Kangaroos Koalas and K’s
Mav’s day with Team Australia
By: Jay Szech
All I know is that everything on that continent will kill you. Or so countless Discovery Channel documentaries and nature shows have led me to believe. I can’t help but think that the world is conspiring against me and my future travel plans. Every year Team Australia makes its way to Aberdeen, Maryland for the Cal Ripken World Series. I think of how much I’d love to visit and then Shark Week starts, instantly convincing me that mayhem lies just yards away from the Aussie coast. The dugout, field, and spectator area are filled with people who survive there every day. Maybe I’m just being paranoid, maybe I just watch too much TV.
It’s a humid ninety-two degrees when I arrive at the field to Australia take on Japan. The vibe coming from the opposing dugouts could not be more different. Team Japan approaches the game the way a surgeon prepares to open a heart. The smiles are few and far between. This team has been drilled into nearly robotic like perfection. Even the team’s cheering section rivals anything seen on America’s Got Talent. After a few innings it’s clear that today’s matchup is all about Japan, but the Aussies seem to take victory or defeat with a smile, and then prep for what’s next. Win or lose they come to play.
One of the toughest aspects of being involved in the tournament is the travel involved. According to Team Australia Director, David West, the kids often travel better than the coaches, but it’s adjusting to local sleep patterns that really becomes of the most critical components of the competition. “When we arrived what we wanted to do was make sure they get over the perceived jetlag. We get them straight up around 7:00 in the morning after the long haul then we go down to the field for a live training run, grab some lunch, come back do another bit of fieldwork and keep them up till about nine and they hit the sack. We do this continuously until they become accustomed to the right sleep patterns.” This is easier said than done as often the boys are waking up at 3 AM.
Australia’s manager Bob Nilsson finds that the distractions off of the field often prove difficult for teams traveling from 27 hours away. The family activities, attractions, and events scheduled for the entertainment of the teams are the toughest challenges a manager can face. “They have so much fun off the field that some days you can’t get them to think about baseball, which is kinda tough. On the plus side of that they get to play teams like Mexico, Japan, and the Dominican Republic. For most of these athletes from the International pool, this will be their first time in the United States and seeing things that they have only read about or seen on television.
Nilsson can relate to these youngsters and brings an air of legitimacy to a game in Australia that has seen its popularity rise and fall and rise again. Nilsson was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in 1978 however never went through their minor league system and played in the Australian Baseball League, becoming one of it’s greatest stars. Upon retiring in 1998 he coached junior league baseball but found that the 11/12 year-olds responded better to the coaching and was one of the major contributors to the beginning of the Australian national team in 2000. “Everything that I enjoyed off the field as well as on, I just try to get these boys to feel it. It’s a passion thing,” says Nilsson.
While most of these ballplayers are committed to baseball as their primary sport, parents have explained that the long hours and travel are the choice of their son and that it purely is based on passion for the game. Parents also feel the economic sting, as there are no major baseball equipment companies operating in Australia, therefore equipment is shipped in and ultimately more expensive. The cost may be worth it though as currently there are five Australians on MLB rosters and more in the minors. Nilsson was quick to point out the role that Major League Baseball has had in partially financing the current six-team league in Australia and the impact it is having on the kids who are baseball fans. “It’s good for Australia…what happens then is all these young kids finally see, instead of watching it on TV they get to go see it live.” Much like growing up in the shadow of Camden Yards and being a 10 minute train ride from seeing baseball heroes as large as life, Australian youngsters now have the opportunity to learn by watching and finally embrace their homegrown heroes.