Can a cricket star convert to baseball?
Until I heard Kieran Powell interviewed Friday on a Sports Illustrated podcast, it’s not a question I’d ever pondered because, I mean, who cares about cricket?
Turns out cricket is the world’s second-most popular sport — it ranks behind only soccer — even though matches that require at least seven hours to play make one of those work-the-count marathons between the Red Sox and Yankees seem faster than Ronda Rousey’s last UFC fight.
Anyway, about Powell: He’s a 25-year-old “left-handed opening batsman” from the West Indies whose determination to excel on American diamonds qualifies him as the baseball world’s most interesting man. During the summer of 2014, Powell quit his pro cricket league in a contract dispute and decided to take up another sport predicated on making contact with a ball.
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Powell has been training over the winter in Florida, where he held a workout last month for representatives of 14 teams. Reports on his potential are mixed.
“A line-drive guy with speed, capable of playing center field on defense” a minor-league talent evaluator told MLB.com.
Countered a Yankees scout to ESPN.com: “He sucks. He’s not worth my time.”
At 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds, Powell passes the most obvious eye test. His batting-cage swing appears a bit rigid, understandable for a novice who picked up a bat for the first time in January. But he believes his swing is better than it was last month — and not nearly as good as it will be next month.
The difference between swinging a cricket bat and a baseball bat is subtle and yet substantial: In cricket, a batter typically wants to put loft on the ball, encouraging an upward swing. Good luck relying on that kind of swing against a professional baseball pitcher.
But there are also similarities baseball shares with its English-born forefather. Hand-eye coordination, for instance, is paramount: Cricket “bowlers” throw over 90 mph — a few have been clocked over 100 — and they use the same deception we know as breaking pitches and changeups.
Powell is a likeable interview subject, well-spoken and earnest. There are no esteem issues.
“I’m bringing new fans to both worlds,” he said recently of his quest to become the first cricket player to appear in the major leagues. “Cricket has a following of 2 billion globally, and whatever team decides to take the opportunity of signing me, they’ll have a massive following of new fans trying to see what’s up with Kieran?
“They’ll realize that my intent in the U.S. game is not a temporary fancy. I am extremely serious about this.”
Representatives from Seattle weren’t among those who traveled to Florida to check out Powell, but Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto is a think-outside-the-box sort who has put the farm system in the hands of a mental-skills coach. Since Nintendo purchased the club in 1994, Mariners scouts have been known as globe spanners eager to discover talent from unconventional talent beds.
And what’s more unconventional than an athlete’s suspicion he can put a round bat on a ball as consistently as he put a square bat on a ball?
Powell’s mastery of cricket as a teenager meant he had little time to pursue other sports, but he’s more familiar with baseball than you might presume. He recalls watching it on television — his favorite player was Ken Griffey Jr. — and liking what he saw. (The frantic pace of a three-hour baseball game must have been a revelation.)
Powell already has found at least one advantage to exchanging cricket for baseball: Cricket fielders don’t wear gloves. They warm up with gloves to protect their hands, but once it’s game-on time, the blokes are on their own.
I’ll be surprised, to the point of astonished, if Powell’s dreams come true. After all, Michael Jordan, who’s in any conversation about the Greatest Athlete of the 20th Century, took a memorably futile stab at pro baseball during that curious hiatus from the NBA at the prime of his basketball career.
Jordan found out he could do little more than hit batting-practice fastballs, and he went back to doing what he was he born to do.
But Kieran Powell intrigues me. He sees himself as the one-man task force who’ll inspire 2 billion cricket fans around the world to acquaint themselves with baseball, which is either delusional, inspirational or both.
Should he manage to finagle a contract, it’ll be the story of the spring.
John McGrath: firstname.lastname@example.org