Aussie baseball has long, rich, ever-evolving history
It might be hard to imagine for residents of the sun-burned country of Australia, but when 45,000 fans cram into Sydney Cricket Ground on March 22 to watch the first two regular-season Major League Baseball games, a new sport will take over Down Under, if just for a little while.
Big league umpires will take the place of the referees who point their fingers in Australian Rules Football, or "footy."
Oz-raised cricketers will be forced to watch because their most iconic pitch has been temporarily remodeled for the four-day party between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks called Opening Series 2014.
Young swimmers who grew up watching Ian Thorpe and Leisel Jones and other Aussie aquatic Olympic heroes will climb out of the pool and take a look.
The thoroughbreds in the stalls at nearby Randwick Park might even get spooked by the crowd noise.
"Baseball's not huge in Australia, but this event might really open some eyes," says Arizona left-hander Ryan Rowland-Smith, a Sydney-born, Newcastle-raised veteran of four Major League seasons. "Australians know of it, but now they're going to see it right in front of them. They're going to see Clayton Kershaw against Paul Goldschmidt. They're going to feel that hype and that electricity. It's a real-life thing, exposed right there in our own backyard.
"So it's huge."
Somewhere, Joe Quinn has to be smiling.
Sure, baseball had been around Australia for a little while before Quinn was born in Sydney in 1864. In fact, as MLB's official historian, John Thorn, points out in a recent blog post, there was evidence of the Grand Old Game being played Down Under in 1855, when the Colonial Times newspaper in Hobart, on the island now known as Tasmania, referred to a "Sabbath Desecration" in which boys and men played, among other games, "base-ball," and offended "the eyes and ears of persons of moral and religious feeling" by "making a great noise."
Two years later, Thorn found, there was a three-inning game between Richmond and Collingwood featuring odd rules that led to a final score of 350-230. Collingwood won, if you're scoring at home.
Clubs were formed in Sydney and in St. Kilda, where the club played an American team, the Georgia Minstrels, as Thorn points out. And in 1884, the Major Leagues got a taste of their first native Australian when Quinn, a second baseman, was called up to The Show for the St. Louis Maroons of the Union Association. Quinn played 17 years in the bigs, amassing 1,800 hits.
He also managed St. Louis in 1895 and the 1899 Cleveland Spiders, known as, well, the worst team of all time, with a 12-104 record. In Cleveland writer Terry Pluto's book "Our Tribe: A Memoir," Quinn's forgettable season as skipper was expanded upon in rather gory detail.
"Unfortunately, the Spiders made their manager, Joe Quinn, finish the schedule," Pluto wrote. "And it was some finish, as they lost 40 of their last 41 games. In an Oct. 1 defeat in St. Louis, the Globe-Democrat reported, 'The contest was closely waged throughout, and was only settled after the third inning.'
"The final game of the season was started by Eddie Kolb, a 19-year-old who worked at a cigar stand in the Cincinnati hotel where the Spiders stayed. He was friends with Quinn, and when he heard Quinn moaning that his regular starting pitcher was sick, Kolb offered to take the mound. Quinn handed him the ball. He lost, 19-3."
Thorn is quick to note that Quinn was something of a pioneer as the first Aussie to play big league ball. But he's also realistic about his legacy.
"In baseball lore, when you think of Joe Quinn," Thorn says, "you think 'Oh, he got stuck with the Spiders.'"
If the Sydney Cricket Ground looks primed for baseball right now, it's partly because of the hard work of MLB field guru Murray Cook and local curator Tom Parker and his crew, but it's also because the SCG has some serious baseball history in its favor, or, in this case, favour.
In late 1888 and early 1889, a team put together by Albert Goodwill Spalding, baseball pitcher, manager, executive, promoter and sporting goods magnate, stopped in Australia on a world baseball tour and played games in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Ballarat. And 15 years later, the New York Giants and Chicago White Sox took a tour Down Under and played in Melbourne and Sydney, with the Jan. 3, 1914 game at the Sydney Cricket Ground drawing a crowd of 10,000, according to Thorn.
Things quieted down for decades, but then the Dodgers stepped in, with team president Peter O'Malley expanding his team's scouting to many previously unexplored ports of ball around the world by sending Los Angeles coaches Red Adams and Monty Basgall to Australia as guest instructors of the Australian Baseball Federation.
While they were there, they came across a 16-year-old player from Parramatta who had learned the game of baseball from his father, Barry, a cricketer who had gotten hooked on baseball once it switched from a winter sport to a summer sport.
Barry's son, Craig Shipley, was working in a bank because he had left high school after 10th grade -- legally at the time -- and was playing infield for the Auburn Orioles baseball club. Adams and Basgall walked out on his field in Dodgers uniforms. Basgall hit him ground balls.
Shipley's hardball journey took off soon thereafter, from another high school (where he was also forced to play rugby) to the University of Alabama, to being signed by the Dodgers as an amateur free agent in 1984, to Minor League stops in Vero Beach, Fla., and Albuquerque, to June 22, 1986, when Shipley made his Major League debut against the Padres at Dodger Stadium and finished 1-for-4 with a second-inning RBI groundout in his first at-bat against Mark Thurmond and a single in the third.
"When I was growing up I never thought I could play in the big leagues," Shipley says. "There was nobody to look to."
Shipley, 51, is proud that he became the first Australian-born player in the Majors in the modern era, and his career wasn't a fleeting one. He also played for the Mets, Padres, Astros and Angels in 11 Major League seasons and has since worked in various field-staff and front-office capacities for the Expos, Padres, Red Sox, and now D-backs, for whom he is a special assistant to general manager Kevin Towers.
He admits that MLB seemed like a glorious dream, and now that his current team is going to Sydney to play against his original team in the first two games of the 2014 MLB regular season, it's happened all over again.
"When I first heard about having an Opening Series in Sydney, I thought, 'How perfect?'" Shipley says.
"And it really is. It's almost too perfect."
David Nilsson hadn't had much time to do anything, let alone contemplate his standing in the game of baseball or what he had accomplished in the Major Leagues or what it all meant to the people back in his home country of Australia.
It was July 13, 1999, and he was sitting in the visitor's dugout at Fenway Park as a catcher for the Milwaukee Brewers, the only team he'd known in the Majors. But on this night, he also was a catcher for the National League All-Star team.
Nilsson was the first Australian player to become a Major League All-Star, and he had done it in the last of eight seasons in the big leagues. He had hit .331 in 1996, had a 20-homer, 81-RBI year in 1997, and was in the midst of a 21-homer, .954 OPS campaign. He had spent plenty of time in the outfield, at first base and at designated hitter, but that year he was behind the plate in 101 games.
After each season, he'd return Down Under and play in the Australian Baseball League. He did it in his hometown of Brisbane as well as on the Gold Coast and in Melbourne. He helped keep the league going by digging into his own finances as a club owner, and he has since been on the field coaching and managing.
He also was a big part of his country's Olympic program. His team didn't win a medal when the 2000 Games came to Sydney -- that was accomplished by an underdog United States team that got a walkoff homer by Doug Mientkiewicz in the semifinals and a 4-0 win over Cuba in the gold medal game, courtesy of a pitching gem by Ben Sheets. But Australia was there to play before its fans, and Nilsson was there behind the plate, as he was when the country broke through for the silver medal at the 2004 Games in Athens.
So in that private, secluded moment in the Fenway dugout, after Ted Williams had visited with players on the field before the first pitch, Nilsson finally had the chance to think about what he had done - about the Australians who had let him know how important he was to baseball in their country, about the hard work that had led him to being on such a legendary field with baseball's best, and about the sacrifices he had made.
"I knew it could be significant for Australian sports," Nilsson says.
"So I guess I got a little emotional."
A handful of other Aussie players arrived on the Major League scene in the 1990s and early 2000s.
There was Trent Durrington, Shayne Bennett, Mark Ettles, Cam Cairncross, Damian Moss, Mark Hutton, Luke Prokopec, Jeff Williams.
And there was 1996 World Series champion Yankees reliever Graeme Lloyd, who blew a few games down the stretch that season and managed to get on the back page of the Gotham tabloids in spectacular fashion with headlines such as "The Blunder From Down Under" and "The Graeme Reaper" before rebounding with stellar playoff work.
Recent years have seen many more Aussies in the bigs, including pitchers Peter Moylan, Travis Blackley, Josh Spence, Rich Thompson and Liam Hendriks and position players Justin Huber, Chris Snelling, Luke Hughes and Trent Oeltjen.
But right now, for anyone's American or Australian dollars, the best -- and easily the most animated -- Australian player in the Majors is Tampa Bay closer Grant Balfour, who has struck out 514 batters in 473 innings, pitched in a World Series (2008, also with the Rays) and in two American League Division Series for the A's, and saved 62 games over the last two seasons since becoming a full-time ninth-inning guy.
Balfour stomps around the mound, displaying the "Balfour Rage" that has spawned a parody Twitter account. He wears Phiten necklaces around his neck and the pride of his country on his sleeve and in his heart.
"Australians play hard," Balfour says. "It's something that's built in the Aussies. We play tough, we play hard. It's just kind of that football mentality.
"I think it's just that kind of country, a bunch of roughnecks."
The roughnecks will be out there, 45,000 strong, when the world says "G'day" to real Major League Baseball at Sydney Cricket Ground in two weeks.
There might be a fried-out combie or two in the parking lot, you'll surely see your share of 'roo bars, and if you want to sneak some Vegemite onto your hot dog, you'll probably be able to find a way.
But other than that, it's pretty simple: Dodgers vs. D-backs, with two rosters full of fired-up players ready to get Games 1 and 2 of 162 into the books, hopefully with Ws.
All the while, the mild, early-autumn March air will surround an iconic sports venue in one of the world's most beautiful cities while a country with its own eclectic, colorful, still-emerging, and yes, successful, baseball history plays eager host.
Good on ya, Australia.