“Australians Play Hard,” Says Grant Balfour
David Nilsson hadn’t had much time to do anything, let alone contemplate his standing in the game of baseball or what he had accomplished in the Major Leagues or what it all meant to the people back in his home country.
By Doug Miller / MLB.com
It was July 13, 1999, and he was sitting in the visitor’s dugout at Fenway Park as a catcher for the Milwaukee Brewers, the only team he’d known in the Majors. But on this night, he also was a catcher for the National League All-Star team.
Nilsson was the first Australian player to be a Major League All-Star, and he had achieved that status in the last of his eight seasons in the big leagues. He had hit .331 in 1996, had a 20-homer, 81-RBI year in 1997, and was in the midst of a 21-homer, .954 OPS campaign in ’99. He had spent plenty of time in the outfield, at first base and as a designated hitter, but that year he was behind the plate in 101 games.
After each season, he’d return Down Under and play in the Australian Baseball League. He played in his hometown of Brisbane as well as on the Gold Coast and in Melbourne. As a club owner, he helped keep the league going by digging into his own finances, and he has since continued on the field coaching and managing.
He also was a big part of his country’s Olympic program. His team didn’t win a medal when the 2000 Games were played in Sydney — that was accomplished by an underdog United States team that got a walk-off homer by Doug Mientkiewicz in the semifinals and a 4-0 win over Cuba in the gold-medal game, courtesy of a pitching gem by Ben Sheets. But the Australian team was there to play before its fans, and Nilsson was behind the plate, as he was when the country broke through for a silver medal at the 2004 Games in Athens.
So in that private, secluded moment in the Fenway dugout, after Ted Williams had visited with players on the field before the first pitch, Nilsson finally had the chance to think about what he had done – about the Australians who had let him know how important he was to baseball in their country, about the hard work that had led him to being on such a legendary field with baseball’s best, and about the sacrifices he had made.
“I knew it could be significant for Australian sports,” Nilsson says. “So I guess I got a little emotional.”
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More than a handful of other Aussie players arrived on the Major League scene in the 1990s and early 2000s.
There was Trent Durrington, Shayne Bennett, Mark Ettles, Cam Cairncross, Damian Moss, Mark Hutton, Luke Prokopec and Jeff Williams.
And there was left-handed reliever Graeme Lloyd, who blew a few games down the stretch in 1996 after being acquired late in the season by the Yankees, winding up on the back pages of the Gotham tabloids in spectacular fashion with headlines such as “The Blunder From Down Under” and “The Graeme Reaper” before rebounding with stellar playoff work, allowing only one baserunner in eight appearances as the Yanks won the World Series.
Many more Aussies have reached the bigs in recent years, including pitchers Peter Moylan, Travis Blackley, Josh Spence, Rich Thompson and Liam Hendriks and position players Justin Huber, Chris Snelling, Luke Hughes and Trent Oeltjen.
But right now, for anyone’s American or Australian dollars, the best — and easily the most animated — Australian player in the Majors is Tampa Bay closer Grant Balfour, who has struck out 514 batters in 473 innings, pitched for the Rays in the 2008 World Series and in two Division Series for the A’s, and saved 62 games over the past two seasons since becoming a full-time ninth-inning guy.
Balfour stomps around the mound, displaying the “Balfour Rage” that has spawned a parody Twitter account. He wears Phiten necklaces around his neck and the pride of his country on his sleeve and in his heart.
“Australians play hard,” Balfour says. “It’s something that’s built in the Aussies. We play tough, we play hard. It’s just kind of that football mentality.
“I think it’s just that kind of country — a bunch of roughnecks.”
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The roughnecks will be out there, 45,000 strong, when the world says “G’day” to real Major League Baseball at Sydney Cricket Ground in two weeks.
There might be a fried-out combie or two in the parking lot, you’ll surely see your share of ‘roo bars, and if you want to sneak some Vegemite onto your hot dog, you’ll probably be able to find a way.
But other than that, it’s pretty simple: Dodgers vs. D-backs, with two rosters full of fired-up players ready to get the first two of 162 games into the books, hopefully with Ws.
All the while, the mild, early-autumn March air will surround an iconic sports venue in one of the world’s most beautiful cities while a country with its own eclectic, colorful, still-emerging, and yes, successful, baseball history plays eager host.
Good on ya, Australia.