageous victories against them 13 years ago.
“Baseball is in as good a shape as it’s ever been in Australia,” Deeble said. “We haven’t beaten Japan since ’04, but you never know.”