Who cares that he hasn't wrestled a crocodile? Ryan Rowland-Smith could give the most interesting man in the world a run for his money, and he definitely has one of the most interesting backgrounds of any player in the Astros clubhouse.
The 28-year-old left-hander, signed by the Astros in December, will make his fourth appearance of Grapefruit League play when he starts on Sunday in Houston's split-squad game against the Tigers in Lakeland, Fla. He's one of five arms competing for the fifth spot in the rotation.
For Rowland-Smith, this spring has been as much about trying to re-establish himself following his disastrous 1-10 season of a year ago with the Mariners as it has been about answering questions about his background from teammates and media alike.
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"Any time when you're coming over here from Australia, people always want to know how you go into baseball and your background," Rowland-Smith said. "I remember when I told my dad I was going to play baseball as a kid, he went silent for about five minutes.
"I played rugby, but you wouldn't be able to play both because they're at the same time at the weekend. You had to basically to make a decision. I really wanted to play baseball. I said I couldn't play [rugby] any more, and he was like, 'This is bizarre.'"
Rowland-Smith, 28, was inspired to play baseball by watching VHS tapes of the 1993 World Series between the Blue Jays and Phillies. He began playing at age 12 in Australia and signed with the Mariners at 17. In 2004 he helped Australia to a silver medal at the Athens Olympics, and played for his country in the World Baseball Classic in 2006 and 2009.
Rowland-Smith spent 11 years in the Seattle organization, going 12-17 with a 4.57 ERA in 115 career Major League games. He wasn't tendered a contract following last season and signed with Houston with hopes of rejuvenating his career.
"It didn't take me long to feel comfortable around all the guys," he said. "The coaching staff has been good. I've had good conversations with [pitching coach] Brad Arnsberg about different things and just trying to tackle what went wrong last year, and I tried to get on track and be as good as I can be."
Of course, coming to a new team meant that Rowland-Smith had to answer more questions about his upbringing in Australia and the stereotypes that come with that.
"It feels like it's all been refreshed coming over here, because you have new people saying, 'You drink Foster's? You play rugby? You have a pet kangaroo?' " he said. "Some of the stereotypes are actually true. I say 'mate' every other word when I'm back home. It's just a different culture in Australia. Until you go there, it's hard to put a finger on it."
Even now, people in Australia aren't quite sure how he could make a living playing baseball.
"I've had a couple times at home when people would say, 'What do you do?' And I say, 'I play baseball.' They say, 'What do you do for a job?' " he said. "In Australia, baseball doesn't exist. For the most part, people are interested in how it all works, and some people have some exposure to it. We're not living on Mars, but it's nothing like it is here with people knowing all the teams."
Rowland-Smith's father is a trainer who has worked with professional rugby teams in Australia, as well as with such high-profile surfers as Kelly Slater. His oldest sister, Rhiannon, was a competitive surfer for years, and his mother is physical education teacher. His other sister, Stef, lives in Hong Kong.
"I grew up on the beach, and my whole family's been involved in surfing," Rowland-Smith said. "As a kid, every holiday was camping on the beach. My dad was heavily involved in professional surfing. That's part of the culture, too. In my high school, there were days I'd walk up to school, and you could feel the offshore breeze and look around and none of your friends were at school. You thought, 'What's going on? Ah, the surf must be good.' That's just how it is down there. That's something I miss, too."
Rowland-Smith still surfs in Australia during the offseason, but he doesn't find the time to do it in the U.S. Earlier this spring he drove to nearby Cocoa Beach, Fla. -- Slater's hometown -- and took pictures of the area's waters. When he was told that the Astros held Spring Training in Cocoa Beach for years, Rowland-Smith was envious.
"Well, they need to move back," he joked. "I'm going to have to talk to someone."
For now, Rowland-Smith will have to be content with Kissimmee, where he'll spend the next three weeks battling Nelson Figueroa, Jordan Lyles, Lance Pendleton and Aneury Rodriguez for the fifth spot in the rotation. Considering that he's two years removed from going 5-4 with a 3.74 ERA with the Mariners, the Astros are hoping for the best.
"Our scouts like his arm, like his stuff," general manger Ed Wade said. "The feeling was that pitching in Seattle, in a perfect world, he would have pitched fifth for them, and by virtue of things that happened and health issues and other things, he probably got pushed into a role that he was not prepared for. He's big, strong, left-handed and has good stuff, and adding him to the mix to the fifth starter completion made all the sense in the world for us."
Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less