* Maxx Tissenbaum (Toronto, Ont.) a Tampa Bay Rays farmhand has met all kinds of connection playing for the Brisbane Bandits including Jaz Shergill (Toronto, Ont.) whose cousin, Jasvir Rakkar (Brampton, Ont.), pitched for Tissenbaum’s Stony Brook Sea Wolves on their way to the College World Series in Omaha.
By Alexis Brudnicki
BRISBANE, Queensland, Australia –Maxx Tissenbaumwas a little hesitant at first.
When he was approached with the idea that he might be heading all the way across the world to Australia for some winter ball action, he wasn’t overly excited about the opportunity. It was a big commitment, it was incredibly far from home, and it was during his only downtime.
With a couple of months, several weekend series and 20 games under his belt with the Brisbane Bandits in the Australian Baseball League, the 23-year-old Tampa Bay Rays prospect has completely changed his mind.
“Absolutely,” Tissenbaum said. “I’ve said to a number of people that if I’m not in the Arizona Fall League or if the Rays don’t send me somewhere next year, I would gladly come back down here. I’ve had such a good time in the first month-and-a-half. It really is a long way away and a huge commitment but because of how the schedule is with the three days off my body doesn’t feel worn out or tired.
“It’s nice to be able to come out, focus on winning, have fun playing, and just almost get back to the college-style game where everybody is just pulling for one another and trying to win games as opposed to trying to work on things or get your numbers up to wherever the staff wants them to be.”
The primary objective for Tissenbaum during his stint down under is to get some more time in behind the plate, after being converted to the catching position by the San Diego Padres organization before he was traded to Tampa Bay last off-season. So far, so good.
“It’s been really good,” the Toronto native said. “Brady [Williams], who’s our Double-A coach, came down with [the four players the Rays sent to Brisbane] and he and I have been doing a lot of work…
“It’s just figuring out what needs to be worked on for the games, and that changes week to week, so I’m kind of getting at everything. I wasn’t blocking great the first couple of weeks so we did a ton of blocking drills through the first two weeks and now I feel pretty comfortable with it. The last couple weeks it’s been throwing because my arm felt off, so footwork and transferring the ball and that kind of stuff.
“Now all of a sudden I feel like I’m back where I should be. It’s been awesome to be able to catch three days in a row when I’m getting so many pitches and stuff, seeing the game from back there more.”
Though he wasn’t overly excited about the idea of moving from the middle infield to behind the plate at first, Tissenbaum has been happy with the transition and all that has come with it so far.
“I knew it was coming,” he said. “I’ve heard it probably since I was 13 or 14 – ‘You’re not fast enough foot-speed-wise to play the middle infield, you should think about catching. You’re a left-handed bat, good footwork, you know the game.’
“Part of me [thought] what the heck, because I felt like I had a pretty good year in Fort Wayne in 2013. At the end of the year I was [thinking] I played well defensively, I hit pretty well – why are we doing it now?
“But now that I’ve sort of been through the transition and I’m learning it and I had the meetings with the Rays staff before the season and through instructs this year, it really makes sense to get it done now while I’m still young in terms of being in the system. I’m enjoying it now, which is the most important thing, so it’s been a good thing overall.”
The extra time behind the dish for Tissenbaum in Queensland follows his first full season of catching. With the Charlotte Stone Crabs in the Florida State League over the course of the summer, the new backstop not only hit .288/.327/.399 with six home runs, 15 doubles, two triples and 51 RBIs in 86 games, but he also caught 12 of 28 attempted base stealers and put up a .992 fielding percentage.
“I was pretty pleasantly surprised with how I did [during the regular season] because it’s completely different,” Tissenbaum said. “It’s such a huge change. I thought I did a pretty good job battling, learning how to do it, and getting through the year. I think I’ve made adjustments well, which is important.
“I didn’t think for one second that I’d be feeling ‘catcherish’ by the end of the year because when I started it felt so foreign. I felt like by the end of the year I had that confidence where I went out there and I could just go and play as opposed to thinking my way through the game like I was in the beginning of the year.”
The toughest part of the new job for the former 11th-round pick of the Padres out of Stony Brook University has been pitch recognition between different hurlers and blocking the ball.
“It’s recognizing each pitcher’s shape of their pitches and knowing when you’ve got to block,” he said. “First, the mental road block of wanting to put your body in front of the ball, and then actually recognizing when to do it, because each guy’s breaking ball is going to look different; each guy’s changeup is going to look different.
“Then knowing the situations when no matter what, you’ve got to kill this ball. So just learning how to do that has been the most difficult.”
Tissenbaum has also found it a work in progress to protect his thumb while he is behind the dish.
“The first couple days at instructs with the Padres and then again the first few days at spring training this year, it was absolutely awful,” he said. “I was finding ways to thumb myself on pitches that now that I’m getting a feel for it, [I realize] should never be thumb-able.
“On a straight fastball or a fastball to my throwing-hand side, those are easy to catch because it’s not going to run into that part of your thumb, and I was somehow finding a way to do it. It was terrible my first couple weeks both times.”
The former member of the Canadian Junior National Team has been proud of his progress, with the most emphasis on his development with framing pitches.
“We always talk about receiving and presenting the ball,” Tissenbaum said. “I know early in the year my receiving numbers weren’t very good. I wasn’t getting borderline pitches. As the year went on, I started to get more and more of those, just because I started to learn how to move my hand around the bottom of the strike zone, which is important.
“Coming out here and being able to catch three or four games in a weekend and getting those reps over and over again, seeing where the ball is and how to attack it, I’ve made the most progress there because now it’s starting to feel like I can get to more pitches and keep more stuff in the zone.”
While Tissenbaum has been working on the defensive aspects of his game, he has also moved to the top of the Aussie league’s leaderboard for his offence. Hitting .328/.416/.507 with three home runs, three doubles, eight walks, two stolen bases, 15 runs scored and 11 runs driven in over 20 games, he was one of four Canadians named to the World roster for the ABL All-Star Game.
“The league is better than I expected,” he said. “I was surprised coming down here how competitive it is and really how good the arms are. I wasn’t expecting guys to come out and to be able to pitch the way they do, offensively and defensively. I was expecting it to be [more] working on things defensively as opposed to really getting a lot out of the games like I am.”
Also helping his experience, Tissenbaum has embraced the circuit and the city he landed in just a couple of months ago, and has found the baseball community in Australia to be very similar to that of Canada.
“Absolutely,” he said. “It’s funny how they all know each other the same way that we do. Some of the Aussie guys like Connor MacDonald, one of our development players, he was asking me about Brock Dykxhoorn because he played with him with the [Houston] Astros. I know the name, he’s a Team Canada guy, I know he’s a pitcher – and it’s the same kind of thing with them.
“They all know each other. I’ve played with [Melbourne’s pitching coach John] Hussey and I’ve played with Corey Adamson, who was with the Perth Heat up until this year, and they all know each other in the same way we do – ‘I’ve played with him, I’ve played against him, he’s a couple years old than me, but I know him.’ It’s very similar to how the Canadian guys are.”
With four Canadians around the league, and one additional player who was born in Toronto and raised in Australia, the only one Tissenbaum knew ahead of time was Aces catcher Kellin Deglan, because the two spent time together on the junior national squad.
Though he has yet to meet Deglan’s senior national teammate Tim Smith, currently with the Heat in Perth, his Bandits teammate Jaz Shergill introduced himself to Tissenbaum when the two met on the diamond for the first time and was quick to mention their Stony Brook connection, with Shergill’s cousin — Jasvir Rakkar (Brampton, Ont.) — having played with the Bandits catcher in college. Rakkar is in his third year pitching in the Chicago Cubs system and was 3-2 with a 3.83 ERA and one save in 25 games at Class-A Kane County, Class-A Daytona, Class-A Boise and Triple A Iowa.
“It’s really nice,” Tissenbaum said of the Canuck connection. “It’s always nice, even during the season, just because there are so few of us who are still doing it. It’s a taste of home even if it’s not someone you were particularly close with when you were playing with them …
“It’s nice to see familiar faces and hear a familiar voice and to be able to relate to stuff back home. Jaz and I were talking about the Raptors and I’m not even a Raptors fan. It’s cool to have people to talk about home with.”
One thing that has occasionally crossed a few of the Canadian players’ minds over the winter months has been the upcoming Pan American Games. With Ajax hosting all of the baseball games, Team Canada will be playing right in Tissenbaum’s territory in July.
“I’ve heard so many good things about that complex they built,” he said. “I know the Toronto Mets played out there a couple times in the fall and when I was out there working with them all their coaches were saying it’s the best ballpark in Canada; it’s just an unbelievable complex. It would be cool to go out and see it because I never did when I was at home.
“And obviously it’s always the biggest honour to wear that jersey, that logo, that word across your chest. That was the coolest part of my high school baseball experience for sure, showing up the first trip and seeing the Canada jerseys all laid out and thinking, oh my God that’s what I’m going to wear for the next 10 days. It would be awesome.”
For now, Tissenbaum is looking forward to the rest of the season with the Bandits, who have been sitting at or near the top of the standings for the entirety of the year so far. The catcher is hoping to help the squad in any way possible and start a new trend in Brisbane.
“We’ve got a good enough team that we can surprise a lot of people,” Tissenbaum said. “We can probably make it into the playoffs and battle from there. I would love to make the playoffs with this team just because I know it’s been a tough couple of years for them to say the least.
“After what the guys said last year about how the season went, just to be able to turn it around and play winning baseball and have a chance to play for a championship is always the best part. That would be the big thing.”