Destination: Australia

 In Destination, Stories

Baseball’s Best Kept Secret

They should’ve made an announcement. An impossible-to-miss, siren-blaring, nothing-else-matters broadcast to the entire world. Because I didn’t know, and you probably didn’t either. Apparently, back in 2000, while the rest of the world was going Y2Krazy, the ocean-deciding wing of the scientific community got together and concluded that, after nearly 2,000 years of cartography, we were, in fact, one ocean short. The Atlantic, Pacific, Indian and Arctic were no longer cutting it. After what I assume was a period of thoughtful deliberation, the ocean-deciders broke their conclave and quietly announced the delineation of the Southern Ocean, situated just off the southern border of Australia.

That’s right. Despite everything you’ve been taught, there are five oceans, not four.

No, you shut up.

Upon hearing this news, we here at Baseball Youth became dubious. If Australia went out and picked up a new ocean without telling anybody, what else might they be up to? We decided to investigate, and what we found was surprised us. It turns out that baseball, America’s Pastime, is growing at an increasingly rapid pace Down Under and, like their procurement of a fifth ocean, it’s all happening right under our noses. In fact, a quick straw poll conducted by our Baseball Youth Lab for Analytics, Sabermetrics and Ufology indicated that five out of every five Baseball Youth employees had no idea that over 33,000 Australian youth players took to the diamond during the 2016-17 season. Meanwhile, just zero out of every five Baseball Youth staffers knew that Australia has produced 33 big leaguers over the years, with the first, Joe Quinn, making his professional debut for the St. Louis Maroons in 1894!

Here’s another thing we couldn’t believe: Australia’s baseball history dates back to the 1850s, when American miners reportedly played the game on rest days during the Australian gold rush (for comparison, the first baseball game in Mexico, which is roughly 9000 miles closer than Australia, was reportedly played around the same time). Roughly 40 years later, a select group of Australian players embarked on a months-long voyage across the Pacific (remember, there were still only four oceans back then) to compete in a series of games against American professional teams. The Aussies went 8-18 during the trip, and one Australian player later remarked, “We return sadder and wiser men, knowing more of baseball as played in America and thinking less of it. In America, baseball is purely a business, not a sport as we understand it.”

While baseball has maintained a steady presence Down Under for over 150 years, it hasn’t enjoyed the same popularity as sports like rugby, cricket or Australian rules football. That, however, is changing, especially at the youth level. According to Sam Finn, media, communications and marketing manager for the sport’s governing body, Baseball Australia, the 33,000 youth players who took the field during the summer and winter seasons of 2016-17 is indicative of the sport’s upward trajectory. The first Little League-affiliated leagues in Australia were just established in 2007, but by 2012 nearly 400 leagues had formed, making Australia the largest country outside North America to participate in Little League. As a result of that explosive growth, Little League separated the Australia region from the Asia-Pacific region, and in 2013, a team from Perth became the country’s debut participant at the Little League World Series.

To make it from Perth, Melbourne, Sydney or any of Australia’s cities — big or small — to the LLWS, teams first compete within their states, of which Australia has six: Victoria, Queensland, New South Wales, Tasmania, Western Australia and South Australia; however, making it to the tournaments alone can prove to be no small feat.

“Teams from as far as 2,600 miles away participate in our Australian Little League championships, very different to the regionals in the U.S., which are actually regional!,” said Finn, who also explained that as this year’s qualifier, the “Gold Coast Cougars will travel 9,500 miles to Williamsport, PA, to compete in the Little League World Series.” Moreover, having qualified earlier this year, they’ll do it during Australia’s winter. Due to its geographic location in the Southern Hemisphere, our seasons occur during opposite times. For instance, this year, summer will begin on December 1, 2018, and end on February 29, 2018.

The game as a whole is also gaining steam in Australia. MLB games are broadcast weekly on ESPN, and MLB gear is available in most sporting goods stores, though Finn admits it’s probably “90%” Yankees and Red Sox apparel. Meanwhile, the professional Australian Baseball League gains more traction with each passing season. In fact, two new teams — one from Korea and one from New Zealand — have joined the ABL for this season, and discussions are underway to further expand the league’s geographic and media footprints.

“All of the Korean team’s games will be broadcast live on Korean TV,” said Finn, who explained that the team will compete out of regional Australia. “[This will give] the Australian players, game, brand and sponsors greater exposure overseas.” Greater exposure which could lead to even more accelerated growth on the youth level, which in turn could lead to greater participation at the high school and college levels, thus feeding more players back into the ABL and MLB — a self-sustaining system that would not only keep the game afloat, but also propel it forward by deepening the talent pool.

But for any sport to grow it has to start at the youth level. Unlike the U.S., which has three major sports seasons (spring, fall and winter), Australia for the most part splits its sports seasons between summer and winter; and while most kids opt to play other sports, such as cricket, rugby or Australian rules football in addition to baseball, baseball continues to gain a foothold, with Baseball Australia now boasting roughly 60,000 members and climbing. “We’re definitely not near the popularity levels of [those other sports], but we’re in a good place to continue to rise up the ranks,” said Finn.

One way Baseball Australia is rising up the ranks is through increased opportunity. Thanks to a partnership with MLB, select players aged 14-17 have the chance to travel to the U.S. to participate in workouts with pro teams, as well as compete against college and rookie ball teams. This, at least in part, has contributed to more Australian players pursuing their baseball careers at U.S. colleges, many of whom, Finn pointed out, have gone on to be drafted.

“It’s common knowledge that if you want to progress your baseball career, playing pro or college in America is the way to do it. We have a multitude of Aussies in college at the moment. Josh Hendrickson was just drafted by the Royals after playing for Barton Community College. Probably our most notable in the last few years has been Cam Warner, who went to the 2016 and 2017 College World Series with TCU (and was subsequently drafted by Detroit and played in the 2017/18 ABL for Canberra). Josh Spence would be our highest profile Aussie that has gone the college route.” Spence played for Central Arizona College from 2007-08 before transferring to Arizona State in 2009. He made his MLB debut for the Padres in 2011, joining the ranks of the dozens of Aussie MLBers that preceded him. But before that? He was a product of the Baseball Australia youth system.

Whether you’re judging by the number of youth players, the growing number of student-athletes following their baseball dreams to U.S. colleges, or the pantheon of Australian players who have already made names for themselves in MLB, one thing is clear: Baseball’s future Down Under is bright — and, if we’re calling it like it is — Australia’s baseball past includes plenty to be proud of. In a land synonymous with surfing, rugby and Australian rules football (and, yes, koalas, kangaroos and boomerangs), America’s Pastime is quietly cementing itself as a true fixture on the Australian sports landscape. So, keep an eye out because when Queensland or Victoria sends MLB the next Albert Pujols or Roberto Clemente you can’t say you haven’t been warned.

Now, back to this ocean business.

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