Kingsley Collins, Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Pirates have been around for about as long as there’s been nautical traffic – while there’s looting and pillaging to be done and treasure to be had…..

While the Preston Baseball Club can only figuratively be accused of “looting and pillaging”, it has certainly enjoyed the “treasure” of longevity – for a hundred years come 2010.

The club has travelled the gamut of baseball journeys. It has survived its relocations, turmoil and hard times. It has produced a galaxy of baseball stars and it boasts an enviable connection with some of the acolytes of Australian baseball.

It has had its golden eras and – in recent times – it has stared down the prospect of oblivion when so much appeared to be going against it.

But the Pirates – now – are on the up and up, me hearties.

Currently in Division Three, they have dramatically turned around their playing numbers and performances to the extent that they are realistically looking at promotion – on merit – to Division Two for 2009/10. Finishing fourth after the 2008/09 home and away season, they will face off against Williamstown in next Sunday’s First Semi-Final.

The game is of great import to both clubs, with the Wolves having celebrated their own centenary just a year ago and with both clubs committed to continuing their resurrection after some lean times.

Established in 1910, the club is believed to have been started by some of the Preston Cricket Club players of that bygone era. Long identified by its red and white strip, the club introduced a grey element during the seventies to move from the basic white uniform with red trim and socks.

Like many inner suburban clubs, Preston has survived a number of relocations. It spent time at Crisp Park, Preston City Oval (Cramer Street) and Haxby Park (south of the Olympic Hotel) before moving to Robinson Reserve (West Preston) in 1962. The club camped at Robinson Reserve until four years ago, when it relocated to the magnificent, fully-lit facility at Latrobe University (below).

 

Changed circumstances caused a core of club personnel to take decisive measures as the club moved into decline some years ago, after a golden era. There were demographic and other changes going on – not unique to Preston – that threatened the club’s survival.

Current Club President and long-time member Alex Djorgonoski summed it up this way:

“We could see that we were starting to struggle and we had adopted a couple of strategies that turned out to be counter-productive.”

“We split our club across two venues – juniors at Bundoora and seniors at Preston. Almost overnight we lost our kids to other clubs. We were also running Tee-Ball programs in the Diamond Creek and Bundoora areas. That was great fun, but when it was time for these players to play organised baseball, we were too far away at Preston for them to come down to us, so they ended up at other clubs,” he said.

“At the same time, some of our senior players were retiring or heading elsewhere.”

“The move to Latrobe made a lot of sense,” Djorgonoski said, “from the point of view of being close to a larger range of schools. But it doesn’t make it easy as you are still competing with many other sports and activities.”

“Six years ago, we had six kids who were under 12. The club was faced with a huge challenge of needing to rebuild the club, as many of our top players had moved on. A lot of them at the same time, much like the Australian cricket side.”

“A group of us made a commitment,” he said, “and we put in place a five-year plan to rebuild the club from the juniors up as we believed that this was the only way we would have long term success. We could see that we were in serious strife otherwise.”

The first year into that plan, the Pirates went from six kids to fielding two junior teams – one in Under 12 and one in Under 14. Both teams ended up in finals and the rebuilding process had begun.

“We reached our initial target of four junior teams within two years,” said Djorgonoski. “Now we have seven teams across Tee-Ball, Under 12, Under 14, Under 16 and Under 18. Around eighty kids.”

“We’ve a long way to go,” he said, “but we have reached this stage through a committed effort by parents, players and club members.”

“We run what we believe to be a very good junior programme, with great coaching staff headed by the likes of Troy Hellingham. Ex-players Jon Deeble and Phil Allen have attended every one of our “Come and Try” sessions. Their support has been invaluable.”

Because of the “name” people helping out but particularly because of the thorough organisation, other clubs regularly visit to observe how the Pirates go about these sessions.

“We put a lot of effort into the days,” Djorgonoski said, “as it’s an opportunity to showcase our club and our sport. We make it fun for the kids. Even if they don’t sign up, we want them to walk away having had a good time.”

“Our junior co-ordinators have been excellent. Stephen Spiby and over the past two years Sharon Fittock have done a fantastic job in attracting and retaining many young players. Our club has a passion for junior development as we see them as our lifeblood,” he said.

“It may not be the quickest way back to the top, but it’s the best way to secure club longevity and maybe it will see the club celebrating 200 years after we are all well gone.”

“There is nothing better than seeing all of our grounds full of kids enjoying baseball on a Sunday morning.”

In conjuring up some clearly recognisable names of Australian baseball, the President reflected on the qualities and the people that made the club a powerhouse of Victorian baseball in other eras.

“It’s not that long ago,” said Djorgonoski, “and it shows how quickly things can change if clubs do not stay on their guard.”

“Our last Division One flags were in 1996 and 1997. We missed out – just – on making it three straight in 1998. But before that there were important premierships – and real turning points for the club. We won the 1967 title to advance to B Grade, then won in 1970 to go to A Grade. Ian Deany coached during that era.”

Current Coach Stuart Medland was part of the more recent club success.

“After being invited over to Preston by Coach Billy Linton in 1996, l spent three or four years at the Pirates and was part of the Division 1 dynasty,” Medland said.

“Even after losing in 1998, we were finalists for the next couple of years. It was a proud era for the club and it allowed some of the senior players to finish their careers in style,” he said.

Considering the calibre of players and administrators who have passed through the ranks, it is little wonder that the Preston Pirates was a respected and feared club for decades.

The likes of Don Deeble, Michael Deeble and Jon Deeble, Chris Straw, Ross Straw, Lyn Straw and the Gosstray family come to mind. Phil Allen (who wrote the first Pirates song), Bill Linton, Peter Sincoe, Graeme Deany, Ian Deany, George Bolin, Mark Ella, Rodney Hogg, Richie Vagg, Ross McKenzie, Neil Buzzard, Gary Mack and brother Ron Mack. Tom Proctor, Martin Legge.

The list could go on. Little wonder that the club has enjoyed tremendous success in having players named in teams of the century both at state and national level.

As with any great club, it’s not just the players and the coaches who make it happen. It’s the people behind the scenes, the individuals and the families making sacrifices that keep clubs afloat.

Djorgonoski pays special credit to the Bowe family, Phil Stirling, David Norris, Jane McMillan, the consummate Col Miller, Bruce Jenner, Neville Ayers and Percy Howes, all long-standing officials and tireless workers for the club.

“Preston has four fifty year members,” Djorgonoski said. “David Norris (current Secretary) is ten short years away from his 50-year award.”

Persons fortunate enough to have played for or against the Preston club during its heyday will recall many of the characters of the club.

Playing Preston was always a tough but interesting assignment. You knew you were going to get a competitive game, you were going to cop a razzing from the supporters, but that you were always going to be welcomed back afterwards for a skinful and a feed, enjoying the hospitality of the likes of Rod Steer (former BV Pennant Committee and a very honest thrower in his day), Richard Tucker (hit the ball about as far as anyone in the land), Phil Allen (like all us lefties, loved the short porch at rightfield), former President Norm Cugley (who died way too early), Geoff Williams, Linton, the Gosstrays…..and a whole lot of others.

“The Harkness family provided us with some great players and administrators,” Djorgonoski said. “David, Gary and Neil Harkness as players. June took up many committee tasks, while Jack used to look after the bar. He loved a chat with everyone, so when you’d go in for your shout you’d have to have a beer with him before leaving with the drinks.”

“The Gosstray family were just as involved, along with the Proctors and Bowes,” he said. “Bill Gosstray would hold gambling nights where he would roll out a poker machine and all the other fun activities such as crown and anchor, two up and card games. The nights were sensational fund-raisers for the young players who had made state teams.”

 

Les Gostray in his heyday Les Gosstray in his heyday

 

“These were great, fun people who loved the community and the sport,” said Djorgonoski. “The after games were wonderful occasions where everyone would return for a drink and a laugh. I can remember Norm hanging off the rafters trying to hold himself up giving a great speech to both teams and welcoming everyone back”.

In those halcyon decades at Robinson Reserve, Mike and Don Deeble built the bar. Perhaps Mike built it mostly, but Don looked after quality control and testing.

This was the era of the infamous “wall of abuse”. Although it was tempting for some to be “sucked in” by the torrent of comment, jibes and one-liners coming from the hill, it was all in good fun. For the most part.

“We used to reel some of them in,” said Djorgonski. “But then it was all back to the rooms, have a laugh and a few beers and settle any differences.”

While it is easy to reflect upon the good times, the Preston Pirates are very much looking forward and are already seeing their five-year plan beginning to bear fruit.

In appointing former player Stuart Medland to the club coaching role, they have been on a real winner. Medland has been able to build on the “foundation” work provided by Gerard Cooper, Michael Deeble and Geoff Rietschel in recent years.

Djorgonoski is clear on what Medland was able to bring to the club.

“What we have seen is a tremendous team spirit develop within all the players, brought on by some very straight forward assessments and very good coaching of players who want to work towards the promotion of the club to second division and beyond,” he said.

“Stuart as head coach and David Maloney as his assistant have led from the front with real passion. Stuart has been involved in all parts of the club from training to game day. But he is also a man’s man – he loves a drink with the guys and is in boots and all. A bit like Jon Deeble. He seems to relate to his players well and he can rip into them – if need be – without them getting pissed off.”

Djorgonoski believes that genuine team spirit has been instilled in the players by a coach who understands that hard work, a little fun and a serious commitment to each other will reap the rewards.

The club lost a number of promising youngsters prior to this season but others have stepped up – including the President’s son Nick, who is having a fantastic season. But there are others with bright futures in the game.

“Heath Pendlebury and his brother Blake,” Djorgonoski said. “And Alex Canny. But there are plenty more coming through the junior ranks.”

Former premiership player, Club Coach Stuart Medland knew quite well that he was taking on a significant challenge, even after the great spadework put in by Mike Deeble and Geoff Rietschel in recent years. Medland was committed to not recruiting and trying to bring players along with him. He saw the potential within the club and was confident that his coaching abilities could help take the club to higher levels.

What stung him, early on, was the revelation that he would not have some of the emerging players at his disposal.

“After losing four good players from last year’s line-up, on paper we were not going to win a game,” Medland said. “But with the return of a couple of former Pirates our team was transformed to a bunch of guys prepared to play hard and take in the new message.  We put into place a game plan that breaks down everyone’s role and defines what they need to do to help the team win.”

“Rather than just playing the game, everything we do is for a purpose.”

“Preston’s junior program is in a strong position because of a lot of work over the past few years,” Medland said

An experienced man of the game, Medland has a decent handle on the relative standards in Baseball Victoria divisions and is looking forward with confidence.

“l believe the standard in Division Three is about equivalent to Division Two maybe ten years ago,” Medland said.  “We were lucky enough to have six clubs going hard at each other each week, which is the perfect preparation for trying to get back to Division Two.”

“From the start of the season our club goal has always been to make it back to Division Two.  As a team we are more focused on learning the game of baseball, turning bad habits into good habits and working harder than we did last week. I think we’ve fine-tuned certain areas of our game and I’m sure the rewards will come.”

“We have tried to nurture a super aggressive and positive approach,” Medland said. “Self-belief and taking a chance, never giving up on a ball – especially at training – and an aggressive game plan that has given all of our senior teams a chance to win each week.”

When Medland returned to the Preston club, he felt that there was some “unfinished business.”

“l wanted to repay the club for allowing me to reach one of my goals in baseball and do my part of getting the club back on track for its centenary in 2010,” he said.

As a club that was so well regarded for much of its time in previous decades, the Preston Baseball Club was anxious to help rebuild the qualities that had help make the club great.

“So much of it is about respect,” said Medland, who set stringent early standards for player commitment and sought to make a break from the “I’ll play when I feel like it” attitude that can characterise lower grade clubs or those not enjoying playing success.

“Respect for each other, respect for the club and respect for the game is what we are about,” he said.

Like plenty of others – such as its opponent on Sunday – the Preston Baseball Club has gone through some tough times. Like others, it has been fortunate to have had the support of former members and club stalwarts who did the hard yards – especially over the past few years.

The Pirates appear to be on the cusp of a resurgence. But as an inner-suburban club with a changing demographic, Medland concedes that nothing can be taken for granted. He knows that goals need to be realistic.

“The hard working loyal Preston members who got us through the tough times have set us up with a strong base. Now we are at the middle stages and with a lot of hard work we could start pushing through sooner than we thought.”

“Former club legends like Mick and Jon Deeble, Phil Allen and Rod Steer have been tremendously supportive of what we are doing,” Medland said. “Alex Djorgonoski has been pro-active as President and David Moloney has given me great support as Assistant Coach.”

“We have the best ground in Melbourne and the best baseball facilities,” Medland said. ” We have our own grounds keeper who mows the ground every Tuesday and Thursday – so it’s perfect for when we train.”

“There has been a great feel around the club this year with a social function every couple of weeks, after game dinners and a few club poker tournaments.  The players have been looked after extremely well with Thursday night meals after training and happy hours at most functions.”

“As a club, I believe we are doing a lot of things right, with the natural growth of our juniors who are coming through,” Medland said.

“With a few recruits and a couple of past players returning to the club we are sitting in a healthy position to take the next step. We aim to run Preston like a Division One club, and hopefully that will pay off in the near future.”

While the senior season could realistically be over by 4.00 pm next Sunday, Pirates President Alex Djorgonoski remains focused on his club’s goals.

“Short term,” he said, “we want to advance to Division Two by way of finishing in the Grand Final, hopefully winning it. If we get to Division Two by way of a restructure then that’s fine as well. I can see this club being seriously competitive in the higher grade.”

“Our junior programme is fundamental to our future success.”

Placing the sport in a life context, Djorgonoski sees a wider purpose to what can be achieved.

“We want to build our club and our community spirit to where it was just a few years ago,” he said. “To where you make lifelong friends and preserve the history of a proud club that started up nearly a hundred years ago.”

“We have inherited the responsibility to carry the flame for the next generation of Pirates. We treasure that responsibility – and we take it very seriously.”