BANGOR, Maine — John Key’s major job challenges these days aren’t much different from those of every other world leader.
“It’s the economy, the global impact of the economy,” said Key, the prime minister of New Zealand. “We’re just coming through the recession like everyone else.”
But for a few days this week, at least some of Key’s concentration — and his physical presence — is a world away, at Mansfield Stadium, where his 17-year-old son Max is an outfielder for the Bayside Westhaven Little League team of Auckland, New Zealand, that is playing in the 2012 Senior League World Series.
“It’s huge,” said Key Sunday night moments before the New Zealand team’s first game of pool play against U.S. Southwest champion West University Little League of Houston, Texas. “You feel immensely proud of your children and you realize they’re growing up and defining their lots and doing wonderful things.”
The 51-year-old Key has served as prime minister of the island nation of 4.4 million located in the southwestern Pacific Ocean some 900 miles east of Australia since 2008. It’s a job that leaves him little time to follow the pursuits of his son or daughter Stephie.
“I’ve been prime minister for four years, and it’s really 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, so there are a lot of things I just can’t go to and can’t see,” he said.
But once Max Key and his Bayside Westhaven teammates won the Asia-Pacific SLWS qualifying tournament in Guam last month, his father the prime minister pledged to join him in Bangor.
“I couldn’t go [to Guam],” said Key, who has a background in investment banking and was a member of the Foreign Exchange Committee of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York from 1999 to 2001 before returning to his native New Zealand to pursue a political career. “In fact, I’ve been hugely busy, but I promised him if they got to the World Series I’d come, so I’m keeping my word and I’m here.
“I saw him play in Hong Kong once, I literally flew up for the day when he was on the Little League side, but this is the first time I’ve taken a week off to go and see him play.”
Key said the fact his son’s team — the first from New Zealand to qualify for a World Series at any level — has reached the SLWS is big news back home, and it may spur additional growth in a sport that, while lagging far behind such local staples as rugby and cricket, is gaining momentum.
“You’re apt to see a whole lot of players willing to join the sport and participate,” he said, “because we always see that when we see a New Zealand team doing well, whether it’s basketball or whatever it might be.”
Key adds that anyone anticipating an instant baseball boom in New Zealand may have to be patient.
“It’s an emerging sport, so it’s quite small but growing reasonably rapidly,” said Key. “Softball’s been the predominant ball sport along with cricket. Softball’s a sport we adopted in the ’50s and now baseball’s really starting to take over, so you see a merging of softball players starting to play baseball and I think over time there’s a chance baseball might be a much bigger sport relative to softball in New Zealand.
“But competing with big sports like rugby I think is a long way down the road.”
Still, Key said the last few years have seen an increased amount of investment in New Zealand baseball, with more infrastructure and bigger diamonds being built to complement an increased knowledge base in the sport coming in part from the United States.
Baseball also is attracting more government support, he said.
“Historically it’s been based on how big the sport is, so obviously a game like rugby gets a massive amount of funding in New Zealand while a lot of the smaller sports have struggled,” said Key, whose own athletic background was in squash and rugby but now is centered on golf. “We’ve been putting a lot more money into sport as a government over the last four years, and we’ve really been trying to encourage some of the newer sports.”
One of those sports newer to New Zealand is baseball, which Max Key discovered while watching American major leaguers play on television.
His dad is glad he did.
“He was probably about 10 and he came into the kitchen and said, ‘I want to play baseball,’” said Key. “He’s had great experiences. He’s been to Guam, he’s been to Taiwan and now to Maine, so he’s had a great chance to see the world and be part of the New Zealand team.”