Baseball in Australia: Here to stay

Former Canberra Cavalry shortstop Didi Gregorius is expected to take the field in Australia once again.

Still young, the Australian Baseball League is starting to catch on -- and it's not going anywhere.

After two years with the Australian Baseball Federation (now "Baseball Australia"), Ben Foster left his position there in June 2009 to take a position as the Australian Baseball League’s first employee. "It was just me in an office, and no one sitting around me," said Foster, who is the ABL’s general manager. Less than five years after he began with the league, Foster and the ABL’s board and directors oversee a staff that’s grown to be quite larger -- around 25 full time employees, including 2-3 with each of six ABL teams. The ABL has employed as many as 150 as non-player personnel at peak periods.

"I’ve seen it blossom, and become what it is today," said Foster. "I often equate it to a startup company. You build up from nothing, and it becomes a reality. It's since taken on a whole life of its own. It’s very exciting to see that, the rapid changes that we’ve made in what are four pretty short years – five if you count our preliminary setup phase."

Although the ABL is still in its infancy, it absolutely has become a reality. With teams in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth, the ABL has is represented in five Australian states – as well as in Canberra, in the Australian Capital Territory. The ABL season lasts just 3-4 months each year in part to dovetail with MLB’s offseason, but the league has already risen to some prominence internationally. The ABL has participated in the Asia Series for three years, sending a team to compete against clubs from Nippon Professional Baseball, the Korea Baseball Organization, and others. In 2013, the ABL’s Canberra Cavalry won the Asia Series crown.

Catching on in Australia

Baseball has been played in Australia for many years, with a national prize -- the Claxton Shield -- awarded almost annually to the winner of the top baseball competition since 1934. For most of its history in Australia, baseball has been purely an amateur sport. But in 1989, a professional league was formed. Also called the "Australian Baseball League," it folded in 1999 due to significant financial pressure.

With that as a backdrop, sustainability has been a primary focus of the new ABL, which is a joint venture between Baseball Australia, Foster’s former employer, and Major League Baseball, which holds a significant financial stake in the league. The league’s six teams are administered directly by central ownership, which has had many benefits as the ABL tries to grow in stature and financial independence while carefully monitoring its own financial practices, intellectual property and growth. "From a team perspective, there’s almost no influence from central ownership," said Foster. "The teams are doing everything they can within their own baseball operations departments and otherwise, to try and win the championship every year."

Given the previous professional league’s demise, monitoring the ABL teams’ growth on a league basis has proved especially effective. "As we were establishing the league, it was very important for our shareholders that we provide that sense of security for our teams. That there wasn’t going to be the owner who was in it for two years and decided, ‘you know what, this isn’t what I signed up for.’" Private owners in a young league, Foster noted, could create the possibility of ebb and flow of expansion and contraction. "That’s something that we wanted to mitigate against one hundred percent. Centralized ownership was the way forward in making sure that didn’t happen."

In Australia, baseball competes for fans with many other sports, including Australian rules football, horse racing, motor sports, rugby, soccer, and cricket. Daniel Amodio joined Foster’s burgeoning staff in 2013 in Baseball Operations, and when he first moved to Australia from the U.S. to take his position with the ABL, one thing that surprised him was the relative lack of baseball diamonds in Australia. Amodio also plays club baseball in New South Wales, and although he’s played on ten or eleven fields, his club doesn’t play on a single baseball diamond. "We play on cricket ovals, we play in the corner of a soccer field, we play with cones in the back of the outfield," said Amodio. "When you fly into any city in the U.S., you can see a dozen diamonds. Here, you’re lucky to see one. It’s very different, in terms of facilities that are available."

Amodio worked as a marketing intern with the Cincinnati Reds before getting his MBA and consulting for the San Francisco Giants in ticketing. Now, Amodio serves as Facilities Manager with the ABL, setting and executing the facilities strategy for the league. Amodio’s ultimate goal, he says, is making sure that each of the six ABL teams are playing in "purpose-built, centrally-located, boutique ballparks." To that end, Amodio led the redevelopment of and relocation to Holloway Field for the Brisbane Bandits last year. He also recently proposed a redevelopment project for Barbagallo Ballpark in Perth.

Most ABL stadiums seat about 1,500-3,500 fans (the Adelaide Bite still play in a 10,000 seat cricket oval). The smallish size and closeness to the field engenders a great fan experience in Amodio’s opinion, also nurturing an environment not dissimilar from minor league games in North America.

MLB Takes a Step Forward

Another thing that may make ABL games seem a bit like North American minor league games: North American minor leaguers. According to Foster, four MLB teams sent players to the ABL for its inaugural season; in the seasons that have followed, that number of teams grew to seven, then nine, and then thirteen in the recently-completed season.

One of the many MLB minor leaguers to play in the ABL is Didi Gregorius, who played shortstop for the Canberra Cavalry for the 2010-2011 season. Gregorius will soon don a different uniform in Australia: that of the Arizona Diamondbacks, who are set to face off in an exhibition against Team Australia before two contests with the Los Angeles Dodgers over the weekend.

The long-awaited exhibition and regular season MLB games have been contemplated for some time. "Unofficially, it’s probably been in the works for fourteen years," said Foster. The promoter putting on the event has been involved for a number of those years, and the timeline began to accelerate about one year ago. Foster’s ABL is not officially involved in the series, but they have helped to support the four-game series. "There’s plenty of stakeholders in this event," said Foster.

Major League Baseball’s efforts do not end with the D-backs/Dodgers series and the infusion of minor leaguers. MLB also runs an academy in Australia that opened its doors in 2001. And while Baseball Australia provides some "in kind" support in the way of an existing network of coaches, managers and medical specialists, MLB clubs and the Commissioner’s Office provide other support in the way of IT, business practices, and branding expertise. Said Foster, "it’s been a very unique and innovative partnership."

Life in the Australian Baseball League

In addition to drawing from local Australian talent, ABL clubs often feature a number of international players, not just from North America, but also from Japan, Korea, Taiwan and New Zealand. Foster and the ABL board have closely monitored that balance season to season, and he expects that they will be careful about that in the future.

ABL players receive a set salary that is tiered according to factors like experience, but the league has a relatively short season. In addition, teams often have just four games each week on weekends, leaving a fair number of off days. "The Aussie guys usually work," said Amodio. "These guys are professionals, but they also have a job for the other nine months." International imports who are in Australia just for the season usually train on off days. "The MLB guys are generally on the field every day," said Amodio. "They’ll also squeeze in some time to explore the new country they've found themselves in."

In addition to his focus on ABL facilities, Amodio also helps with MLB players when they come to play in the ABL. "We have first round guys coming over in some cases," said Amodio, "and some of the top prospects at their age level, or in some of these organizations." In some cases, teams have even sent a representative of the organization such as a coach to stick with a top minor leaguer and monitor his training.

One of the significant challenges faced by the ABL in its early days may have been in maintaining a steady supply of competitive pitchers, but that no longer appears to be as significant an issue with more of the MLB-controlled players being pitchers within the last couple of years. "For some teams, it’s going to be an ideal fit," said Foster, who is responsible for reaching arrangements with MLB clubs for players to take the field for ABL teams. Foster noted that the ABL can be an ideal option for certain pitchers who have missed time, or pitchers whose teams have targeted higher inning counts. "It can be a comfortable environment for starting pitchers," said Foster, given weekly starts with six days’ rest in between.

While the ad hoc nature of arrangements for MLB minor leaguers may be challenging, that flexibility has also been a strength for the ABL. In speaking with farm directors and other player development personnel of all 30 MLB clubs, Foster pitches the ABL from a player development standpoint. "We think we have a unique offering as a winter league," he said. "There’s a whole bunch of competing priorities that the clubs have, and we think we fill a niche within that. For a certain type of player, we think we can be part of that player development pathway that gets them to the big leagues."

Striking a Balance

"We have a couple of competing priorities when it comes to player development," said Foster. "Certainly we're trying to develop Australian native players. With players who have already signed contracts with MLB clubs, we’re trying to accelerate their progression through the minor league system." In addition, the ABL also works to develop players to keep the national team strong.

But the ABL is also very mindful of putting the most entertaining product possible on the field. "Ultimately, we're a competitive league. We’re not the Arizona Fall League, here purely for player development. There’s a lot of fans who come out."

The ABL will also move deliberately with respect to its own growth. "It’s not on our immediate radar," said Foster, "but it is something we’re starting to consider more and more." The ABL does have its eye on some additional markets – either regional markets in which baseball would not directly compete with as many other sports, second teams in some of the ABL’s more robust markets now, or even internationally, in New Zealand.

As its staff helps on the periphery during the four game series at Sydney Cricket Ground, the ABL is working to remind fans of baseball in Australia that the sport is here to stay. "You’ve got your own, homegrown version of Major League Baseball that exists here in perpetuity," said Foster of the ABL's message to Australian fans. "It’s pretty good, and you should check it out."

. . .

Ryan P. Morrison is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score, and co-author of Inside the 'Zona, a site on the Arizona Diamondbacks with a sabermetrics slant. You can follow him on Twitter: @InsidetheZona.

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