They were the only fans in the wooden grandstand beyond the right centerfield fence, 10 teenagers strung across the top row like kookaburras on the wire. They began chanting "Din-Go, Diiiiin-Go," and from one end to the other, they rose and then sat. "Now we've seen the Australian Wave," said Mets scouting director Roland Johnson. Before Johnson finished his sentence he heard the crack of a bat, looked up and saw a towering fly ball hit by 18-year-old David Nilsson—Dingo to his mates—land in the grandstand of Holloway Field, a home run. "Luvly!" shouted a man in the concrete bleachers behind home plate. The Queensland Rams had tied up the Western Australia Brewers 4-4.
This is as good as baseball gets in Australia, as the Rams and the Brewers are two of the country's best teams, made up of "professionals" from 18 years old and up. Do not read too much into the fact that the chain link leftfield fence of Holloway Field is in the shadow of the Brisbane Soccer Stadium or that there are but six light poles with five bulbs each; and chips—not fries—are $1 (Australian) at the concession stand. About the biggest difference between baseball as played in Australia and in the U.S. is that they throw the ball around the infield backward Down Under, ending up with the first baseman's handing the ball to the pitcher.
Baseball is not a newcomer to Australia; it has been played in the Land Down Under for 120 years. But, quite suddenly, American major league teams are regarding Aussie baseball as more than a curiosity. Two Rams, Nilsson and right-fielder Tony Hrabar, are considered top prospects in the States, which explains the presence of Mets scouts Johnson and Joe Mason.
What has brought them to Australia is the Claxton Shield competition, which amounts to the Australian national championship. Cricket had its Sheffield Shield, in which all-star teams from each of Australia's six states competed for the national championship, so back in 1931, Aussie sportsman Norrie Claxton decided baseball should have its championship, too. What began as a simple two-week, one-site tournament back then has now grown to a 20-game "regular" season among the six state teams—two home games and two away games against each rival—followed by a 10-game playoff between the two leaders. In 1987, Nilsson went from being the Claxton Shield MVP (the final series was played in February) to a guy with a $50,000 signing bonus with the Milwaukee Brewers. During the subsequent U.S. baseball season, he justified that investment by making the conversion from first base to catcher, batting .394 for the Helena Brewers, being voted the Pioneer League's second-best prospect and hitting .340 in the Arizona Instructional League, all before his 18th birthday. David is the third Nilsson brother to play in the U.S. The other two were pitchers: Bobby, who signed with the Reds in 1978 and was released four months later, and Gary, who signed with the Tigers in 1984 but quit after a year and a half because of an injured shoulder. The three Nilsson brothers still play together for the Rams when it's winter in the U.S.
April 17, 1988
If David makes it to Milwaukee, however, he will not be Australia's first major leaguer. Unless you count a 19th-century infielder named Joe Quinn who was born in Sydney and raised in the U.S., that distinction belongs to Sydney-raised shortstop Craig Shipley, who has played parts of the last two seasons for the Los Angeles Dodgers. But Shipley, who attended the University of Alabama before signing with the Dodgers in 1984, hasn't played in Australia for seven years.
The Australian game may not look very different to American eyes, but the play-by-play commentary provided by the public address announcer at Holloway Field certainly sounds different to American ears. "A little outside, that brings it full chord," the booming voice intones as the count reaches 3 and 2. After a line drive up the middle: "That's two safe hits for Riley." When Western Australia's Mickey Riley tries to stretch it into a double, the announcer urgently calls, "...and he's trying to go to second!" Mike Young, the Queensland Rams coach, thought that was a bit much and sent one of his players to the announcer's booth to protest such calls while a play was still going on.
Local argot can occasionally cause Yanks to do audio double takes. Innings are called "digs," or, as in cricket, a single inning can be referred to as an "innings." After the third out is made, the home plate umpire shouts, "Side away." A player doesn't make a catch, he makes a "take," and a good catch is a "top take." You don't shag fly balls, you "fox" them. One can "bat for the team," which means hitting to the opposite field instead of taking a full swing, and a hit is more than just a hit, it's a "safe hit." Sliders and curveballs are "sliding balls" and "curving balls," a foul tip that hits the catcher is a "foul snick."
After squinting at Claxton Shield play for two nights in the dim light of Holloway Field, the consensus among American scouts was that the Rams and Brewers had about six players of Triple A caliber, another half-dozen who could play Double A, a lot of guys who could make independent Class A clubs, as well as major league prospects Nilsson and Hrabar. "There's definitely something here, although they've got a long way to go," said the Mets' Johnson. "We'll likely have some type of team here within two years, an instructional league team or maybe we'll simply send players to their existing clubs," said Mason.
The Mets, like the Blue Jays, Athletics and Dodgers, are scouring the world for new talent. "Baseball is becoming an international game, particularly in the Pacific from Japan to Korea to Taiwan to China on down to Australia. We'd be stupid not to take close notice," says Mets vice-president Joe McIlvaine. "Especially since the talent in half of the world's eight major baseball-playing nations—Japan, Cuba, Taiwan and Korea—won't let their players play for the American professional teams."
But Johnson and Mason learned that Australian talent may not be as available as the American clubs would like. The two got their first inkling one afternoon at practice for a national under-18 tournament in Perth, when they heard an Aussie youngster ask Toronto scout Wayne Morgan, "Are you one of the American spies?" That same night the Mets contingent walked out of the tournament site at Parry Field because of remarks by Australia Baseball Federation vice-president Neville Pratt. In his speech offically opening the tournament, Pratt offered "a warning. We have a number of major league scouts here. The ABF has no objection to a player signing a professional contract. However, there has been a spate of signings for paltry amounts of money without the player or his parents being fully advised of the ramifications.... Apart from the Los Angeles Dodgers, who have regularly made their coaches available to this country and hosted our Australian youth teams, the other American clubs have done nothing to advance baseball in Australia." Johnson and Mason got up and left.
"The Mets overreacted," Pratt later said. "What we're afraid of is American professional teams coming here and strip-mining our baseball system. Once a boy signs, he is no longer eligible for international competition of any kind, and to us, playing for one's own country is the highest level one shoots for. Look at what happened to Bobby Nilsson. He signed with the Cincinnati Reds, was released after spring training in his first season and never played one professional game. Yet he will be forever ineligible for international competition."
Pratt and most Australian administrators grew up playing baseball the Australian way: Sunday mornings, for their clubs, just 22 games in six months. Many Australians leave school at 15 or 16 to begin work apprenticeships, so there is nowhere else to play but club teams. "Australian kids desperately need to play more," says national junior coach Steve Gilmore, who is a transplanted Floridian. "But a lot of people who run Australian baseball don't necessarily think that the American way is the right way."
The Aussie club system is essentially social. The fanciest example is the Auburn Orioles in Sydney, where not only is the ballpark of Triple A quality, but also the clubhouse has full bars and restaurants, plus slot machines and facilities to take bets on horse races, cricket, football and rugby matches. In contrast, some other Aussie club facilities barely qualify as picnic areas.
Until the late '60s, the only Americans who played for the clubs were those who happened to work in Australia. But then an avid Perth baseball player named Kevin Parry—the multimillionaire whose boat Kookaburra III defended the America's Cup in '87—decided to start importing some Yanks. Parry, who had gotten his idea after meeting Washington State coach Chuck Brayton at a baseball clinic in Perth, asked Brayton to put out the word that he was searching for American players. In 1972, Don Knapp, a University of Oregon catcher, jumped at the chance to prolong his baseball career, and he in turn lured his teammate Bob Ossey to join him in Perth, Both players are still involved in the Western Australia League. "For the promise of a teaching job and being able to keep playing baseball, I couldn't have been happier—and it's enabled me to see the world on a .220 average," says Knapp.
"We didn't have baseball fields. We played in the middle of a football oval, with bases randomly thrown down," says Ossey, recalling his first view of Aussie baseball in 1972. "These were the days long before Aussie chic and the big tourist trade, and anti-Americanism was rampant. We were always called 'Septic Tanks' [part of an old Aussie rhyme that goes 'Yank, Yank, Septic Tank']."
"With every passing year, the game gets more and more Americanized," says Knapp. "Now the kids who play in the under-18 tournament stay up until three in the morning watching the World Series."
But an American watching baseball in Perth couldn't help noticing that the Aussies looked vaguely uneasy, particularly in the field. Outfielders foxed fly balls as if they were cans of olive oil tossed from a balcony, and ground balls were sometimes treated like snakes. "It comes back to two things: not playing enough, and not having major leaguers to emulate," says Knapp. "Back in Oregon, we played catch in the backyard from the time we were four. We watched Willie Mays and tried to be him."
No one has had more of an impact on baseball in Australia than Mike Young, a native of Chicago who coaches the Queensland and national teams. Under his leadership, Queensland has won four of the last seven Claxton Shield titles—including the most recent, four games to none over Victoria. Young has blended Aussie-style club amateurism and American professionalism. Clippings cover the walls of Queensland's clubhouse, and copies of the The Sporting News and Baseball America lie on a table. He also initiated the playing of the Australian national anthem before games as well as individual player introductions. His efforts are beginning to pay off. Two years ago baseball stories were infrequent in the Brisbane Daily Sun; now there are often two or three a day. All three Brisbane TV stations did news features on the Claxton Shield.
"We've come a long way," says Young, "but we're still 15 years away from the level of Japan." As Young sees it, much of the problem lies with the state and national federations that run individual sports in Australia. "We should be getting good professional players over here, because the better the competition, the better the national team will eventually be. Instead [the baseball federations] are more worried about constricting rules." Current ABF rules state that there can be no more than two Americans on a club or Claxton Shield side, and while most clubs do have the limit of two Americans on their rosters, the majority of the Yanks are former college players with just a few ex-minor leaguers mixed in. "Instead of competition," says Young, "some of the administrators believe that they should not allow Australians to have their jobs taken by foreigners. Some of [the administrators] just have no clue about baseball."
Just as Young will someday be remembered as a revolutionary force in Australian baseball, so Shipley and Nilsson will be remembered as pioneers in the U.S. Each had a father who was a baseball fanatic. Shipley's father, Barry, converted to baseball from cricket as a teenager and has become a self-proclaimed "addict." He helped build the Auburn Club and has devoted his life to clinics and baseball promotions. He also owns The Dugout, a sporting goods store that specializes in baseball equipment. Craig recalls, "I was the only kid in my elementary school who played baseball. I had been playing it every day in kindergarten because of my father." So was Craig's brother Mark, a second baseman who signed with Atlanta this winter.
The Nilssons are the DiMaggios of Australia. Father Tim was a pitcher for the Australian national team in the '60s and still pitches in a league on the odd Sunday. Mother Pat is the scorekeeper for the Queensland Rams. "What surprised us about [David] Nilsson wasn't that he hit .394," says Milwaukee farm director Bruce Manno. "What did surprise us was that we could take a 17-year-old first baseman and convert him to catcher and that he showed no adjustment problems. He had outstanding instincts and the ability to take charge of a pitching staff. He played as if he came from a strong Southern California high school or even college program."
"My biggest adjustments were to a wooden bat [aluminum is used in Australia] and the pitchers throwing five miles an hour harder," says Nilsson. "I got a little worried when I didn't get a hit in my first 10 spring training games, but I finally got one off Dennis Lamp [who was working with an Oakland farm club]. I relaxed, and the rest was just doing what I've done most of my life—play ball."
Nilsson's upbringing might have made the transpacific transition easy for him, but the baseball experience of Adrian Meagher, 22, now in the Brewers organization, is more typical of what Aussie ballplayers experience. He literally had to go out of his way to find a place to play once he got out of school. "I used to take the bus from Lismore to Brisbane [120 miles] every Sunday," says Meagher. "Playing baseball is still playing despite hardship," he says.
Among the hardships is the cost of equipment. Because of the import tariffs, a Rawlings glove that costs $50 in the U.S. is $240 Down Under. Good aluminum bats range from $85 to $196. American baseballs are $15 apiece, so teams use Taiwanese models at $7 apiece. In many cases, players on teams that are invited to overseas tournaments must pay their own way.
Travel, even for home games, can be a hassle. Consider the Northern Territory club. Most of its players come from Darwin, on the northern coast, or from Alice Springs, more than 800 miles away right in the middle of the immense country. Such daunting distances can make a coach think twice before calling a practice.
Baseball is growing in Australia, but the idea of its supplanting cricket is akin to soccer taking over from college football on Saturday afternoons in the U.S. Still, Young believes that if a winter baseball league is created, cricketers will be jumping to the sport in huge numbers. "The last two Australian cricket team captains, Greg Chappell and Alan Border, are baseball players who've said that if the rewards were the same, they'd be playing baseball instead of cricket," says John Brown, whose JFB Sport operates both the Queensland Rams and a basketball team called the Brisbane Bullets. "There is an enormous shift toward American sports. This isn't going to be a British sporting country for much longer. Two years ago we couldn't get 400 people to a 2,000-seat arena to watch basketball in Brisbane. This past year we were selling out a 12,500-seat arena; tickets for the finals were being scalped for $150.
"In Queensland and Western Australia, the baseball and economic boom states, we're seeing a tremendous growth in Hong Kong, Japanese and American investment. Asia and America are looking at us. Baseball is going to reap huge benefits from this emerging economic shift. One or two Japanese major league teams have explored building spring-training facilities in Queensland. Remember, now we only have two or three television channels in most of our cities. Cable hasn't hit yet. But all that will be changing. In two or three years, baseball will be on in prime time three, four and five times a week. American games will be on in our winter, off the cable.
"Not too long ago, Australia and the U.S. were worlds apart. Now they're a long flight apart, and that flight is getting shorter and shorter, and the cultural differences are getting smaller and smaller. Baseball is a microcosm of all that."
In time, curving balls will be curves, Australian pitchers will be handed balls by their third basemen and chips may even become fries. But look on the bright side: Maybe by then the Wave will be passè.