For 20 years, the ‘Halestorm’ - three-time Black Sox world champion Donny Hale - was of the most feared and respected softball sluggers in the world.
Donny – who is still playing professionally in Japan today in his mid-40s - drifted into softball as a youngster in Auckland after being star-struck watching New Zealand power hitters Ian Stringer and Murray McLean blasting home runs in a television game in the 1980s.
Drawn to Mt Roskill’s Fearon Park, Donny set the scene for a career as a hitter by slamming three homes in his first game as a 10-year-old.
Like a lot of other talented Black Sox athletes, he first made his mark for Auckland, and was selected as such for his Black Sox tour to North America in 1994.
There was a logjam of pitching talent in New Zealand then, and it took a couple of years for Donny to resurface in a Black Sox jersey.
The 1.95m all-rounder reinvented himself as a long ball hitter after initially adding 15kg in the gym to give him more speed on the mound.
“I decided that hitting the ball was more fun,’’ Donny said in Relentless, the book devoted to the Black Sox’s 2004 world championship title victory. “I wanted to be the guy who hit the home runs.’’
For the next 15 or so years, he was just that – a regular in the middle of a power-packed New Zealand batting unit collectively acclaimed as the best the game has seen.
Donny – who earned 110 Black Sox caps - went on to dominate pitchers in elite competitions in New Zealand, North America and Japan, winning titles everywhere he went.
For all his innate physical gifts, Donny was also renowned for being a student of the game, particularly the art of hitting a ball long and far. He talked at length with Mark Sorenson about the mental aspects of hitting and gleaned a lot of insights too from playing and coaching overseas.
At one point, Donny was even writing a regular column about batting for a Japanese softball magazine.
While power was Donny’s most obvious asset, former Black Sox coach Don Tricker once said it was his bat speed that set him apart. “I think he has the potential to be the best batter we have ever produced,’’ Tricker said in 2004. “Every time he hits the ball, he’s a legitimate home run threat.’’
Hale hammered two home runs in his first world title winning tournament with the Black Sox in 2000 and was also in the heart of the line-up for the 2004 triumph in Christchurch, where he batted .444.
Donny’s final gold medal came at home in Auckland in 2013 and he won his final cap a season later, 20 years after his first.
In his prime, he won the New Zealand Player of the Year award four times – including three years in a row from 2001 to 2003.
A regular visitor to the International Softball Congress tournament – North America’s prestige club competition – Donny’s name still features prominently on the honours board. He is tied for the most home runs at a tournament (7, shared with Jarrad Martin and Patrick Shannon) and for most RBIs (17, shared with Wayne Laulu). He is also in a three-way tie at the top of the charts for most home runs in a game (3).
Donny’s dominance was underlined in 2012 when he was named MVP after 17 RBIs and a .529 average in leading Ontario’s Broken Bow Travelers to a third consecutive title.
Back home, Donny won countless national interclub titles with Ramblers and national provincial crowns with Auckland, serving as player-coach in some successful campaigns.
Japan has long been the base for Donny and his long-time partner, former White Sox outfielder Sina Hunkin, but he has recently returned to give back some of his vast knowledge of the game as assistant-coach for the NZ White Sox.
It’s a completion of a circle as Donny and White Sox head coach Roman Gabriel were teammates from junior level right through to the Black Sox.