Though they grew up just 30 miles apart in southeastern Tennessee, Ryan Casteel and Tyler Massey -- two Rockies prospects spending their winter in the Australian summer -- never crossed paths until the 2010 instructional league season in Arizona.
They have been teammates ever since.
Now members of the Jet Couriers Melbourne Aces, Casteel and Massey are coming off a 2013 season with the Modesto Nuts in which they played key roles on the California League's North Division second-half champions.
It was a successful season in many ways for both, first and foremost as members of a playoff team.
"Clinching the playoffs with that group of guys was a good time," recalls the softer-spoken catcher Casteel. "We've been with that same group for three years now, and playing with that group has been great."
It's a group that includes Rockies No. 5 prospect Tyler Anderson and No. 7 prospect Trevor Storey, among others, and one that has found success at multiple levels. While the 2013 Nuts were eliminated in the first round of the California League playoffs by the Visalia Rawhide, the '12 Ashville Tourists -- of which Massey and Casteel were both members from beginning to end -- were South Atlantic League Champions.
That's something Massey hasn't forgotten.
"It was another full year with the guys we had won the SAL League championship with the year before, so to clinch and to be able to have another playoff opportunity made for a fun year," he said.
As for their individual performances, both were able to grow in multiple regards. Casteel blasted a career-high 22 home runs and 30 doubles and was named to the California League postseason All-Star team.
"I had a good year offensively, so I was happy with that," said the Cleveland State Community College product. "Just trying to build on it and get ready for next year and continue to progress and get better."
Massey, meanwhile, notched career highs in games played (116), hits (118), home runs (11) and triples (9). He also grew as a defender.
"I learned a lot," Massey said. "I got the opportunity to play some center field and show some versatility there, so that was fun and exciting."
But ultimately, for the 24-year-old Chattanooga native, this past season was, "another stepping stone [in] trying to reach the ultimate goal of the big leagues."
When it came time for making offseason plans, the two were contacted separately about their interest in a winter down under, yet they came to a decision together. "Jeff [Bridich, Rockies senior director of player development] called us both separately," Casteel explained after an afternoon workout at Melbourne Ballpark. "Me and Tyler talked, and we thought it would be a good experience."
It became official on the road late in the California summer.
"We were in the locker room playing at Visalia, we got an email, and we both just seemed pretty happy," added Massey.
Now the pair lives together, along with Casteel's wife, Bethany, in a Melbourne suburb. Casteel, in jest, describes Massey as the "third wheel" of the apartment. After a few short weeks the teammates have already shared many new experiences. Of course, there are the standard hazards of driving on the opposite side of the road. But there has also been another new opportunity presented, one of which neither was expecting.
"We don't have a clubbie, so we're washing our own stuff, it's a lot of fun," joked Massey of his new adventures in laundry. "It's new, but it's a learning experience -- how to get stains out. You're second-guessing your headfirst slide into second."
Car troubles and stains aside, the two have much to look forward to in Australia. For Massey, the basic nature of the experience is a thrill.
"The opportunity this gives us to spend three months working on our craft and at the same time seeing a different country, it's kind of an adventure, and should be a lot of fun," Massey said.
Casteel hopes to make a trip north to the Great Barrier Reef with his wife and teammate.
"How often can you say you saw a seven wonder of the natural world?" he asked, rhetorically.
While they embrace this opportunity to share this adventure together, on the field their goals for the 2013-14 ABL campaign are separate and clearly defined.
For Massey, the focus is on offense: "To improve as a hitter and to work on stealing bases -- making that more a part of my game. Hitting for higher average, staying gap-to-gap, whereas maybe this past year I was a little more [pull-happy], it's just about staying through the opposite gap and working on stealing some bags."
Casteel, who was taking ground balls at first base after a recent workout, has his own plans.
"I'm just trying to continue my season in Modesto and work on being better defensively -- catch and throw a little better," Casteel said. "And as far as offense goes, just trying to continue on where I left off in Modesto. [I'm] going to work a little on first base, too, just trying to be a little more versatile."
The early returns are very encouraging. After one weekend of play, the 22-year-old Casteel leads the Aces with seven hits, having registered at least one in each of the team's first four games. Massey hit safely in three of the team's opening-weekend contests, and he delivered his second RBI in the team's first win.
Together, they have a sense of ease that few find more than 10,000 miles away from home. And that is not lost on them.
"In a new place really far from home, you have some sort of a comfort level being here with a teammate -- especially somebody you can relate to and you've been around a couple seasons with," said Casteel. "There's a comfort level, and you're away, so there's a good balance."
Craig Durham is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less