Each offseason, Seattle Mariners left-hander Ryan Rowland-Smith returns home to Australia and tries to make baseball a more high-profile sport there.
But his efforts have failed to lift America’s national pastime past Australian favorites rugby and cricket, in which a match can take several days to complete.
“It amazes me. People in Australia tell me baseball is boring, but they’ll watch cricket for five hours on a Saturday? I don’t get it,” Rowland-Smith said Wednesday by phone. “I don’t want to knock on cricket, but it never really appealed to me.”
Rowland-Smith, 26, is slated to start for Seattle against the Colorado Rockies at 12:10 p.m. Saturday at Cashman Field in the spring training finale for both teams.
Born and raised in Sydney, Rowland-Smith played rugby and other sports while growing up, but after watching the 1993 World Series, he fell in love with baseball.
“I was just fascinated by the game,” Rowland-Smith said. “I love the whole hype of American sports. They always put on a great show. That’s something lacking in Australia.”
Despite playing baseball only on weekends, the 6-foot-3-inch, 240-pound Rowland-Smith steadily improved and, upon graduating from high school in 2000, signed with Seattle as an undrafted free agent.
“I had no idea what I was in for, and here I am,” said Rowland-Smith, who pitched parts of eight seasons in the minor leagues, mostly in relief, going 26-23 with a 3.96 ERA, before emerging as a solid starter for the Mariners during the second half of last season.
In 12 starts, he went 3-2 with a 3.50 ERA and closed the season with eight straight quality starts, the longest streak by a Seattle pitcher in six years.
Rowland-Smith decided not to play for Australia in this spring’s World Baseball Classic so he could focus all his energy on cracking the Mariners’ starting rotation.
“A huge goal for me, coming into camp, was I wanted to be in the rotation, no matter what,” he said.
Despite compiling a 6.75 ERA in five spring starts, Rowland-Smith (1-0), who held Milwaukee to two runs in six innings Monday, was rewarded Wednesday with the fifth spot in Seattle’s rotation.
“All spring training, I’ve been in competitive mode, competing for a job, but now it’s about resetting for the season,” Rowland-Smith said. “On Saturday, I just want to make sure I’m throwing all my pitches for strikes, and hopefully I can get in situations and jams and work my way out of them.
“Hopefully it will give me a boost of confidence before the season starts.”
Rowland-Smith will follow Felix Hernandez, Erik Bedard, Carlos Silva and Jarrod Washburn in the rotation and said “if everyone stays healthy, we’re going to have a really strong starting five.”
Smith also expects the Mariners — bolstered by the addition of veterans Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Sweeney and new manager Don Wakamatsu — to be much improved from last season, when they went an American League-worst 61-101.
“This year we’ve got some character and personalities in the locker room that maybe we didn’t have last year,” Rowland-Smith said. “Having a guy like Ken Griffey Jr. come back, he’s a great clubhouse guy, and another guy like Mike Sweeney, they’re veteran guys that really boost the club.
“They’re very approachable, and from a young guy’s standpoint, it’s refreshing to have that in the locker room and it makes a huge, huge difference. We’re all starting to come together, and … it makes it easy to compete on the field when you know guys have your back and support you.”
Contact reporter Todd Dewey at tdewey@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0354.BIG LEAGUE WEEKEND
SEATTLE VS. COLORADO
WHEN: 7:05 p.m. today, 12:10 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Cashman Field
PITCHERS: Today, Mariners LHP Jarrod Washburn vs. Rockies LHP Franklin Morales; Saturday, Mariners LHP Ryan Rowland-Smith vs. Rockies RHP Jason Marquis
LINE: Mariners -125 (today)