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Rowland-Smith, Shipley at home Down Under

Australia natives welcomed as ambassadors for Opening Series

SYDNEY -- Ryan Rowland-Smith was an 18-year-old left-handed pitcher, an Australian national team rookie trying to help win the World Cup in Taiwan. He also was the newly anointed, self-proclaimed club champion of the baffling cards-and-kitchen-utensils game of Spoons.

Craig Shipley is standing on the fresh baseball field in Sydney Cricket Ground telling this story, and he can't help but chuckle. It was so many years before these two men, forever entwined in the still-emerging history of baseball in Australia, met again and bonded over something shared.

That something is Opening Series 2014.

Shipley, a Parramatta native and the first Australian Major Leaguer in the modern era, is now a special assistant to the Arizona Diamondbacks. Rowland-Smith is 31, a D-backs reliever with four big league seasons who's fighting like mad for a fifth.

It's been a long time since the Spoons incident, but it's never too late to tell a good story.

"He thought he was great at the game," Shipley said of Rowland-Smith. "He came on the bus the next day, we gave him a crown, we called his mother.

"But once he figured out what the game was, he realized that maybe he wasn't really beating everybody like he thought he was. In fact, he wasn't beating anybody. So we had a good laugh."

All these years later, the two men are connected by what has worked out to be something of an ambassadorship for the season-opening two-game set between the National League West rival D-backs and Dodgers and the two exhibition games preceding it, with the Australian national team playing each of the Major League clubs.

Rowland-Smith will likely pitch one of the exhibitions for the D-backs and one for the Aussies. He's already relishing the prospect of it.

"Any time you get to wear the Australia jersey, it's a special thing," Rowland-Smith said. "But I've never thrown against Australia. I don't have the green card yet for the U.S., so it's bizarre."

Rowland-Smith said he's had plenty of conversations already with national team members he's known since childhood. He said there have been barbs thrown back and forth around the iconic Sydney Cricket Ground locker room about the fact that he'll be donning a different top while pitching to them.

But in his role as unofficial team D-backs guide this week, Rowland-Smith has watched his mates react exactly as he figured they would on an eye-opening trip Down Under.

"The whole clubhouse is enjoying it," Rowland-Smith said. "They love Australia. And I'll never get tired of talking about Australia or baseball in Australia. They're my two favorite topics."

Rowland-Smith said he and some other D-backs were enjoying lunch and the scenery at the seaside hotspot of Watsons Bay when one of his teammates said, "I want to live here."

"My main purpose right now is trying to make the Diamondbacks, but I can't help but talk about what to do here, where to go, and the culture here in Australia," Rowland-Smith said. "I'm so proud of my country."

And Shipley fits into that pride. It was Shipley, after all, along with big leaguers David Nilsson and Graeme Lloyd, who looked down at a young Rowland-Smith from posters on the wall of his childhood room as he strained his eyes to watch whatever games were coming on TV at 3 a.m.

"Those guys all had a huge influence on me," Rowland-Smith said. "I still look at Craig with awe, to be honest."

Doug Miller is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @DougMillerMLB.
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