Nilsson, Lloyd among growing group to play at game's highest level
SYDNEY -- David Nilsson and Graeme Lloyd were dressed up in suits, with the antique green rooftops of the famed Sydney Cricket Ground Members Pavilion visible in the background behind their heads and the flags of Australia and the United States flapping in the wind.
Seated next to them at a table and broadcast live on Australian television was Bud Selig, the Commissioner of Major League Baseball, who had come by to greet two of his old mates from the Milwaukee Brewers.
Such is the reality of baseball in Australia right now, with a successful Opening Series 2014 in Sydney in its final day, the game becoming more and more popular Down Under, and two longtime mates who cut their teeth on baseball Down Under hobnobbing with the head honcho of the game while helping show the world a great new venue for it.
Nilsson was the first Australian-born Major League All-Star, and Lloyd was a 1996 World Series champion reliever. For that, and for their upbringings on the Aussie national team, they, along with their 30 or so other countrymen who made it to the Majors, are forever bound. And they like it that way.
"It's a fraternity," Lloyd said. "No matter who you played with or if you see guys out, you say, 'G'day.' … It's just great to be out here and have a baseball field in Australia to play on."
Sunday was the last day of baseball at the Cricket Ground, for now, but lasting impressions have been made. The field played well, the stands were full of lively fans, and the country took to the game with the passion of its small but proud group of Major Leaguers.
There was Joe Quinn in the 1800s, and since then, there's been Craig Shipley, Trent Durrington, Shayne Bennett, Mark Ettles, Cam Cairncross, Damian Moss, Mark Hutton, Luke Prokopec and Jeff Williams. There's Nilsson, Lloyd, Ryan Rowland-Smith, Peter Moylan, Travis Blackley, Josh Spence, Rich Thompson and Liam Hendriks. There's Justin Huber, Chris Snelling, Luke Hughes and Trent Oeltjen. There's the second All-Star, current Rays closer Grant Balfour.
There are more. There will be more still.
Nilsson, who hit .331 in 1996, had a 20-homer, 81-RBI year in 1997, and put up a 21-homer, .954 OPS campaign in his All-Star year of 1999, said it's only a matter of time before you start seeing more Aussies in the big leagues, and it'll just be more Aussies in the fraternity and more reasons to celebrate together.
"We're lucky," Nilsson said. "We come across each other more than just here. There's definitely that connection for Australians who played in the big leagues. It's good. We don't really have that much to hang on to here.
"But part of the DNA of being an Australian baseball player of who goes in the American system and makes the big leagues is that you're trying to help the younger guys along and set an example, whether it's Ryan Rowland-Smith or Brad Harman or Balfour … it's rewarding."
Rowland-Smith is on hand as a D-backs reliever and was hoping to make the Opening Day roster. That didn't quite happen, but he pitched well in Triple-A last year and could add on to his four years of big league service time in 2014. He said there's a commonality with Aussie big leaguers that stems from being underdogs and having to rise above it.
"The whole baseball community in Australia is very close," Rowland-Smith said. "Everybody knows everybody. We've all spent a lot of time together. The sport definitely isn't in the big spotlight here, and we're not the world leaders in talent, but we definitely have a grittiness to us.
"We've always had to outwork our peers. We come from a place where we're not the big dog. I've always had the attitude that if I work harder than the next guy, I'll be all right. I think there's a lot of that here."
Shipley was the first in the modern era, making the Dodgers as an infielder in 1986. He's been back this week as a special advisor to D-backs general manager Kevin Towers, and he's been taking every opportunity to socialize with his old mates while actively selling the benefits of baseball to anyone who will listen.
Lloyd, who spoke to Shipley on the TV broadcast before Sunday's game at the Cricket Ground, is, not surprisingly, doing the same.
"It's a great sport, obviously it's the one I love and have enjoyed for many, many years, and it's taken me so many places in Australia and America and around the world," Lloyd said.
"Hopefully, kids watching these games will say, 'I want to have a game of baseball.'"