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April 3, 2014

Fox a pioneer for New Zealand baseball

The moment one hears Mak Fox's distinctive Kiwi accent, one realizes he's not your ordinary, run-of-the-mill Oregon State baseball player.

No, the 18-year-old left-handed pitcher from Auckland is the first New Zealander in the program's 105-year history, and perhaps a standard-bearing pioneer for a country where baseball is rapidly growing in popularity.

Fox turned down offers from six major-league clubs and numerous college programs to sign with the Beavers. All were attracted by the 6-foot-3, 190-pounder's easy, fluid delivery and his outstanding performances for Baseball New Zealand in in the 2012 World Baseball Classic qualifier in Taiwan, and with the national team in the 2012 U-18 Oceania Championship in Guam.

He has not disappointed in his brief appearances as a Beaver. Fox is 1-0 with a 4.76 ERA, with three strikeouts and no walks in 5.2 innings. He fanned a career-best three batters in a 1.2-inning stint in a 9-6 win at Portland on Tuesday and fell two outs shy of his first save.

Before meeting with Fox, BeaverBlitz did some research in an attempt to learn how to speak like a Kiwi, so we didn't sound like a drongo (idiot) or a Wally (silly person) in this interview.

Thus informed, Beaver Blitz caught up with Fox after Wednesday's practice to learn more about the personable southpaw.

BEAVERBLITZ: You discovered baseball at 10 years of age. What sports did you play before that?

MAK FOX: "I played rugby, like any other kid in primary school. But my main sport was competitive swimming. My whole family was a bunch of swimmers. I decided when I was 10 or 11 that I was sick of it. That was perfectly fine. Then one day I discovered an open day for baseball down at a local field. I went down there, and that was it for me. I just picked it up and loved it.

BLITZ: What attracted you to baseball?

FOX: "I was at that age where the most important thing was friends. So I made friends straightaway, made some good connections with friends I still have today, even though I'm halfway around the world."

BLITZ: Were you always a pitcher?

FOX: "I played a lot of first base in Little League, and I love to play outfield. But as I grew taller and my arm got stronger, I gravitated toward the mound."

BLITZ: How big is baseball in New Zealand?

FOX: "It's growing. It's still a minority sport. I think at the last count, there were roughly 6,000 players nationwide, of all ages, in a country of 4.6 million."

BLITZ: Were major-league games televised?

FOX: "Luckily enough, the head of cable TV back home owns a baseball club, so he was a fan. We'd get two or three major-league games a week. I could record them and watch them at night."

BLITZ: What was your favorite team and who was your favorite player?

FOX: "I was a Red Sox fan and at that point I loved Manny Ramirez. He is just a great character the Red Sox were a winning team, I fell in love with them."

BLITZ: You had the opportunity to play professionally. Why did you choose college instead?

FOX: "Getting my degree. Education is a very important part of my family, we value it very highly. Those opportunities to go pro came before any scholarship opportunities. My mother and I decided that we wanted to see if I could get my education through baseball as well."

BLITZ: Are your parents in education?

FOX: "Yes. My mother [Selena Fox] is the head of a college back home, the New Zealand Tertiary College in Auckland. They specialize in early childhood education. I'm and exercise and sports science major and absolutely take the academic side of college seriously."

BLITZ: Are there any professional baseball players from New Zealand?

FOX: "The best recent player we've had, Scott Campbell, got all the way to triple-A in the Blue Jays organization. A few hip surgeries too him out of the game recently. He was an exceptional player; he went through Gonzaga and then turned pro."

BLITZ: Many Americans lump New Zealand and Australia together as if they're one unit, and not two totally different countries. How are they different?

FOX: "New Zealand is much more of an island nation. We're much more laid-back. Both countries have beautiful beaches; Australia is much hotter, it's closer to the equator, it's much more of a summer-year-round climate, whereas New Zealand is very tropical. Oregon reminds me a lot of home. It's very green, the rain; in Auckland we would never see snow and it's somewhat rare here. It reminds me of home a lot."

BLITZ: Do Americans know much about New Zealand?

FOX: "I had to teach everybody that the Kiwi is our national bird, and that we're called Kiwis because of that, not because of the fruit. But I've had a lot of questions from the guys, asking if it's part of Australia, if there's a bridge connecting Australia and New Zealand."

BLITZ: Have you encountered anyone from New Zealand at Oregon State?

FOX: "Yes, I've met Saasha Bruce [of Wanaka, N.Z.], she's on the rowing team. Apart from that, she's the only one."

BLITZ: You've played in tournaments in Guam and Taiwan and played for Chaffee Baseball in the Seattle area last summer. But is it tough to be so far from home?

FOX: "Yes. I miss my family and friends. I'm very lucky that my mom is flying in [Wednesday] night. Skype is a great tool; I'm Skyping home two, three, four times a week to various people. It is very easy to stay in touch; everybody is keen to hear how I'm going and is very excited for me."

BLITZ: So you're getting more comfortable in the United States.

FOX: "Absolutely. As soon as I got here the guys welcomed me with open arms. I'd Skyped coach [Pat] Bailey in the weeks coming up to coming here, and the guys all said hello. It's been a very easy transition."

BLITZ: When you are talking to your teammates, do you sometimes use a Kiwi phrase that makes then ask, 'What are you talking about?'

FOX: "The biggest thing is, I have to repeat myself a lot because of my accent. I sometimes catch myself speaking like an American, just to be heard. I've noticed people here don't say the word 'keen' a lot. And I do, its part of my everyday vocabulary."

BLITZ: Do your teammates have American expressions you don't understand?

FOX: "A few of the Cali boys say things like, 'Hellicool,' I'd never heard that before. English is English, but there's different slang."

BLITZ: Your given name is Makauley. How long have you been called Mak?

FOX: "Since birth, really. My swimming and baseball coaches and my friends have always called me Mak. Mak is what I identify with."

BLITZ: Auckland is a big city. Has it been tough to adjust to little old Corvallis?

FOX: "I like it. I like the university-town feel, especially coming from a different country it was much easier to acclimatize to, not having to be lost in a big city. I'm used to a big city but I also enjoy the small-town, college-town feel."

BLITZ: Is there any particular food you miss?

FOX: "Vegemite! Marmite is the New Zealand version. They are very similar but if you ask someone who prefers one over the other, they're completely different. I'm a Vegemite guy, that's the Australian version. New Zealand has a lot of seafood like whitefish, snapper, which I think is accessible here but I haven't found that much yet."

BLITZ: Are there any foods you've discovered here that you like?

FOX: "Yes, Chipotle! I love it! The Mexican food industry is very small in New Zealand compared to here. I think it's fantastic."

BLITZ: Are you famous in New Zealand, as one of the country's few college baseball players?

FOX: "I don't know about famous; I got on national TV a few times and have had some news stories about me. Famous within New Zealand baseball maybe. We play nationals. Everybody gets to meet everybody and everyone knows everyone. Everyone is keeping up with how I'm going."

BLITZ: Is it neat to be seen as somewhat of a New Zealand baseball pioneer?

FOX: "Absolutely. With the exception of Scott Campbell, one of the trends in New Zealand is guys have signed professionally, and the usual lifespan of a guy who does that is one or two years. They sign for very little money, they play rookie ball for two years, get cut and never have the chance to play college sports. It's very cool to say I came into this, going against the grain, with the intention of hopefully getting drafted, so I can have the best of both worlds."

BLITZ: Are there more players like you in New Zealand who want to play collegiately in the United States?

FOX: "There's a group of my friends who are biding their time until they can come to school next year, at Napa Valley CC. But there is a kid back home who plays for my club, he's a junior in high school who is a 6-foot-4 right-handed pitcher who I'm talking to coach [Nate] Yeskie about. Hopefully we can twist his arm and get him up here."

BLITZ: So it would be great to establish a New Zealand recruiting pipeline to Oregon State.

FOX: "It would be an amazing opportunity for anyone from New Zealand to come up here, as it is for me. I'm grateful every day to be here, and I'm sure anyone else would be as well."


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