The Early Stages of Australian Pro and Olympic Baseball

At the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution noted of baseball in Australia:

The Japanese have long had their hearts set on catching up with American major-league baseball, and Korea of late has been trying to catch Japan. And it isn’t terribly difficult to imagine Canadians playing baseball, now that Toronto and Montreal have major-league franchises.

But Holland and Australia, those hotbeds of soccer and cricket, respectively, were the fascinating teams of this tournament, while they were in it.

Both missed semifinals, but barely. Australia fell a game short with a 2-1 loss to Korea on Friday, and Holland was knocked out 6-1 by Japan on Saturday, also one game short of the medal rounds.

That Australia and Holland made the Seoul field of eight teams at all is indicative of the worldwide upswing in baseball interest and prowess.

” Baseball ‘s going to be one heck of a big game around the world in the next 10 years,” says [Mike Young, the Australian coach]. “It’s gonna be rocking and rolling.”

Baseball becomes an official Olympic sport at the Barcelona Games of 1992, and by then, Young believes the tournament will be truly balanced.

“I haven’t seen any major-league prospects, but we have a couple of good young kids on this team,” Young says of the Aussies.

More than 100,000 Australians play baseball, from peewee leagues to adult clubs.

“There’s some kids that can play,” says Young. Some organizations, including the Atlanta Braves, are doing some limited scouting in Australia.

“But because Australia is so far away, the scouts don’t see them very often or for any length of time,” says Young. “The Australian kids who do get to the States just jump – their tools develop very quickly with American coaching.”

Young’s pitching coach on this team, Phil Dale, is an example. Dale visited Georgia Southern College for a baseball camp and wound up with a scholarship to play there in the early ’80s. He is now a pitcher with Chattanooga of the Class AA Southern League.

Not quite four full years later, the Syracuse Post-Standard checked in on Young again:

When Mike Young started playing baseball in Australia in 1981, the games were played on pastures, not fields.

The bases were marked by rubber cones, and spikes were hammered into the ground to simulate a home-run fence. Between innings the players sat on picnic benches.

Now turn the clock ahead to the Australian summer of November to February 1991-92. The Australian Baseball League operated with eight teams representing five of the six territories, or states, in a country that is roughly the size of the United States.

The games were played in stadiums, and in some of the larger cities like Melbourne and Sydney the crowds often reached 6,000. Most of the teams traveled by air, and they all stayed in five-star hotels when they were on the road.

Americans have taken notice of the ABL’s success. Ten major-league clubs, including the Toronto Blue Jays, have agreed to supply two to four players to each ABL club during the 48-game season, making the ABL another winter league for American players.

“I would say that without a doubt, it’s the best winter league in all the world,” said Young, a coach for the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings who manages the Perth entry in the ABL. “I can’t say the standard is of the quality of the Dominican Republic, but the travel, accommodations, climate, environment, fans, media – all of that is major league.”

One man’s vision

Through the 1987-88 season, Australian baseball players spent their weekends competing in a loosely connected collection of amateur leagues. Young, the manager of the 1988 Australian Olympic baseball team, wanted to start a professional league, and he went toe-to-toe with less ambitious baseball officials.

In what amounted to a strike, there was no organized baseball played in 1988-89 as the two sides dickered.

“I felt if somebody didn’t stand up and say what was needed to be said, the baseball would stagnate,” Young said. “I said, `This is what needs to happen and this is why.’

“A lot of people followed me, a lot of people didn’t. But by me standing up, it made people take notice and it turned the boil up.”

It worked. The ABL was formed out of the conflict, and in three years it has started to rival cricket as the most popular summer sport (Australian rules football is still No.1 overall).

The use of American players has created great interest in the ABL. Clubs are allowed to import four players – almost always Americans – none of whom has played above Class-A.

“We hadn’t seen people who can throw the ball 90 miles an hour, or hit and field the way that these players do, so it has improved our baseball,” said Australian Graeme Lloyd, a Toronto farmhand who’s now pitching at Double-A Knoxville.

The benefits are mutual for the Americans, who otherwise would be shut out of the more experienced winter leagues in Latin America. Besides, where else can a Class-A player be treated like a hero?

“They’re real receptive to Americans; they kind of admire us,” said New York Yankees farmhand and Liverpool native Pat Morphy, who pitched for Sydney last winter. “A lot of guys I talk to ask if I would recommend it, and I say definitely.”

Americans must also adapt to speed-up rules designed to keep Australians who are used to football and rugby into the game. For games in Adelaide, Morphy said pitchers and hitters have 10 seconds between pitches, and a ball or strike can be called automatically if either player violates the rule.

In other cities, the public address announcer gives play-by-play descriptions of the game. That serves as a supplement to a manual distributed at all parks called “Understanding Baseball.”

It’s going to take a while before baseball is ingrained in the Australian consciousness the way it is in America, but already there are signs that Australia can produce major-league talent. Milwaukee Brewers catcher Dave Nilsson, Young’s protege in Australia, led all minor-leaguers with a .366 batting average last season, and earlier this year he became the first product of the ABL to play in the majors (Australian shortstop Craig Shipley also played in the majors, but he was the product of a U.S. college).

Lloyd, who will probably pitch in Syracuse next season, said baseball was a hobby when he was growing up in Melbourne, and the only sports played in grade school were cricket and football. But T-ball, where children hit off tees instead of facing live pitching, is taking hold, and the trick now is keeping the children interested until they’re old enough to play in the ABL.

“They kind of move off to the other sports after T-ball, but hopefully now that baseball is getting a higher profile the kids might stay with it,” Lloyd said.

They better. If they don’t, they’ll miss out on the fastest-growing baseball league in the world.

What seems to be the best overall portrait of early pro baseball in Australia was written by Mark Zeigler of the San Diego Union-Tribune in March 1993. Here is quite a bit of his long feature on a tour of the country’s baseball culture:

We arrived late because the ballpark was supposed to be in Altona and we got off the train at the Altona station. After walking around for 30 minutes and finding no baseball stadium, we asked a taxi driver. Oh, he said, the baseball stadium is closer to Laverton. Another five miles.

We got there in the bottom of the seventh inning, there being an AstroTurf infield and grass outfield and chainlink fence and dirt parking lot in a marsh not far from a chemical plant. A team wearing gray pants and gray jerseys with blue undershirts was playing a team wearing gray pants and gray jerseys with blue undershirts.

The public-address announcer was explaining the basics of the ground-rule double, why the runner who’d been on first base had to return to third despite crossing home plate. No one seemed to get it.

“Each runner is allowed only two bases on a ground-rule double . . . ”

After an intentional walk (the fans didn’t get that, either, and booed heartily), the guy with the dark blue batting helmet with “Texas Instruments” written across it bounced to the shortstop. The throw to first was in the dirt, and the umpire with the MasterCard logo on his back signaled safe.

The visiting manager sprinted from the dugout, which consisted of two rows of numbered stadium seats with a protective net in front. He argued, threw his cap on the ground, kicked some dirt. The first-base umpire jogged down the line and consulted with the plate ump.

And changed his call. Out.

The inning ended with the home team scoring four runs to take a 5-2 lead. “And every time the Monarchs have a big inning,” blurted the announcer, “we get the Monarch Dancers, part of the great Monarchs entertainment package . . . ”

Four teen-age girls in satin hot pants and sequined bikini tops, holding pom-pons, began gyrating every joint in the human body to the beat of Hammer’s “Can’t Touch This.” Ben Hammer, after all, had scored the go-ahead run.

Now the home pitching coach was looking to the bullpen. “If they bring in the guy who throws underhand,” said a woman in the stands, “you’ll really see something different.”

Welcome to the ABL, the Australian Baseball League. Something different.

There is no seventh-inning stretch in Australia. They tried it. Didn’t work.

One problem was that no one knew exactly when to have it. Some teams stretched in the sixth inning, some in the eighth. Some fans didn’t want to stretch at all.

Another, stickier, problem was the song, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Seems in Australia the colloquial meaning of “root” is to have sex, and ABL management felt promoting orgies with the home team was an inappropriate message.

But no worries, mate. Here, there are plenty of other attractions to America’s national pastime, which is actually a derivative of Australia ‘s national pastime. American Rules cricket, if you will. In the land Down Under, you play baseball from November to February. And there are cheerleaders. This season, Melbourne and Brisbane played a triple-header.

In Australia, you play on cricket ovals and Australian Rules Football grounds and rugby fields with bases stuck in the grass. Dugouts sometimes are a row of lawn chairs with beach umbrellas and a water cooler. One field has a stiff warm wind that converts pop-ups to home runs; another has a stiff cold wind that renders 450-foot shots shallow fly balls; another measures 240 feet to right field.

In Australia, if the batter isn’t ready and the pitcher is, it’s an automatic strike. (Said Melbourne Monarchs outfielder Pookie Wilson, of Sylacauga, Ala.: “I was like, ‘Damn, I never had this happen to me before.'”) If the pitcher isn’t ready, it’s a ball. If the catcher reaches base with two outs, he must be replaced by a designated runner so he has time to strap on his gear before the next inning. If you’re ahead by 10 runs after the fifth inning in a double-header, game’s over, you win.

In Australia, you can’t chew tobacco, but you can use aluminum or wood bats.

In Australia, there are 48 games in the regular season, followed by best-of-three playoff series at the higher-seeded team’s home park. Practice is occasional and sometimes optional.

In Australia, 39-year-old infielders bat against 16-year-old pitchers.

In Australia, managers can and do play. This season, a general manager led the league in innings pitched.

In Australia, you hit a home run to centre field with an aluminum bat in the fifth dig to take a 1-nil lead in the first match of a double-header.

Baseball has existed here since the 1850s, when Americans came to Ballarat in search of gold and left behind Abner Doubleday’s game. Professional baseball has existed since 1989.

In between, baseball was mainly a club sport. Until the late 1960s, you played during the winter, or the North American summer, so you wouldn’t bump caps with beloved cricket. Until recently, you played on weekends in a local park and never practiced.

Until recently. Basketball was the first “fringe” sport to break the stereotype that cricket, rugby and Australian Rules Football would always rule. The National Basketball League was formed a decade ago; crowds of 15,000 are common now. Baseball, even the basketballers admit, is further along in four years than they were.

Already, major-league teams own the rights to 24 Australians in a country of 17 million people, roughly the equivalent of Southern California. Already, American farm systems are talking about the ABL replacing Latin America as the premier “winter” league, a place where there is no language barrier or military junta.

There are eight teams in the ABL, scattered across a country the size of the U.S. mainland (we’re talking serious road trips), and each is affiliated with a major-league club. The Padres were married to the Brisbane Bandits but divorced shortly before this season as part of franchise-wide budget cuts. The New York Yankees replaced them. Toronto, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Baltimore, Houston and the Florida Marlins also have affiliates.

In the States, the minor leagues are divided into five general levels: rookie ball, low A, high A, AA and AAA. Most players and scouts agree the ABL is equivalent to high A and is knocking on the door of AA.

Four Americans — “imports,” they’re called — are allowed to play on each team, and no more than two may be pitchers. Some Americans, such as Melbourne Monarchs outfielder Ron Carothers, never went home. Carothers, who attended high school in East St. Louis, Ill., with Jackie Joyner-Kersee, became an Australian citizen in 1991.

Predicted Carothers: “In the next five or 10 years, Australia is going to become THE place to play in the (major-league) off-season.”

[In the Australian Baseball League] half the eight teams are said to be on solid financial footing. For two, it’s kind of marshy. For two, we’re talking Everglades. There have been crowds as large as 11,444, but average attendance at several stadiums is less than 3,000 per game.

The ABL salary cap is 42,000 Australian dollars, which computes to about $28,500 in the United States. That excludes the four imports, whose salaries and expenses are paid by their parent clubs. The highest-paid player in ABL history reportedly got $5,400, or slightly more than $100 per game. Barry Bonds, by contrast, will make roughly $37,600 per game for San Francisco this season.

The umpires get $21.50 in the field and $35.50 behind the plate, which might be a large part of the problem. Umpires in San Diego’s adult weekend leagues make $40 each.

Translation: Get a day job.

The ’92-93 champion Melbourne Monarchs have bankers and teachers and firemen and car salesmen. Each team has a 30-man roster but can suit up 20 for any particular game. On road trips, even that is sometimes a problem, because a guy making $1,500 for 48 games can afford only so much unpaid leave.

Leigh McIntyre, 45, who played on the Australian national team for six years and now is a Monarchs coach, is a draftsman by trade. In the current Australian recession, he drives a garbage truck. Like everyone else in the ABL, McIntyre watches the occasional major-league game broadcast on Australian TV, sees the 40,000 fans and multideck stadiums and multimillion-dollar players.

And thinks, “What if?”

“Yeah, you get a little frustrated sometimes. You think about it,” McIntyre said as he walked across Altona’s dirt parking lot after a late-season double-header. It was nearly midnight. He had to be behind the wheel of the garbage truck at 6 a.m.

“But no worries. I have a young family. I’m happy. I have a couple of cars. I have a house. I just enjoy baseball. That’s the only reason anyone is playing here, because they love the game.”

Australia would win the silver medal in the 2004 Athens Olympics; there are now a handful of Australians in major-league baseball. The Australian Baseball League collapsed in 1999 but was reborn in 2010, with six teams and primarily funded by MLB. Their website has a sizable history section that explains “baseball was brought to Australia by American gold miners and played on the gold fields of Ballarat for fun on their rest days in the 1850s.” David Nilsson is the unquestionable key figure in Australian organized baseball from the late ’80s on to today, as player, organizer, owner, and manager.

Published in: on August 9, 2012 at 1:04 pm  Leave a Comment  
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