Austin’s latest baseball stop – Colombia
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January 15, 2010 - LOVES PARK, Ill. – Rich Austin’s baseball tour of the world has taken him to Colombia.

The Rockford RiverHawk is spending the winter in the Colombian Winter League, playing for Leones Monteria (the Monteria Lions in English). It’s the third continent and sixth country where Austin has played a professional baseball game.

“When you go outside the United States’ borders, it’s a whole different ballgame,” Austin said. “It’s all fun, it’s all part of the ballgame. It’s a great experience to have.”

While the South American nation of 45 million has had a longstanding plague of political- and drug-fueled violence, Austin says Monteria, located near the Caribbean coast, is rather calm.

“It’s not too bad in the area where we are,” Austin said. “…The more dangerous areas are the bigger cities, like the capital, Bogota.”

The league, owned in part by San Fransisco Giants shortstop Edgar Renteria, a native Colombian, plays a 65-game schedule. Direct TV carries the league’s games and webcasts (both are in Spanish) are available at www.teamrenteria.com. Austin hit .303 with four home runs and 28 RBI during the regular season, which ended on Jan. 12. Through seven games of the round-robin postseason, Austin is hitting .296 with a home run and four RBI.

“(The quality of play is) pretty good,” Austin said. “It’s a little different from the other (overseas) leagues I’ve played in, because you’re allowed up to 10 foreigners. The other teams didn’t allow more than four. So there’s a lot more foreigners down here.”

In addition to natives, Austin’s teammates include Venezuelans, Dominicans and fellow Americans.

Austin said he struggled with his timing at first. One change he said Rockford fans may notice when he the Northern League season starts in May is he hits a lot more fly balls now – “It’s one of the things I’ve learned to do, with a guy on third and less than two outs.”

After the end of his first tenure with the RiverHawks in 2004, Austin had a brief stint in the Kansas City Royals organization and a successful run in the Northern League with Fargo-Moorhead, a playoff regular. After 2007, he began crossing the border regularly for his at-bats. The outfielder-first baseman has played both summer and winter ball in Mexico, the former at the Triple-A level with Tabasco of the Mexican League, for Calgary in the independent Golden League and two seasons in the Italian professional league. Austin spent most of 2008 and all of 2009 with Fortitudo Bologna of Italy’s Serie A. He led the league in home runs in ’08 and won a pennant in ’09. Among the locales for his road trips was the tiny nation of San Marino, the smallest country with a professional baseball team.

Austin has spent the last three winters playing ball south of the border. He says the extended baseball experience gets him seen by more scouts and decision-makers and gives him more baseball education.

“I’m also just learning things, experiencing different parts of the world, learning how they go about things,” Austin says. “… Meeting players from all around the world, learning how they play the game, learning things I can use myself.”

Austin describes the area as similar to Louisiana – humid and in the 90s – with a distinct culture from his previous Latin American stops.

“Even the Spanish is different,” he says. “Some of the words have a different meaning than in Mexico.”

His diet is heavy on steak and chicken. Guinea pig is a traditional dish served in Andean countries. Austin says he doesn’t believe he has tried it yet, but jokes, “You know what, you never know. I might have. … I thought the hamburgers tasted kind of funny.”

The Leones play their home games in Estadio 18 de Junio, a 4,500 seat, 56-year-old ballpark with dimensions similar to Road Ranger Stadium. The team averaged around 2,000 fans a night and Austin anticipated packed houses for the playoffs when interviewed last month.

Austin says the word that best describes Colombian fans is “passionate.”

“Passion is a great choice of words,” he says. “They’re not afraid to let you know how they feel, on both sides of the spectrum.”

The RiverHawks are members of the Northern League, an eight-team independent professional baseball league that will play its 18th season in 2010. The RiverHawks’ ninth season begins at 7:05 p.m. May 20 against the Schaumburg Flyers at Road Ranger Stadium. Advertising and ticket information is available by calling (815) 885-2255. Games are broadcast live on ESPN 1380 (WTJK-AM) and the internet. Fans can also visit the RiverHawks online at www.rockfordriverhawks.com.


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