By Tyler Maas
The 2014 Major League Baseball season will begin Sat., March 22, as the Arizona Diamondbacks "host" the Los Angeles Dodgers. Besides treating fans to an early a.m. (first pitch is slated for midnight Pacific Time), reprisal of a heated divisional matchup that escalated to exchanged bean balls and the infamous away team swimming pool celebration less than a year prior, the game also gives viewers an opportunity to see defending NL Cy Young award winner Clayton Kershaw and budding stars Paul Goldschmidt and Yasiel Puig more than a week before the rest of the league takes the diamond in a non-exhibition capacity.
Beyond kicking off the new campaign in exciting fashion with a series that holds untold NL West significance, the two-game opening set also has historical bearing based on where it will be taking place: Sydney. The first game of the season will also be the first regular season Major League Baseball game ever played in Australia. While this will be the first time the big leagues will be down under, Australians have been in the MLB for decades, and the country-slash-continent's representation in the sport is only growing. Between its growing cast of major leaguers, increased viability on the international scene and its rapidly expanding domestic recognition, Australia is quickly becoming a bona fide baseball locale.
The Aussie introduction to professional baseball actually dates all the way back to the 19th century, when light-hitting middle infielder Joe Quinn played 17 seasons -- two in the role of player-manager -- with the St. Louis Maroons, Boston Beaneaters, Boston Reds, St. Louis Browns, Baltimore Orioles, Cleveland Spiders, Cincinnati Reds and Washington Senators between 1884 and 1901. However, it took another 85 years before the second Australian-born player made the journey from the outback to the outfield. In the summer of 1986, as Paul Hogan's "Crocodile" Dundee was taking Hollywood by storm, another man from the land down under was also bringing Australia to Los Angeles' consciousness.
Craig Shipley, the pride of Parramatta, New South Wales, made his big league debut in June of '86.
Overshadowed by teammate and fellow import Fernando Valenzuela in a season that found El Toro amassing career highs in wins (21) and complete games (20), Shipley quietly became the first Australian in the modern major leagues. The utility infielder spent a total of 11 unspectacular seasons between the Dodgers, Mets, Padres, Astros and Angels -- only playing more than 100 games once and topping out at 258 plate appearances in 1994. Shipley's 20-home run, 138-RBI and .302-OBP career line didn't exactly earn the Aussie a place in the Hall of Fame, yet his longevity rendered the middling middle-infielder something of an ambassador for his home continent. By the time Shipley called it quits after the 1998 season, Australia had churned out five more MLB representatives -- four of them were still active, and two of them had played together.
On April 13, 1994, as the Milwaukee Brewers were in the process of losing one of the 62 games they would drop as part of the team's last place finish in the strike-shortened season, history was quietly made. In the bottom of the ninth in a 3-3 tie with the Texas Rangers, Brewers right-handed reliever Jeff Bronkley was replaced by Geelong, Victoria, Australia native Graeme Lloyd, who was brought in for a favorable lefty-versus-lefty matchup against Rangers slugger Will Clark. Scantly more than 60 feet away, Brisbane-born backstop Dave Nilsson crouched, completing the first exclusively Australian battery in major league history.
The latter was the first of Shipley's countrymen to follow his trajectory to North America, when the Brewers signed Nilsson in 1987. He debuted with Milwaukee in May of 1992, and became a regular fixture in a ramshackle Brewers lineup as a catcher, first baseman, corner outfielder and designated hitter by the next season. Lloyd followed, and cracked Milwaukee's 1993 roster, becoming the first Australian-born pitcher in the league. The pair held down approximately a twelfth of the Brewers roster until August of 1996, when the LOOGY submariner was shipped to the Yankees as part of a trade for Bob Wickman and Gerald Williams to bolster New York's bullpen en route to the team's eventual World Series title. Lloyd would be even more valuable in New York's 1998 championship run, posting a 1.67 ERA in 50 regular season appearances and three scoreless postseason outings spanning 1 1/3 innings.
While Lloyd was playing a small role at the center of the professional baseball world, Nilsson was a primary component on a small market team perpetually nestled in the lower half of the American League -- and later -- the National League standings. In 1999, Nilsson became the first Australian player to partake in an All-Star game, representing Milwaukee midway through the summer that found the remaining Aussie Brewer batting .309 and clubbing a career high in home runs, 21, despite missing almost a third of the season.
Despite being just 29 and well in his prime, '99 would be his last season in the majors, as the free agent opted to sign with the Chunichi Dragons in Japan in 2000, an agreement that (unlike any MLB deal) allowed him the opportunity to fulfill his dream of representing his homeland in the 2000 summer Olympics, which were held in Sydney.
Though Australia's 2-5 record and seventh place finish in the 2000 summer games (the third-to-last time baseball would be an Olympic sport) didn't suggest any Aussie played great, Nilsson's performance didn't reflect the host nation's poor show in the least. He led all Olympians with a .565 and 13 hits in 23 at-bats. His strong performance garnered renewed big league interest, but his gaudy Olympiad stats were helping teams write checks his body couldn't cash. After reneging on a 2003 minor league deal with the Red Sox weeks after signing it, and an injury-shortened comeback attempt with Atlanta's Triple-A club in 2004, Nilsson officially retired from Major League Baseball.
The 105 home runs he'd amassed in his eight-year MLB career are still tops among Australian-born big leaguers.
Nilsson's professional career was over, but he returned to Australia's Olympic baseball team for the 2004 games in Athens. Reunited with Lloyd -- who formally retired in 2003 with Australian records in nearly every relevant MLB pitching category during his decade spent with the Brewers, Yankees, Blue Jays, Expos, Marlins, Mets and Royals -- and flanked by eventual major leaguers such as Ryan Rowland-Smith, Rich Thompson and Trent Oeltjen, the national team truly put the region on baseball's world map by winning a silver medal, ultimately falling to Cuba in the gold medal game.
After the Olympics, Australia took part in the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006 -- featuring Nilsson as a reserve infielder, who went hitless before the squad's quick elimination in his final five plate appearances in baseball. Lloyd would serve as pitching coach for the two subsequent Australian WBC teams, in 2009 and 2013, respectively.
In 2009, the nation's growth of the sport saw the reprisal of the Australian Baseball League -- which first existed between 1989 and 1999. Nilsson would be the inaugural manager of the second incantation of the Brisbane Bandits in 2010. Soon, Lloyd would become pitching coach of one of the nationwide league's other five franchises, the Perth Heat, the same organization for which he once pitched prior to bringing his unorthodox delivery north of the equator in the early 1990s. The league, which plays its games during the MLB offseason, gives Australian players (many of whom occupy minor league rosters in the states) and a number of American-born farmhands, too, a chance to continue developing down under while it's winter in the northern hemisphere.
For a frame of reference, 15 players (14 of those native Australians) on the nation's 2013 World Baseball Classic roster were on minor league rosters last season. That's just a small representation of Aussies in the minors. There's even another Nilsson trying to work his way to the show, Dave's nephew Mitch, who plays first base for a Cleveland Indians affiliate. Australia's influence also extends to major league rosters. To date, 28 players hailing from the outback have played in a regular season MLB game. Among those still active are ex-Braves and current Astros reliever Peter Moylan, former Twins pitcher and current Blue Jays 40-man roster member Liam Hendriks, Marlins 25-man hopeful Josh Spence (who pitched with the Padres in 2012 and 2013, and made 33 relief appearances for the Yankees Triple-A affiliate last season), and the incumbent Australian acolyte currently carrying the major league torch for his native land: Grant Balfour.
As Lloyd's professional career was winding down, Balfour's was just beginning. In June of 2001, the Sydney-born hurler became the 13th Australian to play in an MLB game, as the righty reliever was knocked around in a pair of outings with the Minnesota Twins that season. He battled injuries and inconsistency with the Twins and Brewers before finally settling in with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2008. That season, Balfour posted a 1.54 ERA and 51 appearances, not to mention a career high in strikeouts (82 in 58.1 frames!) and his first four saves.
In 2012, Balfour became the full-fledged closer of the Oakland Athletics. That season, he tied Lloyd's all-time mark for saves by an Australian-born pitcher (17), and then quickly left that record in the dust, ending the season with 34 career saves. In his third season with the A's, Balfour became the second Australian native to appear in an All-Star Game (and the first pitcher) during a campaign which also found the closer padding his continental career saves record to 72. Balfour also holds the all-time Australian mark for strikeouts (514) and is within striking distance of Lloyd's all-time wins total (with 28 to Lloyd's 30). Over the offseason, the record-setting righty signed a two-year, $12 million deal with to return as the Rays closer -- after a two-year, $15 million contract with the Orioles fell through.
Since Shipley arrived in Los Angeles in the '80s, it's been a sluggish and understated, but consistent spread of Australian roots in America's pastime. Ever so slowly, a region Western culture has most commonly regarded as the birthplace of butchered "shrimp on the barbie" and "this is a knife!" quotes, gigantic beer cans, irresponsibly battered onions, a Men At Work song, Hugh Jackman and rugby is becoming an undeniable professional baseball incubator.
There's no doubt Major League Baseball recognized as much when naming Sydney as the site of the opening games of the season between two recently bitter foes. As much as the decision was in effort to grow the game in Australia, the foundation has proven strong and established enough to sustain such a swell. Such a start to the season was decades in the making. The wee hours of March 22 might be the first time much of the world sees professional baseball in Australia in the literal sense, but the continent has been a secret and welcome ingredient in the recipe for worldwide expansion (save for Antarctica… probably) of the sport.
Major League Baseball's presence in Australia may only be temporary, but the same can't be said for Australia's presence in major league baseball. Though the elevated stage of opening day surely helps to boost Australia's standing in the baseball world, the pair of mid-March games was far from a handout from the league. Even without Puig, Goldschmidt, Kershaw nor the potential for high and tight fastballs and bench-clearing brawls, the region's rise in baseball relevance is inevitable. This series will only serve to accelerate Australia's climb.
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Tyler Maas is a Milwaukee-based writer who has contributed to Vice Magazine's Noisey.com, The Classical, The A.V. Club and various Wisconsin publications. He is the Co-founder and co-editor of Milwaukee Record (MilwaukeeRecord.com), which launches April 7.