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Baseball never ends: the Australian Baseball League kicks off a new season

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The 2014 Major League season is over, but the 2014-2015 Australian Baseball League season is just beginning.

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Hamish Blair

Following the conclusion of the World Series, there was merely a four hour window between the conclusion of the Major League Baseball season and the beginning of the Australian Baseball League (ABL). Baseball never ends, and even though it will soon become too cold to play in many of the states, the ABL offers a unique way for players, coaches, and fans to continue involvement with the game year round.

As we kick off a new season down under, let’s take a look at where Australian baseball, specifically the ABL, has been, where it is now, and where it’s heading in the future.

A Brief History of Baseball in Australia

The first recorded baseball games in Australia occurred in 1857 during a three game series between Collingwood and Richmond clubs. These games were perhaps more accurately described as a cross between cricket and baseball, as each base counted as a run and the scores, including a 350-220 victory by Collingwood in game two, bore little resemblance to modern standards. A few decades later, in 1888, American sporting legend Al Spalding organized a baseball tour of Australia, featuring his Chicago club and a team of various National League players known as the All-America team.

Al Spalding

Al Spalding, Getty Images

The All-America team was far from an All-Star team, but it did contain two future Hall of Famers in Monte Ward and Hugh Hanlon (the White Stockings, by contrast, had one future Hall of Famer in Cap Anson). Drawing crowds of up to 10,000 and receiving warm welcomes in Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide, the Spalding tour was instrumental in generating interest in the game and teaching the locals the current rules and techniques of the game.

Moving through the 20th century, the game thrived at a club level and state level, with the states competing in an annual tournament known as the Claxton Shield. The Claxton Shield quickly became prestigious, as it was the first time states gathered together at one place to decide a true Australian Champion. These tournaments lasted throughout most of the 20th century, until negotiations over a new national league led to turmoil in the Australian baseball landscape, halting the Claxton Shield competitions. Despite the turmoil, an agreement for a new national league was eventually reached.

Also known as the ABL, the newly established professional league kicked off in 1989, featuring anywhere between six and nine teams during its ten year existence. Though it was the subject of great debate, the league decide to sell franchises to private owners, a move that ultimately resulted in substantial relocations, expansions, disbandings, and so forth. Nevertheless, the former ABL was successful in generating further fan interest, including 376,000 patrons in the inaugural season.

The league also tested, although it was controversial at the time, imports from affiliated clubs in the states. This aspect later became an essential part of the strategy behind the current ABL. Following the demise of the former ABL in 1999, Dave Nilsson, a native Australian and former All-Star catcher with the Milwaukee Brewers, attempted to begin a new league, the International Baseball League of Australia, which was based in Australia but stretched into other nations in the South Pacific. However, financial trouble from the former ABL spilled over to Nilsson’s brainchild, and the league folded after just one season.

Dave Nilsson

Dave Nilsson, 2006, photo by Jamie Squier, Getty Images

The Modern ABL

Learning from the mistakes of the former ABL, the modern ABL launched in 2010 with different financial structures and goals than its predecessors. Instead of featuring private ownership of the individual clubs, the league owns all of the franchises, which is beneficial for continuity and simplicity in league affairs. Additionally, the league is partnered with and was initially partially founded by Major League Baseball, a financial giant that helped the new league get on its feet. The ultimate goal is a self-sufficient ABL that can thrive without the financial support of Major League Baseball.

As for the player population, the goals are twofold.

First, the ABL is the highest level of professional baseball in the country and attracts many of the native Australian players on all sorts of career paths. These native Australian players include (1) current prospects affiliated with MLB teams, such as the TwinsLewis Thorpe and the Red Sox’ Daniel McGrath, (2) former players who are now either free agents or out of affiliated baseball, such as Luke Hughes and Trent Oeltjen, (3) young players who have recently signed affiliated contracts but have not yet debuted with their affiliated teams, such as the Reds’ Jake Turnbull and the Yankees' Brandon Stenhouse, and (4) local state league stars who have not played affiliated baseball. About 70% of players in the ABL are native Australians falling into one of these categories.

Luke Hughes

Luke Hughes, photo by Mark Nolan, Getty Images

The second goal is to provide a place for imports, almost all of whom are affiliated with Major League teams, to play in the offseason. This includes international players, mostly from Japan, Korea, and New Zealand, and current Major League Baseball prospects who are not native Australians. The former category includes players such as Korean native and former Major League pitcher Dae-Sung Koo, while the latter category, which is perhaps of most interest to readers of this site, has been growing in quality and quantity each season.

Dae-Sung Koo

Dae-Sung Koo, photo by Rich Pilling, Getty Images

Of the four teams finalizing rosters for the season’s first weekend, there are at least 11 affiliated players per team (Melbourne and Canberra have a bye and not required to finalize their rosters yet, so we don't have official totals). Projecting the average over the other four teams, the 2014-2015 ABL will feature approximately 66 affiliated players.

The affiliation and quantity of prospects on each team is often a result of an agreement between a Major League Baseball franchise and an ABL club. For example, the Tampa Bay Rays have partnered with the Brisbane Bandits and sent four of their non-Australian prospects, Tommy Coyle, John Field, Granden Goetzman, and Maxx Tissenbaum, to the Bandits for the 2014-2015 season.  It does not always work out this cleanly, as native Australian prospects, such as Rays prospect Darryl George, who will play for Melbourne, often prefer to play for their hometown team instead of the ABL team with which their MLB team has partnered.

Key Players to Watch

Lewis Thorpe - The hottest name in current Australian-born prospects is lefthander Lewis Thorpe, who signed with the Twins in 2012 for a hefty $500,000 bonus. The southpaw is a native of Melbourne and pitched extremely well for his hometown Aces each of the past two seasons, but his status for this season is in jeopardy as he suffered a sprained UCL in early September. It seems likely that the Twins will choose to keep their prized bonus baby shut down this offseason, but if he does pitch in the ABL he will be the hottest prospect name in the league.

Daniel McGrath – Another big bonus Aussie from Melbourne, McGrath signed with the Boston Red Sox in 2012 for $400,000. Unlike most Australian players signing at the tender age of 18, McGrath spent less than a full season at Rookie Ball, moving up to Short Season Lowell in his first full season. He moved up again to begin his second full campaign, holding his own with Low-A Greenville, despite being 2.8 years younger than the average player. Though the roster is not finalized, all signs point to McGrath pitching for Melbourne this season.

Alex Glenn – An outfielder for the Sydney Blue Sox and member of the Diamondbacks organization, the 23 year old offers a power-speed combo that few can match. I’ve seen Glenn in action twice during Blue Sox preseason games, and he is a compact fireball of a player who can impact a game in many ways. With High-A Visalia this season, Glenn slashed .285/.346/.527, and seems likely to move up to Double-A next season.

David Kandilas – Perhaps the favorite to become the 32nd Aussie to make the Majors, the Rockies’ and Blue Sox’ outfielder began the season at High-A Modesto but ended the year with a cup of coffee at Triple-A Colorado Springs. He slashed .272/.360/.398 with Modesto, a solid but unspectacular line that should be enough for him to begin the 2015 season in the high minors. When grouped with Glenn and former Diamondbacks outfielder Trent Oeltjen, the Blue Sox will feature one of, if not the most dynamic outfield in the ABL.

The Entire Perth Team – Winners of three of the previous four ABL titles (also known as the Claxton Shield), the Perth team unsurprisingly features some of the most exciting players. Rockies infielder Joey Wong, Red Sox pitcher Mike McCarthy, Phillies outfielder Brian Pointer, and Tigers pitcher Warwick Saupold are the most exciting prospects on the Heat, who also feature player-coach Luke Hughes, three of the four Kennelly brothers (including Matt of the Braves and Sam of the Pirates), and fan favorite Jesse Barron (or perhaps more accurately, Jesse Barron’s beard). The Heat are early favorites again this year, and kick off their season with a big series against the Blue Sox.

Other names to know: Markus Solbach, Sydney/Arizona; Cody Buckel, Melbourne/Texas; Maxx Tissenbaum, Brisbane/Tampa Bay; Stefan Welch, Adelaide/Boston.

Also of note: Brandon Stenhouse (Melbourne/New York Yankees), Jake Turnbull (Perth/Cincinnatti), and Lachlan Wells (Sydney/Minnesota) will be making their professional debuts in the ABL this season. All three players received six figure signing bonuses.

Bonus Round - Best Names in the ABL: Joshua Cakebread, Adelaide; Rocky Gale, Adelaide; Maxx Tissenbaum, Brisbane; Granden Goetzman, Brisbane; Kyle Heckathorne, Melbourne; Allan De San Miguel, Perth; James Philbossian, Sydney.

australian baseballs

The Future

Australia has a thriving sports landscape, albeit one that often considers baseball an outsider sport looking in. Locals primarily enjoy various forms of rugby, Aussie Rules football, cricket, tennis, horseracing, and the newest sport to thrive, soccer. There is hardly a dull moment in the sporting landscape, and even though exactly none of the four major American sports (Baseball, Basketball, American Football, and Hockey) are considered major sports here, this is not due to a lack of enthusiasm about athletic contests.

For example, during grand final week for the National Rugby League, supporters of the Bulldogs and Rabbitohs (yes, the Rabbitohs, and fans of the Twins, Cubs, Miami Dolphins, Pittsburgh Penguins and Anaheim Ducks have no room to laugh) were seen all over the streets of Sydney, especially on the roads as supporters would hold flags out the window of their vehicles and honk at anyone wearing what they deemed to be a favorable jersey.

With this in mind, the key is not to promote the virtues of sport, rather, the goal of Major League Baseball and the ABL is to promote a specific sport, and convince a population that seems quite content with their sporting landscape that the sport of baseball could make the said sporting landscape even more prosperous.

How will Major League Baseball and the ABL do this?

The ABL itself is perhaps the biggest way, as it brings fans in six of the major cities a professional team of their own that features both hometown heroes and distinguished international imports. The league will need to grow to have a profound influence, but it has done so during its brief existence. Moving past the ABL, much is also being done at the lower levels of the game. Aussie T-Ball and Little League Baseball continue to thrive, as is the MLB Australia Academy Program (I plan to write a future piece about the academy in greater detail). Kids around Australia and Oceania have had the opportunity to "Train with the Pros," specifically nationwide baseball heroes like Grant Balfour.

Grant Balfour

Grant Balfour, photo by Kim Klement, USA Today

It remains a challenge to get kids to participate in T-Ball and Little League instead of rugby, Aussie Rules footy, and soccer, but as the number of successful Australian baseball stars continues to grow, it is reasonable to expect the interest of young players to grow along with it

Finally, the 2014 Opening Series was a huge success, and local Aussie baseball fans still speak about the Opening Series with the reverence of a Royals fan speaking about the 2014 Postseason. Although it may have seemed like a once in a lifetime chance for fans to see the world’s top baseball league on Australian soil, the success of the event has led to rumors of another and possibly recurring Opening Series down under.

Final Thoughts

With the new ABL season officially underway as the Bite topped the Bandits 8-3 in the opening game, there are lots of ways for domestic and international fans to enjoy the action. I encourage fans to take advantage of the new (streaming free on multiple platforms) or, if you’re in the area, head out to the ballpark. Nine former ABL players and one manager, Tom Lawless, have gone from the ABL to the Major Leagues, and it would be surprise if multiple players playing in the ABL this season did not reach the game’s highest level.

Tom Lawless

Tom Lawless, photo by Bob Levey, Getty Images

The ABL offers a unique opportunity to see these players in action before they reach the Major Leagues; an opportunity that baseball fans ought to seize and enjoy.

. . .

Author's note: The views expressed in this article are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Major League Baseball, the ABL, or Baseball Australia.

Much of the information on the history of Australian Baseball is via Joe Clark’s wonderful book, entitled A History of Australian Baseball. All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.

Dan Weigel is an intern for Major League Baseball in Sydney, an Author of Minor League Ball and a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. Follow him on Twitter at @DanWiggles38 or around the grounds at upcoming Sydney Blue Sox games.