South Africa's Dylan Unsworth: An "amazing journey" in baseball across five continents

South Africa's Dylan Unsworth: An "amazing journey" in baseball across five continents
The 29-year old right-hander from South Africa shared with the WBSC his experiences in the US minor leagues and the professional leagues of Venezuela, Mexico, Taiwan and Australia. He started his journey as a 15-year old at the MLB Academy in Italy.

Having thrown a no-hitter in the Mexican League, become the first pro player from the Bothasig Baseball Club in Cape Town, made his National Team debut at 16 and played in Africa, Europe, Americas, Asia, Oceania, it's fair to say 29-year-old Dylan Unsworth has been a pioneer for South African baseball.

Unsworth, who starred for South Africa at the WBSC Europe/Africa Olympic qualifier for Tokyo 2020 in Italy in 2019, is passionate about the game and the life it has provided him during what he calls an "amazing journey," including his current experience of playing for El Águila de Veracruz in the Mexican League.

"Baseball turned me into the man I am today," Unsworth told the WBSC. "The whole Unsworth family is very good at softball. My dad was a pitcher, and he introduced me to the game in Durban where I played for the Bothasig Baseball Club. I had played soccer, cricket rugby as a young kid, but I chose baseball."

In the summer of 2009, a 15-year-old Unsworth received an invitation to the Major League Baseball Academy in Tirrenia, Italy. "That was a great journey. Going to Europe, going to Italy together with 50, 60 of the best young players of the [Europe, Middle East and Africa] area, you knew you had to step up to the plate and show the scouts, show the people what you got.

"At such a young age, it's a bit intimidating, but when you finally realize this is what you wanna do, it's about going out there, having some fun and showing the talent that you have. There were so many good coaches. I learned so much from them. I think it's when I became a baseball player."

The Seattle Mariners and the Cincinnati Reds showed some interest in Unsworth, but he didn't receive an offer. After turning 16, he became eligible for the South African National Team and made the team for the World Cup. "I went to Barcelona with the National Team (for the 2009 Baseball World Cup qualifiers). I didn't know it at the time, but the Seattle Mariners scout had travelled from Italy to Spain to watch me again. After the tournament, I flew back to South Africa, finding the scout there. He was waiting for me with my parents, and I signed the contract. It was the greatest moment of my career."

Unsworth played for the Seattle Mariners from 2010 to 2017, appearing in over 190 games. After pitching in the Venezuelan Winter League, he spent the 2018 season in the Los Angeles Angels organization. He pitched in 19 games at the Triple-A level, starting 12.

How close to the Major Leagues do you think you got? "I felt it was the right time I could get a phone call. I felt I deserved at least a cup of coffee [in the Majors]. I actually called my family, saying that I thought the call would come. Unfortunately, it didn't, but I know that I've done all I could possibly do on and off the field to succeed. I believe I got very close. Well, I believe it's not over. I've gone different routes, but I can still get there. We've got to take one day at a time and see what happens."

After pitching again in Venezuela and the Australian Baseball League (ABL), Dylan received a call from the Mexican Baseball League. "It's amazing how things always work according to God's plan and his timing. The day I was supposed to fly to Mexico, my flight got cancelled. I thought I would never make it."

It took a 30-hour trip, but Unsworth finally made it and eventually became successful. On 28 May 2021, while playing for El Aguila de Veracruz, he pitched a no-hitter against the Mexico City Diablos Rojos. "I faced Mexico City on opening day. When they came back to Veracruz, I knew they had already seen me. I was a little nervous, but my wife told me I had to go out and have some fun. Man, I had some fun. I will never forget that day."

Unsworth added: "I'm a big family guy. I need someone around me who supports me when I have a bad day or am feeling down. Calling someone on the phone is not the same. My wife and I did it all together. She came with me to Venezuela, Australia, Mexico. It's been an amazing journey. Moving forward, I hope I can get my parents and my brother to come to see me pitching in professional games. It would be cool for them to witness it. They've never seen me pitch at the professional level. They only watched me on YouTube."

Dylan's wife couldn't follow him in his experience with the Fubong Guardians of the Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL) at the end of 2021 before returning to Mexico for a second stint with El Águila de Veracruz for the 2022 season. "She had to go back to South Africa because of COVID restrictions. It was pretty hard there on my own for three months. The food was not easy. The language barrier was tough. Still, you have to perform at a high level. Sometimes people don't understand that you cannot perform because of things that don't relate to what happens on the field.

How do you compare playing in the United States to other professional leagues? "It's the same game but a different game. It's a different style, different techniques. It's also a lot of fire, passion, love, and respect for the game. In these countries, a player is never going to be bigger than the game."

Unsworth, who has played for South Africa in the WBSC Baseball World Cup, the World Baseball Classic and the WBSC Europe-Africa Olympic Qualifier, is proud of his roots and having had the opportunity to represent his country while in the long term, hopes South African baseball can return to its previous international heights, especially after a COVID affected couple of years.

"It's a different passion because you're playing for your country. You represent South Africa. You can say our baseball is up there. You play for a whole country, not just a name on your back.

"But I think we need a little bit more coaching to develop baseball further. I mean highly qualified baseball coaches who have travelled and experienced it at a high stage. If you have coaches who haven't been there, it's not really going to help. When I'm home, I try to give as much advice as possible to young pitchers. To be honest, I think COVID didn't help. There was no baseball for almost two years, so parents pulled a lot of kids out of baseball and put them to other sports. One of my biggest fears is that baseball dies in South Africa. I'm thankful to those coaches who are still around."