Baseball; Pitchers Hein Robb and Josh Spence bring international flavor to ThunderBolts
By Steve Millar For Sun-Times Media August 17, 2014 7:46PM
Australian Josh Spence (left) and South African Hein Robb are both pitching in the Windy City ThunderBolts' starting rotation. | Steve Millar/For Sun-Times Media
Updated: August 24, 2014 5:57PM
Hein Robb and Josh Spence have discovered just how small the baseball world really is.
Robb, from Brakpan, South Africa, and Spence, from Geelong, Australia, ran in a lot of the same circles on their journeys to playing professional baseball in the United States.
Both attended MLB’s Australian Academy at different times.
Now the two lefties find themselves making up 40 percent of the Windy City ThunderBolts’ starting rotation.
“It’s kind of coincidental that now we’re both here,” Spence said. “We know a lot of the same people, we’ve been to a lot of the same places, and it’s cool being here together now.”
One place Spence has been that neither Robb nor any other current T-Bolt has is the big leagues. He spent parts of the 2011 and ’12 seasons in the San Diego Padres bullpen, compiling a 3.15 ERA in 51 appearances.
“I feel like it’s sunk in, but I’ll never really know how much it has sunk in,” he said. “You always play baseball to get to the next level and progress, so to be on a 25-man roster with an organization that there was three, four, five levels of minor league baseball under you, it’s a pretty special feeling. They say, ‘It’s hard to get there, but it’s harder to stay.’
“The guys in the clubhouse here have a few questions here and there. I’m very thankful for the experience and glad to share it.”
Spence signed June 19 with the T-Bolts. Robb joined the team Aug. 5. They’ve quickly become friends.
“Baseball’s not a big sport back home, so we can talk about rugby, cricket, (Australian rules football),” Robb said. “Those things make you feel more like you’re at home and not a visitor.”
Both shunned the more traditional sports in their home countries and began playing baseball at young ages. Spence came to the United States after high school and played for Central Arizona College before moving on to Arizona State and getting drafted by the Padres.
Robb was signed by the Twins when he was 16 and began playing pro ball in America at 18.
“I was playing in a regional tournament in South Africa and the Twins scouts were there, had a meeting with me and offered me a contract,” he said. “It was definitely a good experience, but at that age you obviously have no idea what you’ve got yourself into.”
Both say the adjustment to American life has been relatively smooth, though Robb — who saw snow for the first time last offseason — misses Christmas in summer.
Robb and Spence are just part of the international flavor for Windy City.
Reliever Victor Larez is from the more traditional baseball-producing country of Venezuela. Outfielder Daniel Aldrich grew up in South Carolina but was born on a military base in Germany.
German Markus Solbach began the year pitching for the T-Bolts before being signed by the Minnesota Twins, where he briefly played with Robb.
“It definitely spices things up having some international guys around,” Robb said. “You want to have some different cultural ways to make things interesting.”