IT was a sight as rare as kangaroos in the Bronx: an Australian starting pitcher in the major leagues.
Fair Dinkum! ("Honest" in Australian.)
Wearing the New York Yankee pinstripes was 6 ft., 6 in. right-hander Mark Hutton from South Adelaide, Australia.
The big Aussie had dominated the California Angels on July 23 in his first start, then had trouble with Detroit and Toronto before the Yankees sent him back to their Columbus AAA club Aug. 5. In his short hop to the majors, he compiled a respectable 4.60 earned-run average with nine strikeouts in 15.2 innings.
The Yankees say Hutton's short trip to the Bronx gave the Aussie an idea of what he needs to do to make a permanent leap to the big leagues. Hutton may well be back in the Bronx once the Yankees - with bullpen problems - figure out their pitching needs.
The prospect of an Aussie in pinstripes excited the local media. After his California win, New York Newsday wrote "G'Day Mate" in a headline and called his performance "Aussome." Yankee media managers reported that Hutton was barraged with interview requests, including Australian television shows eager to talk with a Down Under bloke throwing strikes at the "Yanks," the Aussie term for Americans.
The publicity was starting to get to Hutton, who said he sometimes wished he was not from Australia because it seemed to be the focal point for the media. "Sometimes I just wish they would leave it alone," he said in his broad Australian accent.
AS more Australians play in the big leagues, he may get his wish. The first Australian in the majors was utility player Joe Quinn, who played from 1884 to 1901 for St. Louis and Boston. Aussie infielder Craig Shipley joined the Padres in 1986.
Currently, the Milwaukee Brewers have two Australians on their team - catcher Dave Nilsson and relief pitcher Graeme Lloyd. The Toronto Blue Jays have four scouts sending reports from Down Under.
"We realize now the Australians are developing athletes who can compete," says Cito Gaston, the Blue Jays' manager.
Australian baseball, with roots reaching back into the 19th century, got an impetus in the 1940s from American soldiers stationed there. There are currently eight teams in the semipro Australian Baseball League. They play a 48-game season from November to February. Each club can hire up to four "imports," usually Americans, who cannot have played above the Class A level.
Hutton was signed Dec. 15, 1988, when a Yankee scout saw him pitch at an international youth tournament held Down Under. Hutton learned baseball from his father, who had been a pitcher before an arm injury.
In Australia, Hutton had little opportunity to develop, since he was mainly playing once a week for a local club. After the Yankees signed him, he moved to America, where he spent five years in the minor leagues. By the time he left the Yankees' AAA Columbus team, he had a 3.40 earned-run average in 16 starts. International League opponents hit just .197 against him.
Hutton impressed Tony Cloninger, the Yankee pitching coach, who was a roving scout when Hutton was signed. "He has an overpowering fastball and a desire to win - a mental toughness," says Cloninger, who singled Hutton out as a "definite" to be an "impact" player in the big leagues, sooner or later.
In his second start against Detroit, Hutton struck out Cecil Fielder with a low inside fastball. Fielder is now No. 2 in the American League in runs batted in. "You tread lightly with Cecil down and in - that's his strength," Toronto's Gaston says.
Hutton plays down the speed of his fastball, which is in the mid-90-miles-per-hour range. "It does help to be throwing hard, but you have to learn to change speeds and locate more," says Hutton, who also admits he has to work on holding base runners.
The Yankees expect Hutton will continue to improve - especially as he gets more experience.
"In the minor leagues, players tend to be more free swinging, but up here hitters wait for the right pitch at the right time," explains Bob Wickman, a Yankee relief pitcher who played for the Columbus AAA team. Cloninger is trying to get Hutton to throw more strikes in order to get ahead of the batters.
It's something he can work on when he hops back to Columbus, Ohio.