Mr. Balfour passed away on Wednesday at age 62. Grant returned to Rays camp this morning after 18 days at home in Australia.
By Simon Smale/the roar
The NBL is in crisis, with just six teams confirmed for next season and among clamour from former greats to shelve the competition, basketball in Australia is arguably on the brink.
But perhaps there in an answer, and basketball’s NBL need look no further than baseball’s NBL for inspiration.
As reported in The Courier-Mail yesterday, the NBL is in serious trouble. The promised Brisbane-based team for season 2015-16 has been shelved and two current teams (Townsville and Wollongong) have entered administration.
Australian great Andrew Gaze has called for the league to be shut down, “shut it down, regroup and get the right model because the model is broken.”
Others have clamoured to save the league in its present form, including current Melbourne United player Mark Worthington, who outlined his passionate support in a series of tweets.
It comes on the back of news that Australian teenager Ben Simmons has been named the best high school player in the States – a massive honour for the 18 year old from Fitzroy. This puts him in the same bracket as legendary player LeBron James.
The 6’9” forward cannot match the feat of LeBron – who was drafted into the NBA as number one overall pick just three months later – as eligibility rules have changed, but the Victorian is expected to enter the draft in 2016 after a single season with Louisiana State University in the NCAA.
And Simmons is not the only Australian to make waves in American basketball.
There are eight Australians currently active in the NBA: Cameron Bairstow, Aron Baynes, Andrew Bogut, Matthew Dellavedova, Dante Exum, Joe Ingles and Patty Mills.
These eight are part of a group of 17 Australians that have played in the NBA in recent years.
So is there a vested interest for the NBA to maintain basketballs popularity in Australia? Absolutely. And there is a precedent for American sports to step in and help out fledgling or failing competitions in Australia. Namely, baseball.
Australians have made as clear an impact on the world’s premier baseball competition as they have on the NBA.
There have been 31 Australian players play in the majors, with seven still listed as active: Grant Balfour, Travis Blackley, Liam Hendriks, Luke Hughes, Peter Moylan, Josh Spence and Rich Thompson. As such, the MLB realised Australian baseball was a strong enough breeding ground for the Americans to fund the Australian ABL to the tune of 75 per cent.
The original ABL was formed in 1989 and ran through to 1999. Financial and infrastructure problems caused the league – which in its final seasons ran at a $2million per year loss – to fold.
In 2009, in a nod to the breeding ground for talented Australian players who plied their trade in the Major Leagues, the MLB announced the formation of the Major League Baseball Australian Academy Program (MLBAAP) on the Gold Coast.
It was at this press conference that the MLB announced the plan to restart the ABL with government support.
The ABL is enjoying greater and greater success in recent years, albeit on a smaller scale than the other sports in this country, and is enjoying a growing profile nationally and internationally. The finals series this season was televised live across Australia and New Zealand, Asia and in the States on the MLB network and attendances at ballparks across the country are growing.
The central ownership model of the teams – common in American sports –helps to limit spending and maintain a sporting equality.
Why could this not work for the ‘other’ ABL with external funding from the NBA?
The NBA is looking to grow its international profile along with other US sports, as has been proven by playing regular season matches overseas in places like London’s O2 Arena.
So could this work?
As someone who does not watch much basketball and has never seen the NBL in Australia, I am not well placed to comment.But financial security and support from a global power in the game cannot hurt a league that clearly has issues with its current direction.
The NBA’s involvement could sure up the finances and secure the leagues future in the same way that the MLB has helped baseball’s ABL.
And there is significant support for basketball in Australia. Tickets for the WNBL final in Townsville sold out in less than half an hour and tickets were just as hot for the sold out Cairns Taipans final against the New Zealand Breakers.
For the sake of basketball and basketball fans in Australia, I hope some arrangement can be made and that we can read more of home grown talent like Ben Simmons excelling in the States on the back of early exposure to the NBL.
By Mark Bowman / MLB.com
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — When Braves assistant director of player development Jonathan Schuerholz called last week and said, “I want to run something by you,” the always-witty Peter Moylan initially wondered if his former Minor League teammate wanted him to become a part of the grounds crew.
But it did not take Moylan long to realize Schuerholz was providing an offer that seemed much more practical than any of the others he had thought about while wondering how he might prove that he can indeed return from his latest surgery — a second Tommy John elbow procedure that was performed on March 21, 2014.
After talking to his wife and agent, Moylan confirmed that he would be crazy not to accept the Braves’ offer to spend this season as a player-coach for Rookie Level Danville and then potentially come to big league camp as one of Atlanta’s non-roster invitees next year.
“It’s going to be really fun,” Moylan said. “I’m already having way too much fun. I couldn’t have written up a better chance for me.”
Moylan arrived in Minor league camp this week weighing 212 pounds — 40 pounds lighter than he was when he came to big league camp with the Astros last year — and exuding that same vibrant personality that made him such a beloved figure among fans and teammates during his tenure as a Braves reliever (2006-2012).
Instead of risking injury or embarrassment by rushing his recovery in an attempt to prove he could pitch this year, Moylan will now have a chance to patiently prepare for what should be a rather stress-free opportunity with an organization that has always considered him to be a part of the family.
“This is just for him to have a chance to have a year to find if this fits for him and fits for us,” Braves assistant general manager John Coppolella said. “He’s a great guy who has been a big part of us. We felt it would be a great fit.”
Given that Danville’s season does not begin until June, Moylan will spend the next few months strengthening his body to pitch and his mind to serve as a mentor for the young pitchers who will look at him as both a teammate and coach this year.
“If I signed with a team, I’m obviously going to try to prove myself immediately,” Moylan said. “I risk getting hurt again. I risk having horrible numbers. Then all of a sudden, they could say, ‘He’s not doing anything, let’s get rid of him’ and my career might be over. This way, I can take my time. The Braves are going to be patient and I’m going to be patient, which is not my strong point. When it’s right, it will be right.”
Moylan has long-term aspirations to coach, but for now he will maintain his dream to return to the Majors with the club that still held a place in his heart even as he spent the 2013 season with the Dodgers.
“The Braves have always been kind of like that ex-girlfriend that you always think about,” Moylan said. “I’d always check the Braves’ results and hope that they were doing well. But I can do it for real now and not have to hide it.”
By Alexis Brudnicki / Melbourne Aces
For the Melbourne Aces, the fifth season of the revamped Australian Baseball League had its share of ups and downs.
With plenty of fresh faces in Victoria and some rebuilding on and off the field, fans and supporters around the circuit have a lot to look forward to for the future of the club. Despite a losing season and a finish at the bottom of the standings, plenty of work was done to ensure the future looks bright for baseball in Melbourne.
Starting at the top, former big leaguer and Aces favourite Justin Huber stepped into the role of the General Manager for Melbourne at the end of the year, and is incredibly excited for the differences he’s already seen.
“[Some of] the highlights for me were seeing the changing of the guard this year, with the future of the club start to really break through,” Huber said. “We saw young players like Jared Cruz, Aaron Sayers, Ben Leslie, Sam Gibbons, Darryl George, Matt Wilson and Josh Hendricks turn the corner and become real professionals, and that is exciting.
“Victoria is in a great position with so many players in American affiliated clubs, and developing our homegrown talent will be a major focus for the Aces going into next season.”
Sayers, Leslie and Gibbons are all making their way overseas right now, looking to build off of their respective ABL seasons at spring training with the Detroit Tigers, San Francisco Giants and Minnesota Twins respectively. Each will return as part of a strong, young core of talent in Melbourne.
Before being shut down partway through the year, Gibbons led the pitching staff in his best off-season yet. The 21-year-old right-hander posted a 1.69 ERA over four starts and 26 2/3 innings with two walks and 21 strikeouts. Sayers and Leslie both spent time improving their games, learning from the veteran presence in the Aces’ clubhouse and making the most of their time on the field.
This season saw seven different Aussie players make their debuts in the league, with Sam Moon, Wilson, Hayden Godbold, Jeremy Young, James Darcy, Andrew Chesterton and Lachlan Madden finding varied success that will help them build for next year.
The club was led offensively by Canadian import and Texas Rangers prospect Kellin Deglan, who set a new league record with 16 long balls, hitting .287/.347/.631 with a team-leading 36 RBI, making his mark in a big way in Melbourne. He was one of several impressive imported players who spent time down under this year.
“It was exciting seeing records broken at Melbourne Ballpark, with Kellin Deglan’s staggering 16 home runs in a mere 157 at-bats,” Huber said. “True baseball fans can appreciate that this record is unlikely to be broken for many years to come.
“Our American and Japanese friends from our affiliated partners gave us a sense of power seldom seen locally in Australia. The speed of centre fielder and Chicago White Sox farmhand Adam Engel in the outfield was best-described by one Aces fan as resembling a ‘dog chasing down a frisbee’. His incredible defence was truly a unique spectacle.
“The man mountain holding down right field for the Aces this year, Dylan Cozens, towered over the rest of the team. The Philadelphia Phillies prospect hit some of the longest home runs ever witnessed at Melbourne Ballpark, scaring birds from their roost on light poles and ending up deep into the darkness. Upon seeing Cozens up close, one reporter said, ‘Cozens could tuck Buddy Franklin under his arm if he played AFL.’
“The Aces saw some true power arms as well, with right-handers Cody Buckel from the Rangers organization, Makoto Aiuchi from the Seibu Lions and local up-and-comer Gibbons blowing the doors off many well-established ABL hitters. Power is what baseball fans come to see, and they were not disappointed by this year’s lineup.”
Leading the charge in his first winter trip to the southern hemisphere was manager Tommy Thompson. The Oklahoma native and skipper of the Kannapolis Intimidators, an affiliate of the White Sox, was exactly what the youngest team in the league needed to keep the mood light and continue to allow fans, staff, and his players to have fun throughout a less-than-ideal season.
“Aces frontman Tommy Thompson brought a new energy and a new culture to Melbourne, managing with intensity and a hard focus on developing our future stars,” Huber said. “Tommy came to the Aces with a wealth of professional knowledge and experience from decades spent in professional baseball in the US.
By Matt Baker/www.tampabay.com
FORT MYERS – RHP Grant Balfour will likely rejoin the Rays this weekend after his father, David, died Tuesday after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 62.
Mr. Balfour was the former GM of the Australian Baseball League’s Sydney Blue Sox and was a key figure in growing the sport in Australia.
Grant is scheduled to fly back to Tampa from Australia on Saturday, a day after his father’s funeral. Grant has spent the last two weeks in Australia with his dad.
Rays manager Kevin Cash said Grant will likely return to Rays camp Sunday.
“He’s got a ton on his plate,” Cash said. “Hopefully on the back of his mind – where it belongs, in the back of his mind – he’s thinking about getting ready for a season.”
Cash said Grant threw a bullpen session Wednesday.
Nicholas R.W. Henning writes books. This is not totally unusual. Nicholas R.W. Henning writes books about baseball. This is a little unusual. Nicholas R.W. Henning writes books about Australian baseball. This is extremely unusual. I’m talking Tim Burton “Edward Scissorhands” or David Lynch “Eraserhead” unusual.
A recent business trip to Sydney fortuitously allowed our paths to cross. Given I was 92 pages into Nick’s latest offering “Australian Baseball Musings” the timing was somewhat impeccable. Feeling the need for an icy cold beverage, I sat down with Nick to find out more about the man, his thoughts on Australian Baseball and how he ended up writing so many books on a subject that is a passion for many of us who follow the game locally and abroad.
I am surprised when Nick tells me that while he was considered a good story teller by his teachers in the early days, English as a subject wasn’t his strong suit. One thing that does come out in the pages of his books however is a passion for the game – a passion that started back in 1992 when he got into baseball for the first time. Not always somebody you would consider a “keen” sportsman, Nick tried his hand at rugby league and cricket before giving baseball a go. Keen to ply his trade at the hot corner, Nick’s coaches noted his strong arm would be more suited to having a throw off the hill, so he reluctantly started his “career” as a pitcher. In the under 14’s he donned the uniform of the Hornsby Hornets, enduring an intense season of baseball where his team managed exactly no wins.
In 1993 Nick got his first look at the Sydney Blues, and in the same year he attended the Sydney Blues Baseball camp which boasted some of the best names in the Sydney line-up. Brad Cornett – a Toronto Blue Jays import who went on to take “Pitcher of the Year” honours in the 93/94 version of the ABL, made quite the impression on young Nick as he learned the finer points of pitching from a man that clearly knew his stuff. Fellow Blue Jay Jason Townley was another Blues player helping out at the camp as was two-time ABL gold glover Mark Shipley.
By this stage Nick was hooked on the game, despite originally only playing sport at school because it “got him out of class”! Season tickets for the Blues in 94/95 fuelled the passion further despite his Blues being taken out of the playoffs by the eventual champions, the Waverly Reds.
As we discuss the early days of Nick’s introduction to the ABL, his expression becomes a little downcast as we discuss 94/95 – during this season, Nick missed an appearance in Sydney of arguably the greatest baseball/American two-sport athlete in history, the awesome Bo Jackson. Due to circumstances out of his control, young Nick missed seeing Bo by just one day. To this day, I sense he remains a little distraught that he lost the opportunity to meet the great man.
Despite the Jackson setback, Nick found there were new reasons to attend ballgames as he matured into a young man. Some may have noticed he was becoming the best dressed fan in the stands during the 95/96 season as his eye wandered from the batter’s box towards the sister of a certain ball player on the Sydney team……
I ask Nick about his favourite players in the majors, and he mentions Frank Thomas and Tony Gwynn – two of the purest hitters to have played the game. When I ask him the same question about the ABL, he doesn’t hesitate when he says ‘Brendan Kingman and Graeme Lloyd”. Henning is clearly a fan of Kingman, as his name seems to crop up constantly in conversation when we talk about the “old” ABL. There is no doubt that Kingman was one of our greatest hitters, but the respect from Nick goes to not just the player, but clearly also to the man behind all of the big numbers.
David Balfour was like a colossus who strode across all levels of baseball in NSW and Australia. A former rugby league player with Balmain he came to baseball in the early 80’s becoming a founding member of the Hills Junior Association. He established the Kings Langley Baseball club shortly thereafter and went on to not only organise a highly successful club but also took on the role of coach competing in the NSW Winter League.
Early in the life of the 1st ABL he brought together a group of like minded baseball enthusiasts and bought the ABL licence from the Auburn Baseball Club. Through his efforts he established the highly successful Sydney Blues [later Storm] club who led the league in not only attendance and sponsorship but had great success on the field thrilling crowds at Parramatta Stadium and the old Sydney Showgrounds, establishing a league attendance record of 11,000 at the 1994 finals against the eventual winners, the Brisbane Bandits and winning the title in 1996.
One of his proudest moments was his son Grant’s signing of a professional contract with the Twins through scout Howie Norsetter. He was a regular traveller to the US to watch Grant as he made his way through the minor leagues and despite his long battle with cancer was able to travel to see him pitch for both the A’s and, last year, for the Rays.
He was also involved in the negotiating of contracts for numerous young Australian players when for many years he acted as an agent.
In 2009 he nursed his wife Carmen through her cancer only to be diagnosed with his own cancer the month after she died. Through his bravery and absolute determination he fought the disease every way possible and went into remission in 2011 and was able to carry on developing and promoting the game with his involvement as GM of the Sydney Blue Sox until such time as his health deteriorated further and he had to leave the game he so loved.
In 2013 David was awarded the Baseball Australia President’s award for life-long contribution to the game.
Despite still playing in the US Grant’s induction into the Baseball Australia Hall of Fame was moved up to Feb. 28 this year to enable David to be there. As it turned out he was too unwell to attend but he did watch the ceremony with his two children from his hospital bed. Corinne and Grant had flown in from Canada and the US the previous week to be with their father.
David is survived by his former wife Lynne and his children Grant and Corinne and his grandchildren Tyson, Cash, Raegan and Rielyn, who were his pride and joy.
By Alexis Brudnicki / Melbourne Aces
There are no guarantees, but it certainly looks like baseball stands a fighting chance of being reinstated to the Olympic Games.
When the International Olympic Committee approved a new bidding process in December, abolishing the limitation on sports and allowing host cities to propose the inclusion of one or more additional events for their Games, it opened the door for baseball and softball to return to Tokyo in 2020.
One issue with baseball’s previous place in the Games was that it included only men. To solve that problem, the World Baseball Softball Confederation was formed, the two sports bidding together to return to the pinnacle of international competition.
“The bid is in conjunction with IOC direction,” said Justin Huber, the sole baseball athlete representative on the WBSC Executive Board. “It’s not a publicity stunt; it’s legit…They’ve got support from all of the professional leagues, including Major League Baseball, [which] wants baseball reinstated into the Olympic Games.”
As the host country for the Games in question and a baseball nation, Japan is doing everything possible to see the bid come to fruition, setting a new standard for campaign management.
“It [revolves] around Japan’s involvement,” Huber said. “They really want baseball and softball in, and they’ve got the infrastructure, they’ve got the fan base, and they’ve got the TV networks ready to go.
“They’ve even gone so far as Prime Minister [Shinzo] Abe put together a focus commentary group dedicated to trying to help the campaign; help the bid…it’s quite unprecedented really. So there’s an awful lot of support and it makes sense in a lot of ways, and it’s not without foundation.”
Everything about the initiative makes it seem as though baseball and softball are on the right track to return, but Huber is quick to caution people not to get too presumptuous. The General Manager of the Melbourne Aces in the Australian Baseball League acknowledges that baseball has addressed the issues the IOC brought forward, but there is no guarantee that any sports will be added, though there should be a decision made [at the next Games in Rio].
“It’s definitely not guaranteed, and baseball or softball are not saying, ‘This is in the bag and we’re going to be there,'” Huber said. “That would be really arrogant and short-sighted. It wouldn’t be in line with the Olympic movement.
“They’re very conscious of that and the whole focus is around the core values of the Olympic Games because that’s what it’s all about. It’s about life through sport, and this is a great opportunity for baseball and softball to be on the world’s biggest stage again.”
One of just 31 Australians who have played in the major leagues, Huber was a member of Team Australia in 2004. He lost his chance to play in the Olympics when he injured his knee just a week before the tournament in Athens – and before the Aussies captured the silver medal – and hopes that the reinstatement in the Games allows the next generation to capitalize where he missed out.
“It means a lot more to me because I missed out on that opportunity,” he said. “If we can get back in, it changes everything here. All of a sudden we’ve got access to a whole range of different federal funding models that are based around sports being in the Olympics, which helps sports like ours grow and we rely on that [and] that’s what it’s all about…
“It’s getting little girls and boys excited about playing baseball and softball in the Olympics and having a chance to grow up in Australia dreaming about someday playing for their country in front of millions of people.”
In Brisbane, Logan Wade grew up with visions of doing exactly that. The 23-year-old Minnesota Twins farmhand gave up on that early goal when it became unattainable, but is hoping for much of the same again now.
“When I was young [the Olympics] were there and I would look up to those players,” Wade said. “Now that I’ve gotten older and it was gone, it was something that went out of my goals, because I just didn’t think it would be back. Now that it’s back on the radar, it’s another achievement that every young baseball player wants to do for their country.”
The young infielder believes that even just the idea that baseball might make its way back into the Games five years from now is a motivating factor for many of the fresh faces just starting to make an impression in the game in Australia.
“It’s very exciting,” Wade said. “When we heard that baseball was out of the Olympics, it was a big disappointment for everyone. For young guys like me coming up it’s something to look forward to and another goal that I want to try to accomplish. For all the young guys, it helps them want to improve and play each year all year.”
Also embracing the excitement that Olympic potential brings down under is Jon Deeble, former Olympian and current manager of Team Australia. With so many former players spending much of their time to help the next generation of young baseballers, he is hopeful for the future of the spot in the country and looking forward to more young athletes potentially getting the same chance he did.
“I was lucky enough to play in Seoul in 1988 and I managed [Team Australia] in 2000 and 2004, and for these kids it’s really exciting,” Deeble said. We’ve got a good group coming through for us, so it’s about getting our guys prepared and getting ready to be able to qualify for it and then do well in it…
“We’ve got guys like Graeme Lloyd, David Nilsson, Phil Stockman, Glen Williams, Jeff Williams – guys who did really well in Athens and played in the big leagues who can pass on their knowledge to the young kids [and] that’s a big plus for us because we’ve had guys who have done it and had success. It’s a really exciting time.”
Nilsson, a big-league all-star and Wade’s manager this off-season with the Brisbane Bandits, was a veteran on the Aussie squad that brought home silver over a decade ago. He believes that baseball’s return will make a huge impact for the development of the sport down under.
“Obviously the thought of baseball coming back into the Olympics has a lot of emotions for us,” Nilsson said. “With the success we had in 2004, to be associated with it brings back a lot of good memories.
“More importantly, it brings a lot of hope for the sport; a lot of hope for young kids over here to have the opportunity to play on the world stage in an environment like that. On every level, hearing news like that is exciting and let’s hope it comes true.”
Blue Jays prospect and fan favourite set for Toronto camp
By Alexis Brudnicki / Special to the ABL
CANBERRA – Playing for the Canberra Cavalry for his third consecutive North American off-season this winter, Jack Murphy had a different perspective than many of the other imported players in the Australian Baseball League.
The 26-year-old catcher has seen the circuit grow and change over his three years of involvement, the league making bigger strides in some areas than others, and he has been personally invested in that process.
From the time he was welcomed with wide open arms in his first season to when he left the country just weeks ago in January, Murphy has seen an enthusiasm for the game unmatched in many parts of the world where baseball is more prevalent.
“That’s what sometimes gets lost when you try to explain the way the league is out here, is the passion people have for the sport,” he said. “As a player and a person, I’m genuinely interested in improving the league in any way we can to make it so it lasts and grows in Australia. Baseball is such a great game that the people who have heard about it and come out to the ballpark, they buy into it and they really, really love it. That passion is pretty rare.
“Minor league players rotate so much but here you get to see a lot of the same faces year in and year out, and the fans really connect with that. That’s what we’ve done in Canberra and that’s what we hope to grow throughout the league.”
Throughout his stints in Australian Capital Territory, Murphy has seen firsthand how the young league has developed. Though it still has a long way to go, the ABL is continually improving and setting new standards every season.
“The league has gotten much better, more competitive,” he said. “If you look at the ladder, for the most part everybody is pretty tightly bunched and that’s good for the league.
“You see Australians growing, and more Australians playing every year, and more [affiliated] imports that come out here. The level of play has definitely gone up, and that’s good for not only Canberra but the ABL in general. And it’s enjoyable.”
Murphy’s tenure in the league is unprecedented for a player hailing from overseas. The native of Sarasota, Fla., has set new import standards in every category with his career ABL totals, along with hitting .353/.413/.542 and adding six home runs, 11 doubles and 37 RBI in 40 games this year for the Cavalry.
In his first season down under, the fan favourite also helped Canberra to its first Claxton Shield victory in decades, the championship securing them a berth in the Asia Series the following October in Taiwan. The unheralded underdog went on to capture the title in Taichung, a huge victory for not only the squad but also for baseball in Australia.
“When we won the Asian Series, that was incredible,” Murphy said. “[Cavalry Manager Michael Collins] and I still talk about it and how I don’t think anybody quite understands how big of an upset that was. You’re talking about a team with a payroll of forty-seven thousand beating teams with payrolls in the fifty millions. It was a pretty incredible experience…
“And obviously winning the championship out here my first year was incredible. Canberra hadn’t won the Claxton Shield in 70 years, and people really rallied around that. That was the starting point of what it’s grown into today.
“When people ask me why I’m so popular out here or whatever it is, most of that comes from winning. We’ve had a lot of success over the last few years. I haven’t even been the best player on those teams, and we’ve had some great players, but more than anything it comes down to just winning games.”
Not originally planning to make a return to the Fort at Narrabundah Ballpark this winter, the opportunity arose when Murphy asked Toronto’s minor league field coordinator Doug Davis who he was planning to send to Australia this year, the fourth time the Blue Jays have shipped affiliated players across the world for more time on the field.
Canadian Alexis Brudnicki is a contributor to TheABL.com.au and one of our most prolific baseball writers about baseball in Ausralia. She is one of our favourite correspondents. Follow her on Twitter @baseballexis.