‘Something in the water’: What makes Australian baseball so special?

January 19th, 2024

“I fell in love the first time I ever set foot on Aussie soil.”

knew he wanted to build a career in baseball in Australia.

“In 2019, I made it happen,” Lutz recalled to MLB.com, “and as soon as I got my permanent residency, I knew I was going to live here long-term.”

But the former Cincinnati Reds prospect and the first German-developed player to make it to the Major Leagues has done a great deal more with his time Down Under.

He’s thrived.

Lutz’s attachment to Australian baseball began in 2010-11, the first season of the Australian Baseball League (ABL). He appeared in 29 games for the Canberra Cavalry in the winter of ‘10-11 -- or the summer, technically, as it was in the country at the time.

It was a means of honing his craft between stints in the lower levels of the Reds’ Minor League system, a process that eventually earned Lutz two partial seasons with the big league club in 2013-14.

Lutz’s Major League numbers weren’t as gaudy as he’d probably have liked -- a .211/.239/.284 line with 23 hits, five doubles and one home run -- and before long he was back in the Minors, where he remained until linking up with the Brisbane Bandits for the 2015-16 ABL campaign.

(A similar experience is playing out right now for , the onetime Yankees slugger who is thriving at age 34 in the ABL, mashing home runs and helping to shine an international spotlight on the league with his power show.)

Leaving after nine seasons in the Reds’ organization overseas proved a milestone moment in Lutz’s professional career, as he and the Bandits rolled to four consecutive Claxton Shields -- the ABL equivalent of the World Series trophy.

All Lutz did was mash during that dynastic run, taking home the ABL Championship MVP Award in his first season. In 256 games in the ABL, Lutz clubbed 56 home runs and collected 185 RBIs, leaving a legacy in his wake.

After retiring from the ABL, Lutz took up coaching back in the U.S. with the Rookie-level Arizona League Reds in 2018, a position he held for a while before unretiring for another go with the Bandits … and playing a big part in securing that fourth Claxton Shield title.

Lutz eventually put down roots, helping to run his own baseball academies for young players and working as an international scout for the Reds.

Now, he’s back with the Bandits again as the team’s third-base coach. Lutz’s career path is exemplary of the wide range of stories that come together on any roster in the ABL, where you can find players from all walks of life and from disparate stages in their respective careers, working together as one.

Suffice to say, Lutz has seen the best that Australian baseball has to offer, both in terms of personal and team success and the unique overall vibe that playing ball in the country provides.

“Every country is probably very sporty, very competitive, but I dunno, man,” Lutz said. “There’s something about it, maybe there’s something in the water.

“The Aussie competitive spirit, that’s one of the things I love here.”

, the most prominent current Australian in the Majors and the 2023 AL Comeback Player of the Year, knows a thing or two about competitive spirit. His is a fire that burns in all facets of his life, given the inspirational war he’s waged off the field in his fight with Stage 4 non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

“For me, it’s White Line Fever,” explains Hendriks, the three-time All-Star and 2021 AL saves leader with the White Sox who emerged as a premier arm in MLB with the A’s in 2019-20, saving 39 games with a 1.79 ERA. “I think you need to separate your off-field personality with who you are on the field.

“I need to be angry, I need to be aggressive, I need to be energetic on the mound,” Hendriks continued. “But off the field, I like to be more jovial and joking around, jabbing everybody with some banter, stuff like that.”

Hendriks was the second notable Australian fireballer at the back end of Oakland's bullpen in recent memory, following 's revved-up 2011-13 stint and key role in the A’s last-minute surge to snatch the AL West title from the Rangers in ‘12 -- a series that also benefited from a start from Australian lefty , who went 6-4 with a 3.86 ERA in 24 appearances (15 starts) for Oakland that season.

“I think Grant Balfour exudes that more than almost anybody that's ever played baseball,” said Hendriks of Balfour’s trademark “rage,” which A's fans in the right-field bleachers reveled in each night as the pitcher lumbered toward the mound, the human avatar of a volcano about to erupt.

Australia may be geographically “low-key” and “laid back,” as Hendriks attests, “... but as soon as those competitive juices start going, that’s when everything starts coming out.”

“I think it's just part of Australian sporting culture, but particularly for us as baseball players,” opines , a left-hander for the Melbourne Aces who became just the second pitcher in ABL history to record 400 career strikeouts earlier this season. “We probably have somewhat of a chip on our shoulders because … being Australian, we always kind of feel like we have to prove ourselves. We're not historically a massive baseball playing nation.”

Hendriks applies that “White Line Fever” concept to the on-field demeanor of his former roommate, Kent. “He turns beet red on the mound when he gets a big pitch, a big strikeout … as soon as you get across that white line, you're a different person, you're a different animal.”

Due to the time difference, it can be difficult to catch Australian baseball in the United States. But the 2023 World Baseball Classic put some of the country’s best talent on display to the masses in a lasting way.

Who can forget the exploits of , who starred on offense and defense for the green and gold squad in each of the past two World Baseball Classics … in addition to being a full-time firefighter?

"It's a lot of hard work, but the reason I do it is for these tournaments, is for putting on this jersey, it's for being around the group of guys and the coaching staff,” Kennelly -- who became the all-time ABL home run leader with his 61st career long ball on Jan. 13 against the Aces -- told MLB.com in 2023. “It's the little things like that and the memories that you have playing that pushes you."

Kennelly and Kent’s success touches on another key aspect of Australian baseball: many of its best players juggle highly competitive league action with a full-time job.

Kent, 34, is another of those players who burst onto the scene in Australia as a prospect and signed with a Major League organization, but soon found himself back on his native soil, where he’s dominated ever since.

Kent has been a member of Team Australia since he was 17 and participated in the nation’s World Baseball Classic runs in 2017 and '23, among other accolades.

He’s also maintained a life outside of baseball in addition to being a star on the field.

“For guys like me, it's awesome because it allows me to still play the game at a high level despite being out of professional baseball in the States,” said Kent. “Now, I’m back here and I’ve entered the real world and I have I guess what you’d call a ‘proper job.’ But because the commitment here in the ABL isn’t gigantic, I’m still able to play, which is great.”

Kent began his career with Major League aspirations, splitting the early part of his Minor League time with various Braves affiliates and the ABL’s Cavalry -- even making it as far as the Braves’ Triple-A affiliate in Gwinnett in 2016 -- before linking up with Australian baseball for good.

Like Lutz, Kent has also found significant success in the ABL, tossing more than 384 innings and posting a 3.30 ERA (through six games in the 2023-24 season) over 12 campaigns and racking up a historic number of strikeouts along the way.

Lutz and Kent, of course, are far from the only players who began their ABL experience seeking a lasting Major League career. The league also employs several players from the Korean Baseball League (KBO), including Seung-Hyun Lee, a 21-year-old left-hander in his first season with the Adelaide Giants.

Lee’s ABL tenure began shortly before Japanese lefty Shōta Imanaga, who just signed a four-year deal with the Cubs as a marquee free agent, became something of an international star thanks to a dominant run in the ABL.

For Lee, a hungry young relief pitcher with his own Major League aspirations, assimilating into the structure of Australian baseball has been an eye-opening experience.

ABL teams play half the number of games per week (three) that Lee was used to in the KBO (six), for one, but even more of a surprise was the phenomenon of juggling two jobs concurrently.

“It was a huge shock to learn that some ABL players have other jobs while playing baseball,” Lee told MLB.com through translator Jiyoung Mun. “Honestly, I never even considered the possibility of a baseball player having another job. However, when I realized that other players, despite having different primary occupations, are genuinely passionate about baseball, it made me understand that dedication comes in various forms.

“Seeing these players, who are just as committed to baseball even with other jobs, made me feel that … as someone whose primary occupation is baseball, I need to work even harder and be more passionate about the game.”

Thus far in his own blossoming career, Lee has enjoyed the special opportunity given to him in the ABL: “Playing baseball with friends from different countries around the world, I learned a lot from each person's approach to the game and their attitudes.”

Alongside the former big league pros looking to continue their career and the young dreamers getting their first taste of baseball outside their home country, there are also the phenoms who suit up in Australia. put on a show in 2016 with Melbourne, while the Rays' No. 3 prospect -- a product of Adelaide -- dazzled in his ABL debut as a 16-year-old in ‘18.

All told, Mead tallied a .302/.357/.443 line in parts of four seasons in the ABL, securing a deal with the Phillies in 2018 and eventually heading to the Rays in a trade.

That early experience no doubt helped Mead on his way through the Rays’ system to where he currently resides as one of the game’s top young talents.

“There was an opportunity here, before he got to the States,” Kent said of Mead’s fast rise, “so by the time he got over there, he knew what to expect. He was ready.”

Also benefited by an ABL stint was , currently among the Angels’ most promising young Major League talents, who credits his 28-game run with Adelaide in the 2019-20 season as a major moment in his development.

While still in the lower levels of the Phillies organization at the time, O’Hoppe hit five homers and slashed .258/.389/.483 with the Giants at age 19. He would make his Major League debut for the Halos three years later.

With all of these narratives coalescing together in the ABL, there’s boundless reasons for baseball fans to make an effort to tune in.

“For me, it’s to get your baseball fix,” Hendriks said. “A lot of teams send their prospects over there, so maybe you’ll get a chance to see some future big leaguers playing out there.”

Lutz emphasized the “unique mix” of players as an attractive quality of the ABL, noting that there’s a free app available globally that streams every game. “I think for everyone who loves baseball, especially in the offseason, it's an easy thing to watch here.”

And while that mix of player backgrounds brings in a variety of personalities, Kent believes there are no issues building chemistry.

“Together, we’re all shooting for one goal," Kent said. "All we want is to win. It’s a short season, every game means something. It’s not a 162-game season where you can afford to have a bad stretch. Every game is important.

“I think the combination of all those things makes it an incredibly exciting league, and people should get on board and start watching.”