Rounding the bases in an Australian league of their own

March 17, 2011

As spring training comes to a close, I’m beginning to feel baseball in the air. I’m just counting down the hours until Opening Day. However, my wait hasn’t been as long as most Americans. While the last whiff of baseball most got was the World Series in October, I found myself wrapped up in the world of Australian baseball through December.

I went to Australia last July expecting to pick up popular Australian sports like cricket, rugby, or Aussie rules football. Instead, in my first week I was recruited to the University of Melbourne’s baseball team simply because I  am American. Within days of the start of school up I was playing in games—initially in the outfield and eventually moving to shortstop. But by the time UniGames, the Australian national championships, came around in September, I had become a starting pitcher. Having not played baseball since the eighth grade, I was pitching against the best Australian colleges had to offer, which on some teams included minor league-quality players, but in other cases just included a bunch of cricketers and softball players. I picked up a win against the team that finished in second place, but ended my team’s shot at the gold medal when I gave up five early runs to future champion Sydney. This devastating loss, which left us in third place with a 6-2 record, was not to be the end of my Australian baseball career, however.

A teammate told me about the new Australian Baseball League, a professional league created only months earlier. I sent an email to the general manager of Melbourne’s team, the Aces. By the end of the week, I was the proud fourth employee of the Aces, working in a former preschool with no computers and borrowed desks and chairs. The first couple weeks involved trying to sell memberships and sponsorships on behalf of the team, as well as organizing everything that came into the office, whether it was the players’ uniforms, merchandise, or 2,000 boxes of baseball cards.

Opening day finally arrived after six weeks of preparation, during which we had to rebuild the mound and home plate five times each. And of course, as it always does in Melbourne, it rained, delaying the game. So we had a doubleheader scheduled for the next day. And then it rained again. We were eventually able to squeeze a game in after hours of sponging the field, with the Aces pulling off a victory thanks to four home runs—not all that impressive, considering that it was only 260 feet to the right field fence. Sadly, as soon as the game ended the walls and dugout were torn down to convert the stadium into a music venue for the weekend, complete with a sailboat bar sitting in right field.

But one thing that had happened during the first game would change my job for the remainder of the season. The stadium announcer, who was a professional radio host, completely sucked. So the team decided to give the position to me, because I knew baseball terminology and more importantly, I have an American accent.

I announced the next week’s games against the Sydney Blue Sox. The night before the first game I practiced my best Bob Sheppard impersonation in my dorm. Though I announced the players’ names perfectly, the entire crowd was ready to kill me by the end of the game, because every foul ball was “brought to you by Swann Insurance.” And there were a lot of foul balls. But I had plenty of fun doing exaggerated pronunciations of the local Aussie baseball heroes such as Justin Huber and the Tokyo Giants players we had on the team, dragging out names like Takahiro Hashimoto and Yoshiyuki Kamei.

The team was an interesting squad of players. Most were Australians with minor league contracts trying to stay fresh over the winter. There were even some veterans from the MLB among them, in addition to  others who spent their entire career navigating the minors. Some young hot shot players who had just signed their first contracts dotted the league, and six players from Tokyo tore up the league and partied harder than anyone else on the team. I tried convincing manager Phil Dale to put me on the roster, but he wasn’t open to bribes. Besides, my editor informed me that this would end my amateur status, making me ineligible for the annual Voice-Hoya softball match.

But regardless of my failed attempt at becoming a professional baseball player seven years after getting cut from my high school’s freshman team, I still had a dream job. I got to watch baseball games, announce them, and got paid in baseball cards and ballpark dogs. It was sad having to leave the continent before the conclusion of the season, but the Aces lost in the first round of the playoffs anyway. If only I had gotten the call up—who knows how far they could have gone?


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