Detroit Tigers’ Clayton Campbell: ‘I’m going to be’ first New Zealand-born player in MLB

Detroit Free Press

Clayton Campbell Jr. wants to become the first New Zealand-born player to make his MLB debut.

“I’m going to be that first one,” Campbell said Dec. 21 from his home near Sydney, Australia, where he has lived since 2009.

The Detroit Tigers signed Campbell on Dec. 10 for a $125,000 bonus as an international free agent. The 18-year-old, who also received interest from the Philadelphia Phillies, Texas Rangers, Minnesota Twins, San Diego Padres and Oakland Athletics, expects to play first base, third base and catcher as a professional.

Campbell, at 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, will compete for the Tigers in the rookie-level Florida Complex League to start the 2022 season.

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“As soon as that contract came in, my dad and I just looked at each other like, this is it,” Campbell said, “I’m going to be the first New Zealand-born player to make it to the major leagues. That is a lifetime goal for me.”

Campbell arrived in Tampa, Florida, in December 2021 with the DownUnder Travellers. The showcase team, founded and coached by Ben Moore, takes baseball prospects from Australia to compete in tournaments in the United States.

“He’s got a bright future ahead of him,” Moore said Jan. 9. “He’s a strong kid, built like a football player. I really like his bat. I think he’s got a real chance to hit, and with power and authority. When he comes to the plate, he’s looking to do damage. … I like him as a catcher first. His pop time has improved. He’s going to be solid behind the plate. The glove receives well and blocks well. He’s an interesting guy, for sure.”

In front of 15 scouts, Campbell completed hitting, running, fielding and throwing drills in Tampa. The DownUnder Travellers continued their stateside trip in Fort Lauderdale for a three-day tournament from Dec. 6-8 against fellow international prospects. All the players, besides the five Australians, spoke Spanish. The tournament shuffled rosters for three seven-inning games.

“That was a real eye-opener for me, not knowing how to speak Spanish,” Campbell said. “In pro ball, I know there’s a lot of Latin guys. … The velocity change with the pitches was pretty good. I was prepping for two weeks before that.”

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Campbell went 5-for-6 with one double and two home runs in two games.

His agent, Joseph Guzman from Empowerment Sports Group, said he spoke “several times” with Tigers scout Kevin Hooker before the showcase; Tigers director of international operations Tom Moore didn’t need to evaluate the third and final game.

Moore prioritized signing Campbell before other teams.

“After the second day, the Tigers offered to sign me,” Campbell said. “I went back to the hotel and talked to my family. We accepted the deal. Two days later, my dad and I drove up to Lakeland. I had to do all the testing there, and then I became a Tiger.

“I was pretty much shaking. I was over the moon. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.”

Visiting Comerica Park

Campbell’s father, Clayton Sr., grew up playing softball in New Zealand. He traveled to Canada in 2008 for a one-year stint with the Edmonton Blackhawks in the North Central Alberta Baseball League.

The next year, Campbell Sr. moved to Australia and took his 5-year-old son to a local park for his first taste of baseball. The sport introduced Campbell Jr. to his closest friends. Three of them developed into prospects, too: Solomon Maguire (Pittsburgh Pirates), Jake Burns (St. Louis Cardinals) and Jimmy Nati (Stanford commit).

At age 13, Campbell learned scouts were keeping tabs on him.

“That pushed me even more,” Campbell said. “Like, I knew I was a player.”

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He made national headlines for his performance in the 2016 Little League World Series, throwing an 82-pitch complete game with 14 strikeouts to eliminate Curacao, the island country Tigers second baseman Jonathan Schoop led to a 2004 LLWS title.

Campbell then represented Australia in the 2017 Junior League World Series in Taylor, Michigan. He visited Comerica Park, the third MLB ballpark he saw in person, thanks to Warwick Saupold, an Australian-born pitcher employed by the Tigers from 2016-18.

“He got us in the game,” Campbell said. “Detroit is beautiful. I loved it. I saw Miggy (Miguel Cabrera), saw everyone. Didn’t get to meet them, but we got to go on the field and around the back in the tunnels. It was unreal.”

Manny Being Manny

In August 2020, the Sydney Blue Sox — the most popular team in the Australian Baseball League — picked up their biggest name yet. That’s when two-time World Series champion Manny Ramirez signed a one-year contract as a player/coach.

“I see my role as trying to help the young players,” Ramirez told the New York Times in December 2020 through a team spokesman. “Teaching them my experience that I got from MLB. I’m just happy to help anyway I can.”

Ramirez, now 49, played 19 seasons in MLB from 1993-2011. The 12-time All-Star hit .312 with 555 home runs in 2,302 games. He won the World Series with the Boston Red Sox in the 2004 and 2007 seasons, along with being named World Series MVP in ’04.

“I got to talk to him a bit,” Campbell said. “I worked with him on my hitting. That was amazing, working with him. He’s legit. We were hitting in the cages and talked about his experience in the bigs.”

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The Blue Sox released Ramirez in January 2021 due to uncertainty about the pandemic and a medical problem. The baseball-lifer didn’t appear in any of his team’s 14 games last year, but he enjoyed practicing at Blacktown International Sportspark in Sydney.

Ramirez typically arrived before most of his teammates/players.

“We were on lockdown and stuff,” Campbell said. “He would get there pretty early (in the morning) for early work, and so would I and a couple other boys. When he hit, I just watched him and picked his brain. I asked him a few questions about his hitting routine. He talked to me about it.”

During this time, Campbell was on a development contract with the Blue Sox. He would have played for the Auckland Tuatara, but his team, citing the COVID-19 pandemic, dropped out of the 2020-21 ABL season.

“I didn’t get any game time (for the Blue Sox), but I was allowed to go to the field to train with them,” said Campbell, who singled in his lone at-bat for the Tuatara as a 16-year-old in the 2019-20 ABL season.

“One time, in the dugout, we were just talking and watching a game. (Ramirez) gifted me a bat. I didn’t know it was for me. I thought he was just saying, here, look at it. He said, ‘You can have it.’ It was amazing.”

The ABL canceled the 2021-22 season because of COVID-19. Campbell is slated to play for the Tuatara in the 22-23 campaign, after finishing his first season in the Tigers’ organization.

Chatting with Torkelson

Before meeting Ramirez, Campbell encountered Spencer Torkelson, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 draft, in a 2019 college showcase at Arizona State University.

“A couple of the boys from Australia got selected to go over there,” Campbell said. “We played with people from Europe, Brazil and other international countries. … We were lucky enough to play against Spencer Torkelson.”

The Tigers, of course, drafted Torkelson. He reached Triple-A Toledo in 2021 and is expected to make his MLB debut in 2022. The 22-year-old hit .267 with 30 home runs last season in the minors.

“He’s legit,” Campbell said.

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In his three-year career at Arizona State, Torkelson hit .337 with 54 home runs, 110 walks and 104 strikeouts in 129 games. He broke Barry Bonds‘ freshman home run record by slugging 25 homers in 2018. (Bonds had 11 back in 1984.)

“They were using metal bats at that time, and I was playing third base,” Campbell said. “Spencer can flat-out hit. Me at third base and him using a metal bat, I can tell you it was freaky being in the hot corner.”

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A single to left field allowed Campbell and Torkelson — Arizona State’s first baseman — to break the ice. (Campbell said he wants to have more conversations with Torkelson in the future.)

“I was just talking to him about his season,” Campbell said. “I didn’t want to mention the draft or anything. But he was asking where I’m from in Australia and how long I’ve been playing. It was a pretty good conversation. It wasn’t too long because I was on the base, but it was good being next to a first rounder.

“Hopefully, I’ll be playing alongside him.”

Maybe it could happen, but a lot separates Campbell from his MLB debut.

And remember, there hasn’t been a New Zealand-born player in the big leagues. Campbell has heard from his friends that the first year is the toughest. Spending more than six months without family isn’t easy. Campbell plans to FaceTime as much as possible, but it’s not the same as being with them in Australia.

To cope, Campbell will “put my head down and strive to be the best every time I go out there.”

He hopes that mindset leads to a promotion in 2022.

“My goal right now is, I’m moving up (to Low-A Lakeland) the first year,” said Campbell, who doesn’t turn 19 until September. “I got my mind set on it. I got big goals, big goals ahead.”

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.

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