This annotated week in baseball history: Nov. 2-Nov. 8, 2008

On Nov. 4, Richard will depart for Australia. In honor of his visit “Down Under,” he looks at the Australians who have reached the major leagues.

As anyone who has ever made the trip can tell you, it is a long, long way to go to Australia from the continental United States. Even the closest major league city is more than 7,500 miles from Sydney, and even farther from Perth on Australia’s western coast.

I don’t say this just to bemoan the journey I have ahead of mealthough anyone interested in my sense of impending misery about the combined 21 hours of flight time each way can feel free to e-mail—but rather to point out how impressive the number of Australians in the majors is.

So, having established that it is no mean feat for those 23 men to have reached the big leagues, it only seems fair to look at some individually.

The first Australian major leaguer was Joe Quinn, who played from 1884 through 1901. He is still the all-time Australian leader in, among other things, games, hits, RBIs and doubles. He also remains the only Aussie to manage a major league team.

All told, 23 Aussies have made it the majors, including six last year. This may not seem like many; you couldn’t even field a whole team with it. But it comprises more players in the majors than six states (including New Mexico, Alaska and Nevada) and many countries, including the Bahamas.

It is true that Australia is a big country, just slightly smaller than the continental United States. Unlike the U.S., however, it has huge unpopulated tracts. The population of Australia is smaller than that of Nepal, Peru, Tanzania or Iraq. This is because the middle section, the bit popularly known as “the outback,” is less populated than your average Marlins game.

Quinn was hardly the start of a trend; after his departure from the majors in 1901 it would not be until 1986 that another Australian reached the major leagues. That man was Craig Shipley. Born in suburban Sydney, Shipley was a utility infielder and—it must be said—not much of a hitter. He made up for this lack of stick with versatility, playing everywhere except the battery over his career.

Today Shipley remains in baseball, serving as a vice president and head of international scouting for the Red Sox.

International scouting, of course, is what brings Aussies to America for baseball, and after Shipley, the pipeline has opened. By the time Shipley retired in 1998, five of his countrymen were playing or had played in the majors.

Of these, the two most notable occupied the positions Shipley had never played, Dave Nilsson at catcher and Graeme Lloyd on the mound. Nilsson debuted for the Brewers in 1992, and though he was primarily a catcher—playing more than 300 games there—he also manned first base and the corner outfield positions.

At his best, Nilsson was an excellent hitter. In 1996 he batted .331, good for sixth in the league as part of a 130 OPS+ season. He made the All-Star team on the back of a strong first half in 1999, putting up nearly a 1.000 OPS before the break. Nilsson remains, by a substantial margin, the all-time Australian home run leader.

Nilsson’s career in the majors ended after the 1999 season. He was a free agent that year, but declined to sign with any franchise, instead choosing to represent his country at the Olympics in Sydney in 2000. The Australians finished a disappointing 2-5, the same record they had posted in 1996.

Nilsson never returned to the majors, but would continue to represent his country internationally. In 2004, Nilsson was part of the team that won a silver medal in Athens and played for Australia again in the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006.

Only one Aussie has ever reached the team nirvana of a World Series title. That man is Graeme Lloyd (it’s pronounced “graham,” like the cracker), who played on title teams with the Yankees in 1996 and 1998.

Like Nilsson, Lloyd came up with the Brewers, debuting in 1993. A year later, he and Nilsson would combine to form the first all-Australian battery in the major leagues. Lloyd worked primarily as a left-handed specialist during his career, which allowed him to rate as the Australian leader in pitcher games, innings, wins, saves and strikeouts.

Lloyd’s moment in the sun came in 1996, when he arrived in a trade to the Yankees from Milwaukee. Initially a disaster—his ERA was nearly 20 in the regular season—he was a lockdown reliever in the postseason. This was never more true than in the 1996 World Series, where Lloyd won Game 4 in relief and shut down Atlanta’s Fred McGriff and Ryan Klesko.

In 1999, Lloyd was traded, along with David Wells and Homer Bush, to the Blue Jays in a deal for Roger Clemens. This began the journeyman part of his career; he would spend time in Toronto, Montreal, Florida, New York (for the Mets this time) and Kansas City.

Lloyd left the major leagues after the 2003 season, but like Nilsson was part of the silver medal winning team in Athens. In a recent interview, Lloyd, who returned to the Bronx for Old Timers’ Day this year, said that “it was great to be a Yankee.” He also offered advice to fellow Australian Grant Balfour, then pitching in the ALCS for Tampa Bay.

Whether it is Balfour, Seattle’s Ryan Rowand-Smith or someone else not yet in the majors, it is only a matter of time before a true Australian superstar emerges. And while the pipeline is already open, perhaps that Australian superstar will help convince even more teams to make the long trip Down Under and bring prospects back with them.

If Lloyd, Nilsson and even Quinn are any indication, there is talent to be found among the kangaroos.

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