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Under studies

Brothers Boss and Moko Moanaroa grew up in Australia, signed with the Red Sox, and are now learning America’s pastime

By Nicole Auerbach
Globe Correspondent / July 15, 2011

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LOWELL - Perei peihipaoro.

It doesn’t roll off the tongue quite like its English translation, “Play ball.’’ But that’s OK, because the Maori people of New Zealand don’t really play baseball, anyway.

When Boss and Moko Moanaroa signed professional contracts with the Red Sox in 2008, they became the first Maori to do so.

Their father hails from New Zealand and their mother from Aitutaki Island. The Moanaroas raised their sons in Australia.

Baseball isn’t popular there, either.

“[Baseball] is probably the 10th- or 12th-ranked sport in Australia,’’ said Jon Deeble, the Red Sox’ Pacific Rim scouting coordinator. “The average person in Australia doesn’t even know what baseball is.’’

Deeble estimated that there are 75,000 registered baseball players in Australia, which is less than 0.4 percent of the population. In the United States, 42 million play organized baseball - a little more than 13 percent of the population.

Now that the brothers are part of a much more competitive pool, they know they’ve got a ways to go. Boss and Moko currently play for the short-season Single A Lowell Spinners.

And though they may receive more attention for their singing skills, video game prowess, and tribal chants, they’re also pretty good hitters with their eyes on the big leagues.

Vocation plans Just 29 Australians have played an inning or more of major league baseball.

Three years ago, Boss and Moko couldn’t imagine being Nos. 30 and 31. Their father, Joe, didn’t think his sons had a future in baseball, either.

Joe knew coal mining; he’d worked below the earth’s surface for two decades. His wife, Seikura, worked for a cleaning company.

In early May 2008, Joe sat his sons down to talk about their futures.

“I said, ‘Look boys, you’re at an age now when you have to start thinking about your career and maybe doing an apprenticeship of some type, whether it be a boilermaker apprenticeship or an electrical apprenticeship,’ ’’ Joe said during a Skype interview.

Boss was considering becoming a professional bike racer. He’d finished sixth in the 2003 BMX world championships, and had always considered going pro by age 17.

Moko told his father he could see himself as an electrician or carpenter.

Two weeks and a whirlwind later, it didn’t matter.

After Boss played in the National Schoolboys Championship in Lismore in 2008, Deeble approached him. Deeble, who scouts Australia and New Zealand for the Sox, had been tracking Boss throughout his teenage years, watching him develop into a strong, powerful hitter - despite his interests in BMX and rugby.

After the championship, Deeble set up a workout. Soon after, Boss signed with the Red Sox as an international free agent.

Too young to travel alone, Boss brought Moko with him to Florida as his chaperone.

A few workouts later, Moko signed with the Sox, too. Together, they settled into a new life in Fort Myers and the Gulf Coast League.

Inspired by their sons, Joe Moanaroa went back to complete a postgraduate diploma, and Seikura completed management training. Joe now works as a commercial manager at Veolia Environmental Services, and Seikura now owns the cleaning company where she used to work.

Spin cycle After spending a few summers in the Gulf Coast League, Boss and Moko were promoted to Lowell. Boss, who just turned 20, has turned into an everyday first baseman, agile for his 6-foot-1-inch, 200-pound frame. Moko gets the occasional start in the outfield. Both bat lefthanded.

Through 22 games, Boss is hitting .260 with four doubles, two triples, and four home runs. Moko has had just 23 at-bats so far, with seven hits, including a homer.

“I think Moko has a better swing than Boss, because Moko doesn’t try to do too much,’’ manager Carlos Febles said. “Boss can hit for power, and Moko is more of a line-drive hitter.

“I think Boss has a chance to be a big league player. He works hard and he loves the game. What else can you ask for?’’

Febles has turned Boss and Moko into his primary source of entertainment on the field.

One afternoon about a month ago, Febles told the team that Boss and Moko would be leading stretches for the rest of the season. Instead of forming a typical quiet circle, they launched into a tribal dance, chanting and clapping loudly. The joke shocked the team’s new players.

“They thought the coach was serious,’’ said third baseman Jason Thompson, laughing. “They thought we actually stretched like that. They didn’t know. I’d seen it before.’’

Other days, Febles requests that Boss and Moko serenade the team during stretching or in the locker room. They indulge him, singing all different kinds of songs.

“I call it happy hour, a two-for-one special,’’ Febles said. “I get the two brothers with me. It’s good to have those kids around. They make my day.’’

Uncommon bond Maori culture teaches humility and instills a kind of quiet pride.

Moko, 21, typifies that more than Boss - who’s the more outgoing of the two. He’s the one making plans, figuring out fun things to do with teammates. Moko’s the quiet one, for now.

“We were listening to an interview [Moko] had the other day on the radio, and we were quite surprised [the interviewer] got so many words out of him,’’ Joe Moanaroa said. “He had a coach that coached him for six years, and during that period Moko only spoke about two words to him. To hear him actually speak, that’s a funny thing.’’

Joe credits American culture for that change. But really, the United States hasn’t changed the brothers much, except maybe that Moko eats more pizza.

They still spend most of their time together. They still room together on the road. They still play video games or mini-basketball in their living room. And they still get along well.

“They’re brothers and teammates - that’s kind of a weird combination,’’ said Thompson, who is also Boss and Moko’s roommate. “I have a little brother, and I know we don’t act anything like they act. They act like just friends. Moko’s the older brother, and he’s really never telling Boss what to do and how to do it, when most older brothers are like that.’’

Said a smiling Moko: “Oh, I get sick of him sometimes.’’

But the funny thing is, he doesn’t. Maybe it’s a Maori thing, or it’s a special relationship forged because they’re on their own, half a world away from their family.

Never far away When they’re in the United States, the brothers use Skype to keep in touch with their parents at least twice a week. Boss and Moko talk about how their games went. Their parents already know. Joe and Seikura listen to radio broadcasts online and keep up with box scores. They are here visiting for a month, and plan on traveling to almost all of the Spinners’ road games, too.

The Maori culture places a great deal of value on family. So even now, after they spend half the year in the United States, the brothers set aside time to take trips to visit family in New Zealand during the offseason.

During their months in the Southern Hemisphere, they also play for the newly re-formed Australian Baseball League, and hang out with their 12-year-old brother. He has told his brothers he wants to play for the Yankees. He’s a long way from realizing that dream.

So are Boss and Moko.

But they didn’t travel more than 10,000 miles from their home and heritage to give up easily.

“There’s an opportunity there, and they’re taking it,’’ Joe Moanaroa said. “They’re doing the best they can, and that’s all we ask. We realize there may be a time they can’t progress any further, and we know only a small percentage actually do make it.

“They’re fully aware of it, and we are, too. We’re just so honored that they get to play a sport which they enjoy. However long they play it, well, it’s all good.’’

Until then, perei peihipaoro.

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