Batter's Up, Down Under: Australia Pitches In

In 1972, when Don Knapp started playing baseball in Australia, his uniform was made of bedsheets that would rip when the catcher got into a squat. Today, the rags are out and some Australian baseball players are now wearing the uniforms of Major League Baseball.

This rags-to-riches story is symbolic of how quickly baseball has developed Down Under.

Since 1989, Major League teams have signed 50 to 60 Australian baseball players. Almost all the big-market clubs, such as the New York Yankees or the Atlanta Braves, have a financial stake in an Australian team. And the Australians are proud that their national team is now ranked among the top eight in the world.

Baseball still does not have the appeal of cricket however. One-day cricket events are televised, and their scores make the front of the sports pages. Baseball games are taped and rerun late at night. Game attendance is spotty.

"There will come a day when baseball surpasses cricket in popularity," says Mr. Knapp, national manager of the high performance division of the Australian Baseball Federation.

One of the stimuli for young Australians is American dollars. Sixteen-year-old Sydney shortstop Glenn Williams made headlines when the Atlanta Braves gave him a $780,000 signing bonus.

A number of other young players have received $375,000 to $562,500. And David Nilsson, who hails from Brisbane but now plays for the Milwaukee Brewers, recently won a three-year contract for $20 million. This made him the second-highest paid Australian athlete. By way of contrast, the top cricket players make only $150,000 to $300,000 per year.

The money is not the only incentive. As he practices outside of Melbourne, 6 ft., 10 in. right-handed pitcher Lachlan Craven says, "Cricket is boring."

Craven, whose best pitch is an 85 m.p.h. fastball, says his model is Seattle Mariner Randy Johnson, who is also close to the seven-foot barrier. "I love getting the ball past the hitters," he says.

Paul Weichard, a young center fielder, says he is attracted to the game because it requires more individual skills. "You get a chance to bat and bowl," Weichard says.

He'll forget using the cricket terminology soon enough - he has been signed by the Arizona Diamondbacks and started playing rookie ball this month.

He just grins when asked about his signing bonus. "It's a lot of money for a 17-year-old," he says. "I just can't wait to start."

While individuals like Weichard make their mark, the Australian teams are starting to score some runs as well. In 1992, the Australians just missed out on qualifying for the Barcelona Olympics.

The effort caught the eye of the Australian Sports Institute, which increased its financial support from $225,000 to $900,000 per year. The better training meant better results, and Australia qualified for the Atlanta Olympics and finished in seventh place.

"We used to be a doormat, but now we're beating teams from Korea and Japan," Knapp says.

One of the reasons is the elite training academies set up in six cities.

On a Saturday morning in Melbourne, 24 teenagers are in their baseball gear taking batting practice and learning base-running skills.

Matthew Sheldon-Collins, the head coach, is cajoling a young player whose hitting is weak. "You'll have to do better than that; this is the big leagues," he says.

Well, maybe not quite the big leagues. The team is gathered at the Victorian Baseball and Softball Stadium in Altona, a community better known for its chemical plants and refineries.

The stadium is so windy that a player quips, "You normally have to stand sideways."

And, when the wind is not blowing, the flies arrive. Not pop flies - flies with wings that whiz around the head.

By way of contrast, the Melbourne Cricket Ground is in a stadium that seats more than 100,000. A green oasis, it's located in the center of the city and can be reached by mass transit.

Nevertheless the baseball players are enthusiastic. "They have to have a passion, it's part of the deal," says Mr. Sheldon-Collins. Someday that passion may spread to the rest of the country.

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