The Happy Heat

Players (from L to R) Matt Kennelly, Josh Kennelly, Tim Kennelly and Adam Millson with dog Locksley Road. (via Matt Kennelly)

Players (from L to R) Matt Kennelly, Josh Kennelly, Tim Kennelly and Adam Millson with dog Locksley Road. (via Matt Kennelly)

PERTH, Western Australia – A team can never have too many championship rings.

Or can it?

In five Australian Baseball League seasons, the Perth Heat have won four championships, and last year they decided to do something a little different with their winnings. Instead of opting to leave just one finger on their ring hands short of championship jewels, the players thought it would be a better idea to purchase a greyhound with their winnings, an investment in hopeful future earnings and a good time for all.

“It’s something that obviously is a little bit different,” said Luke Hughes, former big leaguer and infielder for the Heat. “We thought it would bring our team together even closer, having a bit of fun there as well. We have 22 guys as part owners of our dog. He isn’t doing too well at the moment but it’s something that we thought would bring our team closer together, and moving forward through guys who are going to retire shortly, we’ve had a good run for the last eight years.

“We’re already starting to miss a few of the boys and it gives us an opportunity to stay close. It gives us an opportunity to stick together moving forward. Hopefully we will get another one and build our kennels. It’s something that for us is trying to stick together as mates and with our friendships once we’re done playing baseball.”

“It’s pretty normal,” Atlanta Braves minor leaguer Matt Kennelly said, presumably sarcastically. “I mean, it’s a little memento for the boys. It brings a bit of extra joy to the league. There are a couple times we’ve had practice and then after practice we’ll watch the dog race. It’s just a little bit of extra team camaraderie.”

It’s no secret that on occasion, Aussies like to gamble, or “punt” as they occasionally call their wagering. So what better than placing a little more weight on a fun night out at the track with the boys? It happened around Christmastime last year, midway through the ABL season when Perth was still working its way up the ladder and needed some added motivation.

“We were sitting in the clubhouse, and we enjoy having our punts on our dogs and horses, so we said, ‘Let’s put an extra bargaining chip on if we win,’” Heat catcher and Minnesota Twins farmhand Allan de San Miguel said. “Let’s give it a little bit more incentive for us to win. If we win, we’ll go get a dog.

“And that’s what we did. It just gave us that little bit more incentive and push and urge to win, and we did it. Then a couple days after, we went and bought a dog.”

After the team won the Claxton Shield and brought its fourth championship to Western Australia, there was still a little bit of a question mark around the idea. Would they seriously purchase a greyhound instead of getting rings, or had everyone just been having fun with it the whole time?

“There are a few punters on the team,” Kennelly said. “A few of the guys like to have a bit of a bet on the horses and the dogs, and last year around the three-quarter mark we were just hanging around the pack in third or fourth place, and it was a bit of an extra incentive to where we said we were going to get a dog if we win.

“That fired up the boys a little bit, and we played well. We didn’t know if we would actually have to go through with it, so we did a bit of research on the dog, but it’s actually doing pretty well. The first couple of races it did well, and it’s been a bit slack lately. It’s playing like the Heat right now, playing out in the middle of the pack.”

When the team decided it was a done deal, brothers and utility players Matt and Tim Kennelly set out to do some research on their options.

“We didn’t really know what to look for,” Matt Kennelly said. “We went on different dog breeding websites and asked around Racing WA and went from there. They gave us a lot of info and we got a bit of background information on one dog in Victoria, and we bought him and flew him over. We got a Virgin plane ticket for him, flew him underneath the plane, and he came in and we got a trainer here in Perth, Michelle Beamish, who’s been really good.

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“She took him under her wing and it has been all good. He races once a week and we try to go down there as a team to the Mandurah where it races. We try to go there and have dinner together and watch the race. That also adds to why we have such a good culture. It’s not just the baseball side of things, we have other things involved in life. Even guys’ weddings, everybody’s at the wedding and in wedding parties and everything. We’re all good mates out here.”

It’s exactly that clubhouse culture that Perth’s players believe has led them to so much success over the better part of the last decade, coming out on top of a couple of additional championships within Claxton Shield competition before the ABL made its triumphant return with some help from Major League Baseball after a decade-long hiatus.

“It’s our team chemistry and our family-based theory of what we think about each other and always having each other’s backs,” de San Miguel said. “We’re always there for each other on and off the field. A big part of it is the core group of Aussie guys, we won at such a young age. We had that taste of winning and we wanted that feeling every single time. A lot of people don’t experience that.

“Once you taste your first championship, you just want more and more and more, and then you learn over the years how to win games no matter what the scenario is. If we haven’t even got a hit or a run, we’re still going to find a way to win a game. That’s one thing we’ve tried to preach over the years with our guys is not to give up, that we’re going to win no matter what. That’s what we do best.”

The first championship victory with members of the current Perth squad happened in the 2006-2007 season, and the only men left standing from that year are de San Miguel, Hughes and Tim Kennelly, who has limited his role with the current team after venturing into the full-time working world earlier this year as a firefighter.

“The most fun I’ve had in baseball is with the Perth Heat each year,” the oldest Kennelly brother said. “Playing in the States, I never made it to the major leagues so obviously that would probably be a different story, but I’ve enjoyed my time over in the States and growing up playing baseball. But to play with your best mates each week, that’s why you enjoy your baseball…

“You play to win over there, but here with the Perth Heat it’s almost like you know you’re playing for each other. You do the same thing in the States, but you feel like people have your back here more when you’re playing with your best mates. You just get that little bit of different feeling playing with the team that you grew up with than with a different team each year over in the States.”

The game has a different brand down under for the local players. Australia’s baseball community is so tight-knit that everyone knows everyone else. Each professional player who has ventured overseas to pursue a career with a big league affiliate knows the Aussie playing on the other side, when they’re lucky enough to cross paths.

At some point in time, they’ve played with or against one another, or grew up on the field with someone the other bloke knows or played with, and they are more than likely to get together after the game, a stark contrast from American players who don’t even know the guy with the locker next to them or from the same state.

“Pro baseball in the States is completely different to playing in the Australian Baseball League,” Hughes said. “There’s that family that you actually have in Australia or on your team where it’s only 22 guys every year, and if you go to pro ball and come to spring training you might have 200 players in camp. You’re trying to make friendships and you don’t know what team you’re going to be on, and if you’re on a team for a month you might be on another team for the next month and another team for the next month. You’re forever making new friends and trying to settle into what you’re doing over there so it’s different.

“In Australia you’re settled, you’ve got your friends, you get close with those guys over the summer or three months, because you know you’re going to spend three months together, and generally you’re not worrying about your own performances. You’re worrying more so about what you do with the team and how many games you win and whether or not you’re going to play in a championship.

“That’s where it separates and that’s the reason why when you go to play winter ball—it doesn’t matter what part of the world you play in, I was lucky enough to play in Venezuela and it was exactly the same there—the local boys, all they cared about was winning a championship. It’s no different playing in Venezuela than playing in the Dominican or Australia. It’s a pride thing, being able to go back and say you won in your home country for your home team.”

Each year, the Heat welcome a number of imports to Perth. Mostly quickly buy into the locker room camaraderie presented to them upon arrival, and those who don’t are weeded out of the fold quickly and easily.

“They have to,” de San Miguel said. “If they don’t buy in, we send them home. Over the years we’ve had problems, and we’ve squished the bug and made sure that they have jumped on board and bought into the way we do things out there. They’ve not really had a choice because it’s how we do things and it’s why we’ve been successful.”

Added Matt Kennelly: “It does come back to the core because there are so many guys who come back each year that the program is always the same. So for the three or four position players and those guys who come in, they switch straight in, there’s not too much of a learning phase for them. Everything is pretty stable in terms of scheduling and the way we go about our business.

“So these guys funnel in, and we’ve been lucky to have some great players coming through like [Colorado Rockies minor leaguer] Joey Wong, [and Canadian national team players] Tim Smith and Rene Tosoni, so they’re good baseball players, but we’ve also known them somewhere through the system.

“I played with Tim Smith over with the Braves [organization] and Hughesy played with Tosoni with the [Minnesota] Twins. So before bringing them out we know who they are as well and how they’re going to fit into the whole program. They did just that. So it’s nice when guys like Wongy come back and repeat the program. It just shows that he enjoys it out here and enjoys the way we go about our business.”

After a first successful season with the Heat, winning a Claxton Shield championship and helping the shortstop get ready for his season in the Rockies system, Wong returned last year looking for another ring, leaving instead with another win and a share of a greyhound named Locksley Road.

“What makes everyone buy in is definitely the Aussies who have built the program,” he said. “That core group that has been together forever really make the imports feel right at home straight away. They make sure the team gets together off the field and becomes a real family before the season even starts.

“They also do a great job of recruiting and selecting solid imports who are a good fit on the field and in the clubhouse. It also doesn’t hurt that Perth is an amazing city that is a very attractive place to be during the North American winter time. I’m definitely missing the Happy Heaters and the city of Perth right now.”

The reigning back-to-back champs of the Aussie circuit branded themselves the “Happy Heaters” early on, and the phrasing stuck. Hoping to name their greyhound accordingly, they hit a dead end with Locksley Road because the dog had already run three races. So what could they do? Make plans to purchase a puppy and start the process from scratch.

“We tried to get it changed to Happy Heater but they reckon because it had already raced some races, it was tough to get it changed,” Tim Kennelly said. “So we thought we’ll leave it for now, hopefully it can win us some money, we’ll buy a new one, and name that one Happy Heater. That’s the plan.”

Added de San Miguel: “We wanted to name our first dog Happy Heater because of the playing group. We couldn’t do it, so we really want to get another one just so we can have our own little pup and name it Happy Heater, and watch it race. It’s more of a pride thing having that name.”

“We’re in the process of taking our winnings and buying a puppy and starting from the start,” Matt Kennelly said. “Ultimately, we want to get our own dog so that we can name him and that will be Happy Heater, so we’re looking forward to that…It’s probably a little while away. [Locksley Road] needs to start winning some races.”

Like the third-place Perth Heat, the team’s dog has been met with some challenges of late. The squad is hoping its prized possession can return to form in time for the end of its season and provide some better outcomes for the players’ time away from the field, offering some of their investment back to them when he comes in first, second, or third in his races.

“He’s been in bad form since I got home from the States,” Hughes said. “I haven’t had a chance to get out. He races Tuesday nights and generally we practice Tuesday nights. He’s having a bit of a spell at the moment. He’s in the naughty corner, so hopefully after this spell he can come back and race and stop coming in fourth.”

Said Tim Kennelly: “I’ve seen it race twice in person, and it came fourth and last, so I try to limit the amount of times I go out and see it. A few of the guys still haven’t seen it because they’ve been over in the States, but we’re going to get a good crew together to go down there. He’s having two weeks off because he cut his foot last race, so he needs to toughen up a little bit. But it’s enjoyable. I’ve been out twice and a few of the other guys are itching to get out there and see it.”

On the field and off the field, the Heat hope to continue their run of success and feeling of camaraderie among the team, heading into the second half of the current ABL season with plenty of room to move up the league ladder and a winning that feeling that keeps breeding confidence year in and year out.

“It helps us being down in baseball games and understanding that we do have the firepower to come back no matter what the margin is,” Hughes said. “Over the years if you look at our record in one-run ballgames, we would be looking pretty good. We as players understand what to do in those situations and how to get above and win those ballgames. If it’s not one player it’s another player.

“We generally pick up each other in a baseball game; if someone is having a bad game, someone else is having a good game. We have consistent success through that but it’s a confidence thing. Anytime that you’re confident playing a game or any sport you have more success. We’ve been able to be pretty steady throughout all the seasons in the Australian Baseball League, obviously we’ve been lucky enough to play in all five championships, losing just one, so we’ve got pretty good firepower there. So you’re going to have that confidence every time you play and every time you put a team together.”

With consistent targets on their backs as the rest of the circuit’s nemesis, the Heat never take anything for granted and feed off of their enemy status with the league.

“We’re always out to prove something each year,” Matt Kennelly said. “I feel like teams come out to Barbagallo Ballpark to try to beat up on us, and that adds extra fire in our bellies to go out there and try and beat them back. It doesn’t deter from what we’re trying to accomplish each year. Every year is a new year and all the guys are out there to win a championship. Championships don’t come easy. We might not win another one for 10 years. You’ve got to try to win them while you can.”

And whether they win or lose out on the diamond, one thing remains consistently the same year after year with the group of players Perth keeps bringing back each season.

“Apart from travelling the world and seeing things, the most fun I have playing baseball is coming home to be with this group of guys we have and being around them every day,” de San Miguel said. “It’s just like hanging out with your brothers. We talk crap to each other, we hang out together after the games, and it’s just one big family. We go out together, have barbecues together, we do everything together. That’s a bond that we will have for the rest of our lives after we’re done playing. Then when we’re done playing we can all sit up in the stands as a group and watch the next generation come through.”

“It’s hard to explain the team chemistry we have because we’re best mates off the field as well, so that obviously helps,” Tim Kennelly said. “We just try and enjoy our baseball. When you’re winning, you’re having fun, but we just try and get the guys who are coming over here to enjoy their baseball, play hard, play the game the right way, and also have fun.”

And if that fun should happen to lead to another Claxton Shield championship this season, or even in the near future, what would the Happy Heaters do with their winnings then? Three rings, a dog, and perhaps a partridge in a pear tree?

“That’s a good question,” de San Miguel said. “We don’t know yet. Maybe we could go buy a horse, I don’t know. That’s more expensive, a lot more expensive.”

“We’d have a ton of dogs,” Hughes said. “Maybe we can afford a horse then. It’s nothing bigger than what it is, just us having a bit of fun together. The American boys, I think they’re a bit jealous when they come in and we’ve already got one, but they’re all about it and they enjoy it. It’s a way to have some fun amongst the boys and stay close together.

“But this year is a new year and there are some good teams out there this year. Brisbane was great, Canberra looked really strong again, so it’s going to be tough for the rest of the league to match up against those guys.”


A competitive baseball player growing up, Alexis Budnicki has worked for the Toronto Blue Jays, and written for Baseball America, the Australian Baseball League and Canadian Baseball Network, among others. Follow her on Twitter @baseballexis.
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hopbitters
Guest
hopbitters

Interesting piece, thanks.

As an owner of ex-racing hounds, the continual references to the dog as “it” and only speaking of his track record made me a bit uneasy. I hope they have appropriate plans for him when his racing days are over.

CoolWinnebago
Guest
CoolWinnebago

I was thinking the same thing.

I was ready for this to be a heartwarming story about a championship team united by a dog. Far from it.

Alexis Brudnicki
Guest
Alexis Brudnicki

They spoke a lot about having Locksley Road as a pet, and they already know they have a very good home for him. That’s on me for cutting that part out of it as the story grew. I hope that helps your ease.

CoolWinnebago
Guest
CoolWinnebago

I appreciate your response, it was a well written article and I can see why you would choose to write about the topic, especially in december/january.

In the end a story about a team buying a dog so they can gamble more easily/together just doesn’t strike the right chords with me. Their aspirations to buy more dogs and a horse just adds to that negative feeling. Its their money, they can do with it as they see fit, I just don’t think camaraderie built around gambling and animal racing is all that ‘happy’.

Dez
Guest
Dez

I agree with you cool Winnebago. The honesty they show is commendable and I have no doubt they are stand up lads will look after the dog. However,
you would have to be living under a rock over the last 12 months to not realise that celebrating Greyhound racing is way out of step with current community feelings. I forwarded this to my Baseball fan friends and they were like, WTF ??

Al I read is “gambling”, “animal welfare concerns”. Nothing happy about it.

hopbitters
Guest
hopbitters

Thanks for the clarification. I understand it wasn’t the main focus of your article, but the way they referenced the dog just struck me as odd. Perhaps just a cultural thing.

Dez
Guest
Dez

Really? Great role models for my kids guys.

If I choose to, I can bet on you guys and you have a choice to participate. Your poor dog doesn’t. 20 hours a day in a kennel, no socialisation and a needle if it breaks it leg or doesn’t win you enough.

How about you adopt an ex-racer as a pet or mascot the club and promote that instead.

You all lost my respect and I’ll be telling the kids why.

Alexis Brudnicki
Guest
Alexis Brudnicki

I don’t think the depiction you got from this story is completely accurate. By no means would ‘a needle’ ever cross the minds of this group. They spoke about keeping him as a pet in a good home with everyone taking care of him, and I’m sure when he is an ex-racer they will promote him as a club mascot when he is at home with them as their pet. That is my fault for taking that part out of the lengthy story.

Dez
Guest
Dez

Alexis,

Judging by all the comments so far it shows the general public’s growing concern for animal welfare, perhaps you should put it back it. It paints these lads in a bad light.

Alexis Brudnicki
Guest
Alexis Brudnicki

I believe the story will stay as is, and I hope it’s clear the players aren’t doing anything wrong, nor do they have ill intentions. I don’t think that conclusion should be drawn directly from my words here.