Big League Baseball In Australia? What’s Up With That?

A member of the Canberra Cavalry poses with the coveted Claxton Shield (via Daniel Amodio).

A member of the Canberra Cavalry poses with the coveted Claxton Shield (via Daniel Amodio).

This weekend, the spotlight of the baseball world will be focused on Australia for the first time as Sydney hosts the opening series of the 2014 major league season, featuring the Dodgers and the Diamondbacks. It’s a first for Australia, and marks a significant moment in the long and colorful presence of baseball there.

With a baseball history almost as long as any other place on earth, Australia has been home to the sport for more than 150 years. The recent revival of an organized national league has helped build interest in the last five years or so, but long-term sustainability has been elusive Down Under. What are the leaders of Australian baseball doing to ensure that the sport can continue to grow? What about Australia made Major League Baseball so comfortable investing in its future? How are past mistakes influencing present strategies? Can baseball work there, or will it forever be resigned to the back burner of Australian society?

For the shield!!!

The first match of the Baseball Club will be played on the old Lonsdale Cricket-ground, near the botanical-gardens-bridge at half-past two o’clock this afternoon. This game is as popular in America as cricket is here and as to-day will witness its first trial in the colonies it will no doubt prove attractive to lovers of out-door sports.

This notice is from the June 5, 1869 edition of The Argus, a daily newspaper based in Melbourne. There is a ton of juicy goodness in here. It’s nothing short of fantastic that way back in 1869 the Lonsdale Cricket-ground was already being described as “old.” We can also see that baseball was already being compared to its older and more “proper” counterpart, cricket. But the most interesting part of this bulletin is the claim made at the end: that sports-loving Australians will “no doubt” begin to take interest in the wonders of baseball.

Baseball continued to grow over the rest of the 19th century as many cricketers began to see the light. There was even enough support for an Australian team to tour the United States in 1897. The team played about a dozen games in the States against lower level teams like the Council Bluffs Nine and the Illinois Bicycle Club. While the team was competitive against American opponents, the trip ended in disaster when the organizers ran out of money to send the players home and some were left stranded in New York for weeks. And there wasn’t even Shake Shack back then.

Baseball was played in Australia throughout the beginning of the 1900s, but the formation of the Claxton Shield in 1934 marked a new beginning for the sport. Until that point national tournaments were held, but the process lacked organization. Named after former player Norrie Claxton, who offered an actual shield to the winner of the tournament, it became the premier baseball tournament in Australia. Each of Australia’s five most populated states — Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and New South Wales — sent a team to play for the shield.

The Claxton Shield thrived as baseball’s popularity steadily grew over time and remained the premier competition in Australia until the creation of the first Australian Baseball League in 1989. Since the formation of both the old and the new ABL, the shield has been given to the champion of the league instead of the winner of a state-based competition.

There’s something about your first time

After over 50 years of the Claxton Shield dominating professional baseball in Australia, the country took a big step forward and created the Australian Baseball League. Consisting of eight teams spread out across the country, the “Old ABL” soon became the primary baseball competition in Australia. The league instituted quirky rules that ensured a fair level of play. For instance, players under contract with a major league team were required to use wooden bats, while all other players were permitted to use the more lethal aluminum versions. American players coming over from the States gave the Australian public a glimpse at a world they would only get to experience once or twice a year on TV. The league was popular, drawing crowds averaging 12,000 some seasons. In 1994, some 500,000 Australians attended a game and around a million watched the ABL on TV.

When the 10-year license for the league with Baseball Australia ran out in 1999, the owners decided not to renew it. While the league had a fairly large following, owners felt that financial viability had not been, and was not going to be, a reality. The distance between the league’s cities created a financial problem; instead of busing to away games, teams had to fly everywhere. Finding proper facilities for baseball was also an issue; most teams were forced to borrow cricket pitches and football stadiums. And the league had no financial backing from MLB.

While the first incarnation of the ABL lasted only 10 years, it had an impact on the younger generations of fans. Ben Foster, commissioner of the current ABL, grew up watching the old league. “I wanted to grow up to play in the ABL,” he said. “It was tangible, it was achievable, it was my goal from the outset.” The old ABL set an important foundation for the future of Australian baseball. Players like Travis Blackley, Grant Balfour and Peter Moylan grew up with the old ABL, and no doubt helped steer towards them a life in baseball. The league also showed that with the proper financial strategy baseball could be popular enough to survive Down Under.

Out with the old, in with the new

In 2009 the Australian Baseball Federation and MLB announced the formation of a new Australian Baseball League. Thanks in part to an endorsement from the Australian federal government, organized baseball was back in Australia after a 10-year absence.

What was it about about Australia that convinced MLB to allocate money toward the new ABL? The growth of baseball on a global scale is obviously very important to MLB, but with baseball flourishing around the world in nontraditional locations such as Europe, Brazil, and even China, what about Australia made it the right place for MLB to invest? According to Daniel Amodio, the baseball operations and facilities development manager for the new ABL, “it’s the right mix of a growing market, in the right hemisphere, with the precedent that a baseball league — if done correctly — can work in Australia.”

Since 2009, the market has continued to grow; participation in the sport, at both youth and adult levels, has increased faster than in almost any other country in the world. Australia’s location in the southern hemisphere has made the ABL a good place for major league teams to give their minor leaguers more seasoning in the offseason: 85 prospects from 14 teams have played in the ABL over the past four years. They compete at a level comparable to High-A in the States, against each other and native Australian players who usually have another job during the offseason.

Thirteen players have made their way to the big leagues after spending time in Australia. Among the Americans: Keon Broxton, Brandon Maurer and Brandon Barnes. Netherlands native Didi Gregorius also spent time in the ABL. This should continue, as teams send their low minors players to get additional seasoning each winter. Australians include Blackley, Liam Hendriks and Shane Lindsay. Blackley played in the ABL after reaching the major league level. Relief ace Balfour, born in Australia, didn’t play in the ABL before reaching the majors, but he has since. The same goes for Moylan.

It is the Balfour types, the Dave Nilsson types, that the country needs to strive to produce, says Josh Chetwynd, who through his roles with British and South African baseball, not to mention serving as a baseball broadcaster for the BBC, knows more about international baseball than most people. “Australia has developed numerous big leaguers, but if they can consistently produce All-Stars it will increase media attention and provide more mainstream stars for both young Australian players to aspire,” Chetwynd says. “To date, Australia has produced two MLB All-Stars: Dave Nilsson and Grant Balfour. If the number increases it will definitely help game development in Australia.” To that end, the country, through the MLB Academy in Australia, has seen several six-figure signings in recent years — such as Lewis Thorpe, who made several Twins prospect lists this year — which can only bode well for the future.

Where do we go from here?

This past winter my family and I went to Sydney for winter break and I attended two ABL games at the Blacktown Sportspark, home of the Sydney Blue Sox. Getting to the Blue Sox home park, originally built for the 2000 Olympic games and an hour’s drive from downtown, is a schlep and a half. The overall experience was as interesting as it was bizarre.

Some aspects of the sport have yet to make their way across the Pacific. Much like fans at a tennis match, the crowd instantly silenced the moment a pitcher entered his windup. An infield fly in one game created mass confusion throughout the concourse. For what they might lack in terms of experience, Australian fans make up for with dedication, curiosity and an engaging attitude. And most importantly, these fans are actually coming out to the ballpark.

Attendance this past season (which runs November through February) was up 15 percent. The team in Perth has nearly doubled its attendance since the league’s rebirth in 2010.

One big difference between the old ABL and its successor is baseball-specific stadiums. “In terms of priorities, in terms of achieving sustainability it [facility improvement] is number one,” said Foster. The renovation and development of new stadiums in Melbourne and Brisbane in recent years means Adelaide is the only ABL city without a baseball-specific complex.

“Central to the business of baseball in the States,” Foster said, “is having a good, workable, commercially viable stadium, and we are no different.” Having modern, accessible facilities proves to MLB and the Australian public that the ABL is committed to growing the popularity of baseball for the long term on both a fan interaction and financial level.

Still, without the financial support from Major League Baseball International, the league would be forced to operate under a much different set of circumstances. The old ABL failed to survive in the late ’90s in part because team owners didn’t believe the league would be profitable in the long run. In the new ABL, every team is owned directly by the league, which would not be possible without substantial support coming from MLB.

“Having the largest professional league in the world and the national sporting organization behind you is a huge vote of confidence for everyone involved with the league,” Foster said. Guy Edmonds, a former Texas Rangers farmhand and starting catcher for the Sydney Blue Sox was downright appreciative that MLB is giving so much attention to Australian baseball. “It is good for the Australian public to be shown a professional level once again through the ABL returning, and I tip my hat to MLB for providing us the opportunity to do that,” he said.

Aside from the two games between the Dodgers and D-backs that will count for the season, each team will play an exhibition game against the Australian national team. Edmonds will be the starting catcher for those games. He believes the games will help continue the growth of baseball in the land of wonder. He sees them as “just another reason for Australians to get hooked on the sport.”

But for this amazing event to actually have an impact, Foster believes that Baseball Australia needs to build upon the excitement this week will cause. “It’s the biggest thing that MLB could have done for this country, it’s the biggest investment they could have made, but the expectation is for us to convert the level of interest that the opening series will generate and have that translate that into more success in the ABL.” If the league can capitalize on the publicity, it may have the opportunity to expand past its current six teams.

Opened in 1854, the Old Sydney Cricket Grounds is usually filled with wickets and bowlers, but for a few days this week it will be home to bases and pitchers. Only a venue with such historical importance to Australian sport would be fit to host such an event. Four games in four days will put baseball in the spotlight like never before; the 45,000-seat ground is expected to be sold out. It’s an event more than 100 years in the making, and if all goes well it could set the tone for baseball in Australia for years to come.

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Comments

  1. ***** said...

    I’ve Always wrote them off, until last year, when the Calvary managed to win the Asian series.

    That performance against the various Asian teams was delightful. Never before did I expect to see a bunch of Aussies beat powerhouses like the Samsung Lions. Sure, they did lose against Tanaka’s Golden Eagles (even though Tanaka wasn’t pitching), but that was almost to be expected.

    In the Final against the 7/11 Lions, they put up a delightful performance. The taiwanese papers already assumed victory, they had a victory parade lined up, and the guys on Fox Sports Taiwan encourage fans to go to the Ballpark to watch the boys win.

    The Lions were a traditional Asian powerhouse. Their lineup was supplemented by major leaguers, they had a beautiful stadium, and they had professional Hypemen and cheerleaders. The Calvary looked very, very bush league in front of them. Hell, the cheerleaders were introduced as “This is the 3rd baseman’s wife”. Hell, they didn’t even bring enough pitchers! On the last game (the championship game), they had to start a reliever, since they don’t have a starter ready to go.

    Yet they put up a stunning performance. in the 7th inning, they started to pile up hits, and crushed the Lions’ bullpen. The Lions brought out former major leaguers, yet all they can do is give up run after run, ending in a grand slam.

    I never respected australian baseball before that, I used to write them off like the German Baseball Bundesliga, not anymore after that.

  2. Gareth said...

    Thanks for writing this, Jake. One can only dream of the ball players the ABL could produce if even a fraction of the some 1 million registered cricketers here played baseball first. Here’s hoping a new era starts this weekend.

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