ROUND ROCK, Texas - He’s laughing.
He’s smiling a smile so wide you have to wonder who takes care of his dental work.
Luke Hughes is happy, upbeat and seemingly carefree as he leans back in a rocking chair behind the outfield at The Dell Diamond, home of the Round Rock Express. He’s perfectly willing to just chat, and also ready to touch on the tough topics.
The 27-year-old has a lot to smile about. He made his first Opening Day roster with the Minnesota Twins this year, after a decade with the organisation. He was also one of the just six Australian players to have donned a big-league uniform so far this year.
“It’s fantastic,” Hughes said of his start to the season. “It was obviously a lot of hard work over the years. And I was disappointed last season not to make [the Opening Day roster]; being the last guy cut. But I got five months in the end up with the Twins, which was great.
“Then coming into this year, after playing in the Australian Baseball League; trying to come in to spring training prepared to compete for a spot because I knew that I was out of options. I made the team and I was pretty stoked about that.”
The Perth Heat infielder could only celebrate momentarily, as his season quickly entered a downward spiral, however temporary. With his team pressing early on, changes had to be made. Hughes just happened to be on the receiving end.
“It was short-lived,” he said of his excitement. “A couple of weeks into the season we were struggling and the Twins decided to let me go when Jason Marquis came back, which was a bit of a shock and a bit of a surprise. I didn’t really expect to be the first guy let go so I was disappointed with that.
“Then the whole process just started. I sat around for eight or nine days not doing anything. I didn’t have a place to hit; didn’t have a place to throw and I just kind of waited for the phone to ring. Sure enough, Oakland picked me up which was great.
“I flew up to Oakland the next day and the flight was delayed. I got in there about two hours before the game and they asked me if I could play; if I was ready. Of course I’m going to say yes. I’m not going to say no to that. And after not doing anything for eight or nine days, it wasn’t the debut I was really hoping for. I was a bit disappointed. Then two days later I got sick; got the flu; missed four games, played two more games and then got designated again.”
After his second designation, Hughes passed through waivers and ended up with the Triple-A Sacramento River Cats where he is currently working his way back up to Oakland. After a tough start, Hughes is now back on track and starting to fit in with his teammates.
The process has been made easier for the infielder because he has fellow Aussie Rich Thompson around. The native of Hornsby underwent similar circumstances to that of Hughes and they ended up together in Sacramento.
“Me and Richy are having a good time,” Hughes said. “We’re roommates on the road and stuff like that. Australians stick together; that’s just the way we are.”
Sacramento’s third baseman has always been a vocal advocate for his home country and the baseball within it. He is proud of the two Claxton Shield championships his Heat have claimed in the new ABL, but even more fulfilling for Hughes is that Perth’s victories have come with so much homegrown talent on the roster.
“Something that everyone says is how many American guys we had last year,” he said. “But if you look around the rest of the league they had as many players as we did. I think Melbourne had one less in the playoffs than we did.
“So there was a lot of complaining and it got kind of frustrating watching it all unfold from over here in the States. I was back over here and hearing all these people complain and they don’t actually understand how many local guys we actually have on the team. It’s getting stronger. And for [the league] to succeed it takes guys coming back and wanting to play in it...and guys are ready to come back and compete in spring training and that’s basically what helps them out a lot.”
A prime example of Perth’s local dominance is the most recent season’s ABL Pitcher of the Year, Warwick Saupold. After helping the Heat to five wins and leading the league with a 1.41 ERA, 70 innings pitched and a 0.93 WHIP, Saupold was picked up by the Detroit Tigers organisation.
While baseball has a strong presence in Western Australia, America’s favourite pastime wasn’t always the sport of choice for Hughes. The man at the hot corner was an accomplished footballer before making his decision to play baseball full-time.
“My parents’ best friends had a son who was three years older than me so whatever he did, I did,” Hughes said. “I just followed him. He played t-ball, so I started playing t-ball. He played footy; I played footy. He actually went on to baseball and he was a few years older than me so I was like, ‘I’m going to stay playing baseball as well.’
“I started playing baseball and in the wintertime I played football. I was just going back and forth between the sports and when I got a little bit older they started crossing over a little bit. Then when I was 15, just before I turned 16, I started playing football for a team called East Perth and then the Colts and we won the Grand Final.
“It was really quite odd. I wasn’t on the team for the whole year. I thought I was too young. I didn’t go down there and then I ended up playing in a little development-type thing and they said, ‘Come down.’ It was the last week of the season and I ended up playing the last game of the season with them and then in the Grand Final with them and we won it. I was like, ‘This is great, I want to play football,’ to try to continue to play that and the state team from that. So I decided I was going to play football and quit baseball.
“Then all of a sudden, Major League Baseball started an academy up on the Gold Coast and the very first year was that upcoming year. I started thinking about it a lot; decided to play baseball that off-season, the football off-season, just to see where it was at. I got asked to go to the academy and completely changed my mind and started playing baseball.
“It was a couple of months away from the family up at the Gold Coast and that sounded pretty good to a 16-year-old kid. So that completely changed my mind and I had to stop playing football, which was a pretty tough decision to make but I’m glad I made that one now.”
Though Hughes is happy with baseball and is pursuing his career on the diamond, he hasn’t given up the thought of one day getting back to footy.
“It’s tough,” Hughes said of not playing AFL anymore. “Because you know something for so long and then you can’t do it. I said I would play again. I will play one day after I’m done playing baseball. I’ll go back and play.”