DRAGON QUEST: A new county but a familiar sport
By BRANDON HURLEY
The itch never left, and it led him halfway across the world, culminating with an MVP award.
Tyler Cooklin’s love for baseball pushed the former East Greene standout to make his bravest jump yet – uprooting his life to play internationally in Australia.
Cooklin’s acclimated himself well beyond even his wildest dreams, earning the Baseball Victoria League MVP as a member of the Doncaster Dragons over the past weekend. It’s been a nearly seamless transition for the 2011 East Greene graduate, who had never left the country prior to his venture to the southern hemisphere last October.
The left-handed pitcher and center fielder never could’ve dreamed his life-long love for America’s past time would take him so far after beginning so small.
Australia is synonymous with kangaroos, boomerangs, cool accent’s and Foster’s beer – but soon, a rising American player may become a house hold name, and he hails from the cozy confines of Greene County, Iowa.
Little did Cooklin know that all the late night work and batting practice under the illuminating shop lights in the backyard with his dad, Davy, would come to fruition with him playing ball in one of the most desirable climates imaginable. A setback nearly derailed his dreams for good back in 2015
A shoulder surgery ended Cooklin’s college career a few months short and left the former East Greene pitcher yearning for more, believing his story had yet to reach its conclusion. That’s when he called on his memories as a Hawk and the relationships he built in Grand Junction.
Cooklin was one of East Greene’s most dominant pitchers over a two-year span, while also producing offensively at a high rate. As a senior in 2011, he went 5-4 in nine starts with a 2.60 ERA. He struck out 98 batters in 62 innings and maintained an opponents batting average against of .170. He also led the team in batting with a .494 average and 41 hits while stealing 23 bases, all three totals led the Rolling Hills Conference. He scored a team-high 29 runs as well. The lefty mowed down a career-high 15 batters in a 3-1 win over Guthrie Center during his senior season, tossing a complete game (7 IP), three-hitter, allowing just one run. Cooklin collected a team-best four hits in a 10-0 victory over Grandview Baptist that same year.
In his junior year, Cooklin struck out 107 batters in 68 innings and posted a 2.16 ERA, leading East Greene to a 19-12 record. His opponent’s batting average was a mere .135. The pitcher struck-out a season high 14 batters in a 4-3 loss to Woodward-Granger.
Following graduation, Cooklin went off to play two years of JuCo ball at Iowa Central Community College in Fort Dodge for two years. He later finished out his college eligibility at Penn College of Technology in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, a NCAA division III school, where he suffered his shoulder injury. Cooklin was named to the Penn State University Athletic Conference second team in 2014 and was honored with the Penn College Athlete of the Week Award March 3, 2014. He compiled a 6-2 record and a 3.40 ERA in his junior season, tossing a pair of complete games and striking out 70 batters in 53 innings.
Cooklin took a position as a field manager for the Williamsport Crosscutters following college graduation, a Class A minor league baseball team, where the itch to play once again blossomed.
Cooklin connected with a 13-year minor league veteran who played five seasons of winter ball over seas, Bubbie Buzachero, with a few stints in Australia while in Williamsport. The two hit it off while Cooklin shared his dream of how needed to scratch that ever-present itch once again.
“We talked a lot about it and how I’ve always wanted to further my career in baseball but [it] was cut short from shoulder surgery,” Cooklin said.
Buzachero reached the Triple A level a handful of times, last seeing action for the Long Island Ducks of the Independent League in 2012. He spent nine seasons in the minors and five winters in foreign leagues, his connections were deep. While playing for the Melbourne Aces in the Australian Baseball League in 2011, Buzachero compiled a 2-1 record with 15 strikeouts. He tossed out the idea that Cooklin should tryout for Australian baseball.
So the mentor and mentee went to work.
“We started training and getting back into shape, just to see if I had the tools to compete at the professional level over in Australia,” Cooklin said. “[Bubbie] said I had a lot of talent and thought with the right work ethic, I had a shot.”
The path back to playing shape was grueling since Cooklin took a year off to recover from his surgery. While still holding down a job with the Cross Cutters, Cooklin worked out twice a day, starting with weights at 6 a.m. and afternoon training sessions consisting of fielding, hitting, running and throwing. They sent a few tapes out to different teams, waiting for a bite. Things looked bleak as the deadline for Australian teams to pick up American players (each team is allowed one foreign player in the Baseball Victoria League) neared.
“I had been in contact with a few teams but no one seemed super interested and then a week before the deadline, I got a call that made it official,” Cooklin said. “It [was] a Monday night and the first thing I did was call my dad and told him the good news. Then two days later, I drove from Williamsport to Grand Junction, a 16-hour drive and flew out the fallowing Wednesday.”
An average flight from Des Moines to Melbourne takes about 23 hours, Cooklin landed 17 hours ahead of Iowa time.
The transition to Australian life set in immediately, the moment Cooklin entered a car after arriving at the airport. The quirky difference caught him off guard. He realized he was sitting in the passenger’s seat, but where the driver would normally sit in America, on the left hand side. The reality and magnitude of his move had begun to bubble up to the surface. Cooklin used baseball as his motivator and crutch, he sought comfort in familiarity.
“I had only been to a handful of different states, so this was a pretty aggressive move considering,” Cooklin said. “But that being said, baseball had been a huge passion since I was a young kid, so it just made sense to take advantage at a second chance to play another year of ball. That’s a lot more than a lot of people get, so it wasn’t a hard decision to make.”
Cooklin took up residence during the season in Rowville, a small suburb of Melbourne.
Located in the southeast corner of Australia, Melbourne is the second largest city on the continent, behind only Sydney.
Australian summers last from December to February, with spring preceding the warmest season of the year from September through November. Cooklin arrived in October 2016, just in time for the brunt of spring. The spring is quite similar to Iowa, with temperatures consistently between 50 and 60 degrees. Average summer temperatures in Melbourne hover right around a comfortable 77 degrees.
The 2017 summer season came to a close over the past weekend (Feb. 25) with the Dragons missing the playoffs, despite Cooklin’s MVP season. Official end of the season stats will not available for a few more weeks, though Cooklin made an immediate impact. He led the division in batting at .417 over the first half of the season, tallying three triples. The rejuvenated Greene County native kicked off the return from break with a sparkling pitching performance in early January, tossing five innings of four-hit ball with six strikeouts. He also knocked in a run during the Dragons’ 5-1 win over the Werribee Giants. He was thrilled with how well he managed on the mound, even with his prior battles with his shoulder.
Despite his instant success, Cooklin said he initially struggled to adjust to the use of a wooden bat and the intense competition. Aluminum bats are used at both the high school and college level in America.
“It was pretty rough at the beginning coming from taking a year off, it really makes a difference in the comfortability and the speed of the game,” Cooklin said. “That being said, I’ve settled in quite well and the game has slowed down for me, which is a great sign.”
That comfort paid off in a big way, capturing the league MVP award in his first go-around in Australian baseball.
Though he’s transitioned smoothly on the field, Cooklin may never be able to fully adjust to the strange to the Australian lingo. That, and the light ribbing he receives for his American accent has been his biggest hurdles.
“It is a little different being the odd one out in regards to my American accent,” the former Hawk said. “We often jokingly disagree on pronunciation and names of things such as calling a hooded sweat shirt a ‘jumper’ and sweat pants ‘trackies.’”
The Cooklin family has been the driving force behind Tyler’s dabble into international baseball. Though they are 17 hours behind which makes consistent communication difficult, they have played a key role in maintaining Cooklin’s sanity.
“I would say my only struggle is not being around my family and friends, I kind of left them all on short notice,” Cooklin said. “They have been great with being there for me after a bad game or just your everyday homesickness. They definitely make it easier on me being here away from them.”
Technology has been the real MVP so far.
“I really wouldn’t be where I am today without the support from my family, especially my youngest sister, Graci Ann, for all the Snapchats and video chats to keep me from missing home too much,” Cooklin said.
His dad, Davy has pushed Cooklin to pursue his dreams and keep his love of the game, developing young Tyler in areas more than just baseball.
“He was really the only one who knew all of the details throughout the whole thing and kept me in check and made sure I gave it everything I had, even though he was 1,000 miles away,” Cooklin said. “If it wasn’t for him pushing me and all those late nights and putting [in] extra work, I wouldn’t be the man or player I am today.”
For now, Cooklin’s focused on bettering himself as a player and though he still takes time to enjoy his new surroundings, he’s 100 percent committed to baseball and extending his once dwindling career. The homesickness never crept up too far.
“I spend a lot of time in the gym or training when I’m not working,” Cooklin said. “I’d say training takes up most of my time here, but it’s all fun and easy to stay motivated to continue to get better when you truly enjoy what you’re doing.
I have a pretty good relationship with most of the team. We all workout and train together outside of practice, they have welcomed me pretty well.”
Of course, his on field success has helped his transition to the Australian culture, but his decision to make the leap across the pod has paid tremendous dividends, helping him become an even more well-rounded person. If an opportunity to play any sport overseas presents itself, Cooklin encourages athletes to jump at the chance.
“Enjoy every minute of it and be open to the new culture and surroundings. It’s amazing what you learn just from being surrounded by different people and different ways of life,” the Victoria League MVP said, who will officially receive his award March 16. “I have learned so much about different cultures and and ways of life. It’s crazy to think how similar we are yet so different in so many ways.”