Baseball in Italy received a Major League surprise last month when an unannounced MLB manager graced the 436 registered attendees with his presence at the Italian Coaches Convention Dinner at Castelnuovo de Garda (Verona). Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon, a first-generation Italian-American whose father was born in Italy, was overjoyed by the warm reception received at the gala dinner which pays tribute to the coaches that make a difference in the internationalization of baseball in Italy. Madden exclaimed, “I feel at home here, because in the small city in Pennsylvania where I live there is a big Italian community.”
His grandparents original surname was Madonnini, but after emigrating from the Region of Abruzzo to America
their last name was shortened. Maddon continued, “It is always a pleasure for me to visit Italy. I am proud of my heritage.” The Rays were very well represented in Italy as Maddon brought along members of his coaching staff to lead instructional clinics for the delegation of Europe’s best coaches.
Riccardo Fraccari, president of the Federation of Italian Baseball and Softball (FIBS), spoke of Alex Liddi becoming the first Italian-born and developed player to play Major League Baseball and its great significance to baseball in Italy. He said, “Alex’s story is really the tip of the iceberg, and we really need to take into account the daily work of the coaches in Italy who are the base of the movement.” Liddi was signed by the Seattle Mariners after being selected to attend the inaugural MLB International European Academy in 2005 and in September 2011 became the first graduate of the MLB International European Academy to play in the Major Leagues.
Bill Holmberg is one such coach that FIBS President Fraccari was referring to in his compelling speech. Holmberg has been living under the radar since 1989, when he came to Italy to serve as manager and technical director of the Godo baseball club for 12 years. He later became the pitching coach for San Marino as well as the Italian Junior and Senior National teams. Coach Holmberg was named Director and Field Coordinator of the MLB Italian Academy nearly a decade ago and has been instrumental in signing the best homegrown talent as a former international scout for the Chicago Cubs. Everyday he tirelessly trains the cream of the crop at an elite sports academy in the quaint beach community of Tirrenia near the Italian cultural iconic city of Pisa. Alessandro Maestri, the former Chicago Cub minor leaguer and recent Brisbane Bandit / 2012 Australian Baseball League (ABL) Fan Favorite Award recipient, was signed by Holmerg in 2006, when he became the first Italian-born pitcher ever signed by a Major League Baseball team.
Chicago Cub scout Holmberg knew early on that Alessandro was something special when he saw the young Italian play baseball for the first time. Holmberg said, “Alex can do whatever he wants to. He’s got the temperament and composure. He’s hit 95 mph, and his slider is at 86 or 87. He competes as hard as anyone out there.” Maestri still to this day works under the guidance and direction of Coach Holmberg. The Cesena, Italy
native made World Baseball Classic headlines in 2006 when his first offering to the Dominican Republic’s Moises Alou was rocketed out of the park for a home run. Despite the rocky start, he would not allow another earned run in his 4.2 combined innings in both the 2006 and 2009 World Baseball Classics.
Maestri demonstrated great promise in the Midwest and Florida State leagues as a two-time All-Star. As as starter and relief pitcher in the Chicago Cubs minor league system for five seasons, he racked up a 24-17 record with a 3.75 ERA and 19 saves. The right hand throwing pitcher put away hitters with his evasive slider–which was once voted as the best slider thrown by anyone in the entire franchise. Maestri made his preseason MLB debut against the Oakland A’s during Cubs Spring Training in Phoenix on April 1, 2009 when Cub manager Lou Pinella summoned him out of the bullpen. Maestri struck out Orlando Cabrera and then he sized up against slugger Jason Giambi–who was lucky to squeak out a single through the hole. MLB All-Star
Matt Holliday was caught looking at a third strike slider for the second out, and Eric Chavez went down swinging at his Italian slider in the dirt to end Maestri’s almost perfect outing. Nearly three years later, Alessandro is still as dominant as ever as witnessed by his numbers in the most recent 2011-12 ABL season. As the workhorse and ace of the Brisbane Bandit pitching staff, Maestri led his team in wins (4) and proved to be one of the best pitchers in the league. He finished third in the ABL in innings pitched (63.2) and in strikeouts (53), fourth in the ABL in WHIP (1.16) and sixth in the ABL in ERA (3.25). In Round Eight of the regular season, he earned the Pitcher of the Week award after pitching a stellar complete game two-hitter against the Canberra Cavalry. Based on his most recent form, Maestri is worthy of a second look by international scouts to make his long-awaited MLB debut. He will always be a competitor who lives on the edge to bail his team out of pressure situations.
Of the frequent MLB-sponsored instructional clinics throughout Europe, none has had the impact of MLB / FIBS Academy host Coach Holmberg’s annual three and a half week summer invitational Major League Baseball International European Academy at the Olympic Training Center in Tirrenia. Designed to provide promising junior teenage players with both the environment and the instruction to reach their full potential, the European Academy brings together around 50 or more of the brightest young playing talent in Europe and Africa with the best in Major League coaching and instruction. The Academy seeks to provide a path for elite players from this region to improve their skills in preparation for the rigors of professional and international baseball. In addition to helping these bright young stars develop their skills, the Academy enables MLB Clubs to scout the best future talent. Holmberg explained, “It’s a pretty good place to see all the best players in Europe at one time. We’ve had between 18 and 20 scouts that have watched the games this past year.”
The Tirrenia baseball camp, which began in 2005, has much to do with MLB’s accelerated rate of signing the European elite to professional contracts based on the fact that the numbers have more than tripled from 2005 (2.33 average) to 2011 (9.0 average). So far 49 Academy graduates from ten countries (45 players from Europe and 4 players from Africa) have signed professional contracts with 19 different Major League Baseball franchises. Holmberg commented, “We’re not the Dominican Republic yet, but I think we might be sneaking up on Australia.”
Nostradamus could have predicted the end of the Melbourne Aces season when Perth sidearm specialist Jacob Clem went head-to-head against fellow American and MLB veteran Jason Hirsh on November 13th. For nine innings the Aces were blindsided and shell shocked by the six-foot-four Burlington, Washington native, who threw a complete game in which he allowed only six hits and one earned run. Up until the final week of the regular ABL season, Clem (2-1, 3.91 ERA) was used sparingly when he was needed most. Former MLB World Series reliever and current Perth Heat Pitching Coach Graeme Lloyd knew exactly what he was doing when Clem was inserted in the ninth inning of a tied game against the Sydney Blue Sox on January 20th. Not only would this outing serve as a final tune-up entering the postseason for Clem, but also reestablish his critical role as the defending champion Heat’s saving grace in battles of long relief. He pitched seven stellar innings on the mound and gave up just two hits. Clem eventually earned the win after 2011-12 ABL MVP Tim Kennelly hit a walk-off home run in the 15th inning. History would repeat itself in the Heat’s most critical moment of the season in the deciding game three
of the Australian Baseball League Championship Series against the Melbourne Aces last Sunday at
Perth’s Babagallo Ballpark. At the end of the day, two members of last season’s Washington Husky baseball senior class–Geoff Brown and Jacob Clem—along with Heat relievers Brenden Wise and Jack Frawley would ultimately determine if the ABL defending champions would repeat in the final do-or-die contest that would last 13 innings and turn out to be an enduring manager’s no holds barred strategic tug-of-war chess match.
The irony of Jacob Clem in a Perth Heat uniform is still hard to believe. It took an injury to Heat pitcher Ben Moore, last year’s ABL Championship Series MVP and 2011-12 Round One ABL Pitcher of the Week, for Rockingham Rams import Jacob Clem–fresh out of college at the University of Washington–to be called up to the Heat as Moore’s replacement. Who would have guessed that last year’s playoff MVP would be substituted by what many insiders consider to be this year’s ABL Championship Series Most Valuable Performance by 24-year-old Jacob Clem? In the final and decisive game three, it appeared on paper that Perth starting pitcher Geoff Brown–who also happens to be the Huskies’ all-time pitching appearances leader–with his perfect 5-0 record and 1.88 ERA would dominate the pesky Melbourne Aces by himself. However, Brown was chased out of the game only after 1.2 innings. Jacob Clem came firing from the bullpen, despite having little time to warm up and bail his University of Washington Husky college buddy out of a jam and keep the Heat alive.
Once again, the tried and tested Clem–who had previously attacked the Aces’ Achilles heel in a complete game victory in November–would rise to the occasion and successfully hold his vulnerable opponent for 6.1 innings while only allowing one earned run and four hits. Coupled with another five innings of shutout pitching by Heat relievers Brenden Wise and Jack Frawley, the Mount Vernon-born Jacob Clem made the difference between Perth keeping and relinquishing the throne of the ABL Championship. The Heat would prevail at the end of a tightly contested
game that went on for 13 pressure-packed innings until James McOwen scored from third on a wild pitch. Son of Jim Clem—who was the longtime baseball coach for Burlington-Edison High School and is currently the pitching coach for the West Coast League Summer Collegiate Bellingham Bells baseball squad–and younger brother of Zach Clem–who was a two-time All-Pac-10 outfielder playing at the University of Washington for four years from 2003-2006 with the likes of Tim Lincecum, Brent Lillebridge and Sean White as well as a minor leaguer in the Milwaukee Brewers franchise before a series of concussions ended his career,
Jacob was surrounded by baseball fever all of his life. While playing for his father at Burlington-Edison as a high school senior, he was named the Skagit Valley Herald’s 2006 player of the year as well as to the first-team Washington All-State and All-Northwest League after a respectable 7-2 record with a 1.22 ERA and three saves. In 63 innings of work, Clem struck out 70 batters. He was equally impressive at the plate with a .354 batting average, five home runs and 26 RBI. While still in high school, Jacob led his summer league Burlington Sox to the league, district, state and regional titles. He was selected as the MVP of the state American Legion tournament and the American Legion Division I Player of the Year after going 10-1 on the mound, while batting .421 with 22 doubles, five homers and 43 RBI. Clem redshirted his first season at the University of Washington and played summer ball for the Bellingham Bells, a city deeply entrenched in a long baseball tradition along with an eager and loyal following in the Pacific Northwest.
From 1973 through 1976, the Bellingham team was an affiliate for the Los Angeles Dodgers, and later from 1977 through 1994 became the minor league affiliate of the Seattle Mariners. During this time, the squad was called the Bellingham Mariners, or “Baby M’s.” Perhaps the franchise’s most notable claim to fame came in 1987 when Ken Griffey Jr. hit his first professional home run wearing a Bellingham uniform. Other names that have come through Bellingham include Edgar Martinez, Omar Vizquel, Raul Ibanez, Dave Valle, Bud Black, Derek Lowe, Joe Nathan, Russ Ortiz, Mike Scioscia, Rick Sutcliffe and Mark Langston. Bellingham was the San Francisco Giants affiliate in 1995 and 1996 before eventually becoming the permanent home to the West Coast League Summer Collegiate Bellingham Bells with strong ties to Major Leaguers Jamie Moyer and Dave Valle. While playing for the University of Washington, Jacob Clem spent his summers in California with the Palm Springs Power and in Oregon with the Bend Elks. After a season-ending injury in 2008, the right-handed pitcher came back strong during his 2009 campaign. He was named Academic All-Pac-10 Honorable Mention after not allowing an earned run in seven of nine pitching appearances. Clem took it to the next level during his junior year by making 30 relief appearances and earning All-Pac-10 Honorable Mention as a result of stifling Pac-10 opponents to a .211 batting average (second-lowest in the league) and posting a 3.14 ERA (fourth-best in the conference). As a senior, he demonstrated outstanding command by walking only 15 while striking out 45 batters (averaging 5.42 strike outs per nine innings pitched). Jacob graduated in 2011 with a Husky career 3.86 ERA and an 8-10 record. Clem recently signed a professional baseball contract with the Independent Frontier League Traverse City Beach Bums. Director of Baseball Operations Jason Wuerfel is optimistic that his new pitcher will make a major impact in the East Division of the Frontier League. He said, “Clem is a big, strong, versatile righty that could help us in a lot of different roles. He was one of the Pac-10’s top closers his junior season, but also excelled as a starting pitcher his senior year. He went down to Australia this off-season and pitched at their highest level of baseball, facing a lot of current Double-A and Triple-A prospects. With that experience under his belt, he has the chance to be one of the top rookie pitchers…” As a former Minor League pitcher for the New York Mets and Houston Astros organization manager, Beach Bum pitching coach and manager Gregg Langbehn realizes the importance of a strong pitching staff more than most. He has been working particularly hard this off-season with Director of Baseball Operations Jason Wuerfel to sign as many pitchers for spring camp as possible. He may have just found his diamond in the rough with the signing of Jacob Clem. Despite Nostradamus’ dim prediction for 2012, the Washington state native and Perth Heat unheralded hero has aligned himself in a very good position to get the recognition he so wholeheartedly deserves with a future MLB contract.
When asked to special guest Friday morning at 8 am (Perth, Australia time) or Thursday afternoon at 4 pm (PST, USA time) on ABC Grandstand Strike Zone baseball radio show by host @CJColeman after completing my most comprehensive article to date
“MLB digs ‘Down Under’ and find nine Aussie stars”, I requested to include one of the featured Australian players–Pitcher Shane Lindsay of the Los Angeles Dodgers–because of a recent tweet received from @ABQTopes (LA Dodgers Triple-A affiliate Albuquerque Isotopes). I thought to myself that if anyone deserved to go directly from the Australian Baseball League straight to Major League Baseball without any pit stops it was the recently signed Dodger flamethrower. After the Isotopes were kind enough to retweet my article to its 2500 followers, I tweeted back: “Thanks for the RT (retweet) and for sending the Dodgers your best talent. Do you think Aussie Shane Lindsay will wear True Blue after ST (spring training)?”
Moments later @ABQTopes replied,
“He has the tools to impress, but new ownership will have the final say.” Time will tell who exactly will sign Lindsay’s checks, but in the meantime he is training rigorously in Arizona to prepare for the pitcher and catcher February 21st report date at Camelback Ranch in Glendale. Shane emailed me: “Hey mate, doing good…working my butt off in Phoenix and getting ready for camp at athlete performance.” Lindsay is taking this challenge very seriously.
Without a doubt, Lindsay could very well be vintage Jonathan Broxton
with additional strength out of the bullpen. Last season wearing Chicago White Sox silks, the gutsy and often “wild” Australian hurler was not afraid to throw inside with his intimidating signature upper 90’s fastball to strike out hitters. The Dodgers believe Shane Lindsay has what it takes to become successful in MLB, and all he has to do now is figure out who to impress…the “wild” Kim Kardashian?In order for me to impress on why you should vote for me to be in the 2012 MLB Fan Cave by clicking HERE so that I may deliver an innovative and fresh approach to the coverage of pro baseball and also report on the latest cutting-edge music and pop culture trends, it is imperative to hear from others about my positive influence on them–as I am not accustomed to being my own publicist! Let’s first connect the dots through the Skunk Records and Sublime stories as told by San Diego-based Slightly Stoopiddrummer Ryan ‘RyMo’ Moran.
While on the road with Rebelution , Ryan Morgan recently spoke about my good friend, Mike ‘Miguel’ Happoldt–co-founder of Skunk Records and producer for Sublime, Slightly Stoopid, Unwritten Law, Long Beach Dub All-Stars and Long Beach Shortbus. ‘RyMo’ explained, “In a nutshell, Skunk Records was two people. It was Brad Nowellfrom Sublime, and Mike Happoldt. Mike Happoldt is still one of our producers to this day, we work with him all the time. Basically those two guys started that record label as an underground Long Beach record label. It was basically two friends who just put their heads together and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to start recording.’ At the time, Mike Happoldt was called ‘Miguel’. Miguel was going to Long Beach State and he was in a recording arts music program there … and so after hours there they would sneak into Long Beach State, and Sublime recorded a whole bunch of stuff there. They would basically just sneak in after hours and use the studio from like, 8 p.m. ‘till 4 in the morning and then come back in the next night and do it all again. Skunk Records really was just a grass roots movement between those two guys.
Now sadly, we all know the story that Brad Nowell passed away in ’96 from an overdose on heroin, which sucked. At that point Mike, or Miguel, basically kept the label going, but it shrunk considerably. It went from like a full-on functioning label to just basically him doing stuff out of his house on a smaller scale. Basically, Skunk Records released quite a few records from bands like The Ziggens, one of Sublime’s favorite bands from back in the day. They released a good amount of other stuff —- obviously the work they did with Long Beach Dub All-Stars. Basically, Skunk Records is just Miguel Happoldt. It’s his project.”
When LA music industry insider executive Dana Smart interviewed Mike ‘Miguel’ Happoldt about Sublime and the influence of reggae, yours truly got some serious props.
Mike said, “Brad was a huge fan of DJ Roberto Angotti of KNAC (not metal yet) in Long Beach. He taped every show between 1985 and 1986.” You can listen to some of the songs that Brad loved by clicking on the following podcast link–The Waxcast Episode 2: Homage to Reggae Revolution–a loyal listener’s tribute to my radio show
before moving on to Los Angeles’ #1 Young Adult Radio Leader, ‘The World Famous KROQ 106.7 FM’, where I deejayed from 1986 through 1992.
I would see Brad regularly when I promoted Club Reggae at Fenders Ballroom in downtown Long Beach, where huge punk groups would perform in the larger room and Jamaica’s Wailing Souls and Eek-A-Mouse, England’s Pato Banton and Tippa Irie as well as LA’s Untouchables and Fishbone and other reggae/ska groups would play in my part of the ballroom on weekends. We would not discriminate against anyone who would enter our Punky Reggae Party. Long Beach experienced a London boomtown feeling in the early/mid-80’s. I clearly remember Brad joining me in the DJ booth when I promoted Eek-A-Mouse and Sublime together at Bogart’s in Long Beach. He came again to check me at an Andy Summers gig as well. When singer Gwen Stefani and bassist Tony Kanal from No Doubt were a couple without a contract, they would frequent my OC Club Reggae where I would test market their records on the dance floor. After graduating early in 1980 from high school at age 17, I studied abroad in London and immersed myself in the 2 Tone movement. Borrowing elements of ska, punk rock, rocksteady, reggae and New Wave, bands like The Specials, The Selecter, The (English) Beat, Madness, Bad Manners, and The Bodysnatchers were the talk of the town. However, it was UB40’s “My Way of Thinking” that captured my imagination. Their progressive and upbeat style of British reggae was ear candy, and I could not get enough of it. I also learned of another Birmingham-based band called Steel Pulse. I collected records from London’s Aswad and Linton Kwesi Johnson as well. The artists trusted me, and I traveled with UB40 throughout America as their emcee while supporting Sting and The Police. I became the first radio deejay to interview British reggae, ska and two tone artists and break their records in America while hosting “Roberto, Rock, Reggae” on KSPC 88.7 in Claremont, California. Although a college station, the strong 3000 watt signal penetrated in Orange, LA, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Within two years in 1982, I got my first real job in commercial radio when I was hired as a new music jock.
Working overnights at ‘Rock N Rhythm KNAC’ in Long Beach, I mixed New Wave and Classic Rock from the 50’s-70’s in this unique format which allowed deejay freedom with two personal choices per hour. I would bring in my crate of records from independent and unsigned artists to customize my radio show with a healthy dose of reggae and ska. After I had created a huge buzz for the music, I was rewarded with the first reggae show–“Reggae Revolution”–on commercial radio in addition to working my KNAC new music weekend deejay shifts and serving as program director of Pomona College’s KSPC. Often I would receive acetate test press copies of songs fresh out of the studio from up-and-coming LA New Wave bands like the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo (who would later drop the long name), The Motels, X, The Blasters, The Plimsouls and Missing Persons. The groups would have listening parties while paying close attention to the audio quality of the recording on-the-air before going back in the studio to master the song.
Although we did not have the signal strength of LA powerhouse KROQ, Long Beach’s KNAC–lead by the innovative program director Jimmy ‘The Saint’ Christopher (who would later become the PA announcer for the Texas Rangers at the Ballpark at Arlington)–was looked upon by the music industry as an indicator station. While other stations would only play one or two tracks from an album, KNAC would dig deeper and play as many as four or five. Once research had indicated that the public liked the tracks, then only would the more conservative and bigger KROQ’s of the world would add songs to the playlist–especially if there was payola.
I thought that I would never sell my soul to the corporate giants, but it took a KNAC format change to Metal in 1986 for me to take a sabbatical in the UK and come back stronger than ever at KROQ. While a Film Studies major at Claremont McKenna College, I had done a documentary of the English Beat and written my thesis on reggae based upon two interviews with legendary original Wailer, the late and great Peter Tosh. He was the Original Jamaican Rude Boy that many of the two tone characters emulated years later in England.After graduating from college and taking some time off, I embarked on a journey to document UB40’s making of the ‘Geoffrey Morgan’ Album in their hometown of Birmingham, England. Staying at each band-member’s house a week at a time, it goes without saying that the lads were tired of my eternal smiling grin and my video camera staring at them every step of the way. Upon arriving at their DEP studios in the industrial section of Birmingham’s Digbeth, the band suggested I go down to an open audition held underground at a local pub where local talent would be performing live.
My life would change forever… At the time, a local MC by the name of Pato Banton had recorded two tracks on UB40’s ‘Baggariddim’ Double Album. One of the tracks, “Hip Hop Lyrical Robot”, was a B Side to the #1 song “I Got You Babe” featuring Chrissie Hynde from The Pretenders. After the success of the Beat’s “Pato and Roger Ago Talk” off the Beat’s ‘Special Beat Service’ Album, Ranking Roger continued to produce Birmingham’s top MC while Pato was on fire.
Roger did not disappoint the local reggae massive when he produced Pato’s 12″ single called “Mash Up The Telly”, which was the song that I had videotaped at the audition and later became a big UK smash hit. Before I could stop the camera and say hello, Pato was out the door and gone… I was blown away at his amazing talent and charisma on camera. I showed the footage to UB40 back at the studio, and the next day keyboardist Mickey Virtue game me Pato’s 12″ single “The Boss” and business card.
I immediately phoned and arranged a meeting with Pato’s manager, Grantley ‘G.T.’ Haynes. I learned that he also managed another client from London’s #1 Saxon Sound named Tippa Irie, who had massive success with “Hello Darling”. I had been sending postcards to KROQ Program Director Rick Carroll so he would expect me when I arrived back in LA. Equipped with new vinyl and a vengeance to get back on the radio, I brought back “Reggae Revolution” to the Southern California airwaves with a much improved signal that reached five times the amount of listeners I had previously at KNAC. Within a few months,Pato Banton and Tippa Irie were signed to U.S. recording contracts.
I arranged for Pato to record a song at the KROQ studios with the San Diego-based rock group Private Domain. The end result was “Absolute Perfection”, and the song became an instant hit on commercial radio throughout America in addition to a staple in the KROQ Top 10 playlist. Later I took Tippa Irie to see his first Black Eyed Peas concert at the Belly Up in Solana Beach. The end result there was “Hey Mama”, a track that broke radio charts internationally and was a MTV favorite. UB40 have always respected my writing style, and they paid me the ultimate compliment when they asked me to write the liner notes for their Dancehall Album.
After they flew me to Jamaica, I was able to work out of Ali Campbell and Brian Travers’ Oracabessa Records HQ in St. Mary. There I would vibe up full stop and meet a long cast of Jamaican stars passing through including Sly & Robbie, Rappa Robert, Toots Hibbert, Jack Radics and Mr. Vegas. Once word got out that I was writing liners, the phone rang constantly. The Sublime camp always loved my articles for Mean Street Magazine and asked for to write the liner notes for ‘Sublime: Everything Under the Sun’ Box Set. Mad Professor requested that I write Macka B’s ‘Global Messenger’ CD liners as well.
Music Club U.S.A. allowed me to go through the entire Fashion Records catalogue out of South London and produce two compilation CDs: ‘Love All Night’ and ‘Essential Dancehall Classics’. Despite having my plate full between teaching English in Orange County and freelance writing nonstop, I continued working with Pato Banton as he had a long list of recording artists who to this day consider him an inspiration and a foundation artist. Sting recorded with Pato on a couple occasions and flew he and his band on his private jet to Spain. Peter Gabriel recruited Pato to join him on his international WOMAD Tour. Ali and Robin Campbell scored a #1 hit with Pato on “Baby Come Back”. I have since arranged for Pato Banton to tour with the likes of 311, Matisyahu, English Beat, and Argentina’s Los Pericos. Tippa Irie and Pato Banton are first-rate live performers and consummate professionals in the recording studio. Both constantly in demand, it won’t
be long before they each throw out the first pitch at an upcoming MLB game and perform live in the MLB Fan Cave.
Australia has produced over 330 players who have signed professional contracts with Major League Baseball (MLB) clubs and boasts more MLB contracted players than talent pools from China and its province in Taiwan, Japan, Korea and Cuba. Australia set a country-best record earlier last year with nine Aussie players being called up to the major leagues. Now in 2012, there are now nearly 60 Australian players competing in the major and minor league circuits. In total to date, there have been 35 Australian players who have successfully achieved MLB status.
Leading the charge of the thunder ‘Down Under’ in Major League Baseball is Grant Balfour of the Oakland Athletics. Balfour is just one of two Australian professional players to compete in a World Series as a late-inning relief pitcher for the 2008 American League Champ Tampa Bay Rays. Acquired by the Rays in July 2007 from the Milwaukee Brewers in a trade sending pitcher Seth McClung to Miller Field, Grant Balfour did not make Tampa Bay’s opening 2008 roster. However, after turning heads at Triple-A Durham and closer Troy Percival being placed on the disabled list early into the season, the Rays sent Ben Zobrist to Durham in exchange for Balfour. Tampa Bay’s decision paid off immediately as the Aussie pitcher was worth his weight in gold.
Assuming the role of Rays closer for the ailing Troy Percival until mid-July, Balfour ended his regular season campaign with a stellar
6-2 record and a 1.54 ERA. In perhaps the most memorable appearance of his Tampa Bay career, Balfour struck out future Baseball Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. for the final out of game four of the 2008 American League division series against the Chicago White Sox and led the Rays to its first playoff series win ever. After a three-year stint in Tampa Bay, Balfour signed a two-year contract worth 8.1 million dollars with the Oakland Athletics in January 2011. In
his 62 innings of relief for the A’s during 2011, Grant struck out 59 hitters and racked up five wins for the third-place Athletics. He also repeated his personal best 14 2/3 inning scoreless streak in 2011.
The 34-year-old Balfour, who made his MLB debut back in
2001 for the Minnesota Twins, is the Australian patriarch for future Aussie baseball prospects. Although more than a decade has passed since then, he appears to have turned a new leaf and be at the prime of his career. Perhaps his greatest Aussie highlight came on September 15, 2010–when he fanned the Yankees’ Austin Kearns and passed former MLB star Graeme Lloyd on the career strikeout list for Australian-born pitchers. Lloyd, however, can still lay claim to being half of MLB’s first
all-Australian battery with catcher Dave Nilsson in 1994.Up-and-coming 23-year-old pitcher Liam Hendriks of the Minnesota Twins made history in his MLB debut last year on September 6th–when he, teammate Luke Hughes and White Sox Shane Lindsay became the first three Australians to play in the same Major League Baseball game. Leading the Major Leagues since 2004 for lowest amount of walks plus hits per inning pitched (WHIP), Chicago’s Jake Peavy was hardly the best candidate
to go head-to-head against for his first MLB victory. With no run support from his Twins offense, the Perth-born Hendriks fought hard by pitching seven strong innings but in the end lost his first decision 3-0. Fox Sports North analyst and Baseball Hall of Famer
Bert Blyleven praised Hendriks on his first outing. He said, “From what I saw today, he deserves a B-plus. I thought he pitched very well, he did a good job.
Hendriks controlled both sides of the plate, and he changed speeds well. He got through it with flying colors. Run support would be nice but you can’t always have that, but I thought he pitched a very, very good ballgame.” The elusive first win never manifested in four appearances this past season; however, Hendriks kept hitters guessing by striking out 16 in a combined 23 innings of work. Liam Hendriks was signed by the Twins as a non-drafted free agent out of Australia’s Sacred Heart College in 2007. He made his professional debut as an 18-year-old that summer with the Single-A Rookie Gulf Coast League Twins. In his eleven starts in Florida, Hendriks went 4-2 with a 2.05 ERA. In 2008 he pitched for the Australian national team in the Final Olympic Qualification Tournament before undergoing season-ending back surgery. Prior to the start of the 2009 season, Hendriks returned on the hill for his country in the World Baseball Classic.
Coming off a layoff, he then resumed play in the minor leagues, where he posted a 5-5 record with a 3.55 ERA in 14 starts. Hendriks was selected for the 2010 All-Star Futures Game, but was forced to miss the contest due to appendicitis. In 2011 he began the season at Double-A New Britain and went 8-2 with an impressive 2.70 ERA in 15 starts. Hendriks was promoted on July 19th to Triple-A Rochester, where he tallied a 4-4 record with 4.56 in nine starts. History would repeat itself the Aussie right-hander was once again selected to the World Team roster in the 2011 All-Star Futures Game. As if being chosen an All-Star for the second consecutive year was not enough, the six-foot-three, 210-pound Liam Hendriks was recently named the 2011 Jim Rantz Award winner as the Twins’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year after ranking second among all Twins Minor Leaguers in wins (12) and strikeouts (111). Hendriks has a promising future ahead in MLB.
Facing Detroit Tigers’ Max Scherzer on the mound in his first major league at bat in April 2010, Luke Hughes slugged a home run out of the park. Perhaps an early indication of what was to follow in 2011 Twins Spring Training, Hughes showed a ton of promise with his bat and defensive position versatility.
By leading the Twins with six home runs, 15 RBI, a .567 slugging percentage and 37 total bases in the preseason, there was no way manager Ron Gardenhire was going to send him back down to the minors again. Luke played in 96 games as a utility infielder in his first full major league season in 2011.For an anemic Twins offense which ranked 25th of the 30 professional baseball teams, Hughes power was a welcome addition to Minnesota as he slammed seven home runs and racked up 30 RBI. The late-blooming 27-year-old Luke Hughes will certainly improve with more playing time as he becomes more familiar with some of MLB’s best pitchers. During the offseason, he played in 19 games for his hometown Perth Heat in the Australian Baseball League (ABL) and hit .344 with four home runs and 13 RBI.
Going into 2011 Chicago White Sox Spring Training in Arizona, relief pitcher Shane Lindsay had a career minor league record of 19-14 with a 3.65 ERA in the NY Yankees, Colorado Rockies and Cleveland Indians organizations. Although he did not make the 25-man opening day roster, manager Ozzie Guillen and pitching coach Don Cooper were very much impressed with the 27-year-old career minor leaguer. So much in fact that when the roster expanded in September–it was graduation time to Major League Baseball for Lindsay. After posting a 1.98 ERA and punching out 78 in 63 innings of relief work at the Triple-A level, Shane was put to the test in his MLB pitching debut on September 2nd against the 2011 American League Central Division Champion Detroit Tigers. In his inning pitched as a reliever at Comerica Park, Lindsay allowed no hits with a strike out and a walk. The six-foot-one, two hundred five-pounder made three other relief appearances before the end of the season.
Lindsay elected free agency in October 2011, and agent Paul Kinzer reported in November that his client had signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He will need to impress coaches at Dodgers Spring Training when pitchers and catchers report at the end of month at Arizona’s Camelback Ranch to make the 2012 Dodgers Opening Day roster. Most predict Shane Lindsay will begin as a member of the Dodger Triple-A affiliate Albuquerque Isotopes bullpen in anticipation of the MLB call up.
Former Australia World Baseball Classic team member and current Atlanta Braves 33-year-old reliever Peter Moylan underwent right shoulder surgery during the offseason to repair a torn right labrum and rotator cuff. The groundball specialist was encouraged by surgeon Dr. James Andrews’ projection that he would likely only need six months of rehab. Moyan said, “It is what it is and couldn’t have been avoided. It’s rough, but it just means my offseason will be spent rehabbing instead of relaxing. It’s not going to change anything. I’m still going to be ready to go by the end of spring.” Moylan has long been plagued by a series of injuries and surgeries. The Aussie pitcher missed most of the 2011 season after another surgery for a bulging disk in his back.
With 287 game appearances under his belt in his on-and-off again six seasons in MLB, Moylan has been a workhorse out of the bullpen when not on the disabled list. After recovering from Tommy John surgery, the hard-throwing right-hander with his signature side-armed ‘down under’ delivery returned in fine form in 2009 and set a Braves franchise record 87 relief appearances. 2010 was equally as busy as his workload included 85 appearances in relief.
Even for a reliever who has set the bar high with a respectable 2.60 ERA and 205 strike outs in his illustrious MLB career, there is a heightened sense of optimism that if Moylan returns healthy in 2012 that his personal best year for the Braves has yet to come. An Atlanta fan favorite out of the bullpen, Peter is also well-liked on Twitter–unless you are in the band Nickelback. Considered less than entertaining live, they were nearly booed offstage in Detroit on Thanksgiving. @PeterMoylan tweeted to Nickelback lead singer Chad Kroeger that he should attend a Foo Fighters concert to learn how to put on a good show. “Foos are killer for sure,” tweeted Kroeger. “We’re doing just fine too thanks. ? for you Pete, is watching [Braves closer Craig] Kimbrel better from the bench or on TV?.” Better cancel Atlanta boys!!! Worth following anywhere, Peter Moylan is top-notch entertainment.
Los Angeles Dodgers right fielder Trent Oeltjen could have easily followed his childhood friends playing rugby in Sydney. Instead, his American father made sure that Trent played T-Ball at an early age and developed a love for his dad’s country’s favorite pastime. After catching the eyes of MLB scouts as a standout player for Australia in the World Junior Baseball Championship, Oeltjen signed a professional baseball contract with the Minnesota Twins organization at the ripe young age of 17. He was chosen to play for the Australian national team at the Athens Olympics in 2004. As a member of Australia’s 2005 Baseball World Cup and 2006 World Baseball Classic teams, Oeltjen once again represented his homeland. Oeltjen proclaimed, “Any time you get to represent your country on the world’s stage, it’s a dream come true for any Australian kid.”
The accolades continued as he was selected to the 2006 MLB All-Star Futures Game and the 2007 Baseball World Cup, where he led the international competition in three major categories. Batting an unstoppable .523, stealing seven bases and scoring nine runs, Oeltjen became the first Australian in the event tournament’s 37 years to make the All-Star team and win its Batting Award. “The World Cup really helped me turn around my career,” Oeltjen exclaimed. “It helped me get the confidence to know that I could play against some of the best players in the world. Since then I’ve found that my career has really turned around.” He was summoned once again for more Aussie baseball ambassadorship duty in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, where another strong offensive 6-for-12 batting frenzy ensued. Not surprisingly, his success for Australia coincided with another baseball dream realized. The aspiring and talented athlete spent nine years in the minor leagues before making his MLB debut for the 2009 Arizona Diamondbacks, thereby becoming Australia’s 27th member of the elite Major League Baseball fraternity.
On August 6, 2009, Oeltjen made the best of his MLB debutagainst the Pittsburgh Pirates by blasting his first major league home run over the right field wall off relief pitcher Jesse Chavez in the top of the 8th inning to tie the score in a game the D-Backs would win in extra innings. Leaving a lasting impression on baseball fans and international supporters who always believed in his athleticism, Oeltjen finished the game 2-for-6 with one RBI and two stolen bases.
After playing in 24 Diamondbacks games before the end of the 2009 season, Trent Oeltjen signed with the Dodgers in July 2010. He was assigned to Triple-A Albuquerque and later called up to the majors briefly at the end of the 2010 season. In June 2011, the left hand-hitting slugger earned his way back up to the major league level for good with a .339 batting average–including a sizzling .440 in May–racking up eight homers and 34 RBI in 56 Triple-A games.
During the remainder of the 2011 season, Oeltjen played in 61 Dodgers games in the absence of Manny Ramirez. Despite a major letdown in Mannywood, it was all blue skies for the Aussie outfielder. He took full advantage of the opportunity to become an everyday player. However, 2012 will prove to be a critical season for the 29-year-old as he strives for a slot in the Dodgers Opening Day line-up.
A Major League Baseball Australian Academy Program (MLBAAP) success story playing for two of Australia’s
and America’s finest organizations in the Sydney
Blue Sox and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Rich Thompson recently returned from his third trip to Taiwan after pitching for the Major League Baseball
All-Stars in the 2011 Taiwan All-Star Series. Having played for the Australian national team during his junior and senior international career, Thompson was well aware of the young Chinese Taipei team’s talent and ability to compete. This time he made history as the 27-year-old Hornsby-native not only was the first of the 31 Australians to play Major League Baseball to be selected for a traveling All-Star Series team but also the first MLB pitcher to win two games in the five-game exhibition series. Enjoying a solid 2011 campaign for Halos manager Mike Scioscia, Thompson made 44 appearances and kept batters at bay with a 3.00 ERA. Best known for being a pressure situation reliever with men on base, Thompson comes through when called upon to deliver key outs in times of critical crises.In 54 innings of work, the rally stopper struck out 56 hitters and solidified his position in the Angels bullpen. Seven years younger than senior mentor Grant Balfour, Thompson is in a better position in becoming the bright new face for Australian baseball players in the major leagues. When asked by OzMLBplayers blogwhat was the best advice he could give up-and-coming Australian baseball prospects, Thompson paused, reflected and thought back to some words of wisdom offered from a fellow Aussie. “When I was 13, I attended a two-day camp with Mark Shipley,” said Thompson. “Shipley’s advice was: Don’t drink. Don’t smoke. Always be clean-shaven. And church on Sundays. That always stuck with me. Since I can’t be bothered shaving and we play games on Sundays, I guess two out of four ain’t bad.” Thompson believes an improved attitude and a cutter that strengthened his arsenal of pitches led to the best season of his career. “I really felt like it was an attitude change.
Having that extra pitch (cutter) maybe gave me some more confidence, and I had more opportunities to get guys out.”
Although he hails from Geelong, Australia, San Diego Padres southpaw Josh Spence began his collegiate pitching campaign at Central Arizona Community College, where in two seasons he stifled and rung up batters at an alarming rate (327 strike outs) to the tune of a whopping 1.40 ERA. Arizona State University (ASU) recruited Spence into their 2009 starting rotation, and the Sun Devils enjoyed a ride to the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska as a result. Spence has proven that he can compete under pressure when it counts and deliver outstanding pitching performances when they mean the most.Teammates Mike Leake–named 2009 National Player of the Year by the American Baseball Coaches Association (ABCA) and current Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher–and Jason Kipnis–named a 2009 1st Team All-American by ABCA and current Cleveland Indians second baseman–witnessed first-hand the pitching magic of Josh Spence–named a 2009 2nd Team All-West Regions Honoree–as he compiled a 10-1 record with a 2.37 ERA during his junior year. It will make for an interesting 2012 ASU reunion this year between July 30 and August 2 at Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark when Leake and Kipnis face Spence for the first time in opposing uniforms.
The slender six-foot-one lefty Spence was drafted in
the third round by the Angels in June 2009, but he opted not to sign so that he could return to Arizona State for his senior year. However, he missed the
entire 2010 college season with a vague elbow injury. Regardless, the Padres still selected him in the ninth round of the 2010 draft, and he proved healthy enough to pitch 24 innings between rookie ball and the Midwest League. Prior to being called up to MLB in June 2011, Spence surrendered only 48 hits and struck out 84 with a remarkable 2.14 ERA in 71 innings pitched in the minor leagues. The 24-year-old continued his dominant pitching as a San Diego Padres reliever by striking out 31 hitters in 29 innings and posting a 2.73 ERA. Under the watchful eye of former Angels pitching coach and current manager Bud Black, Josh Spence possesses the tools to become not only a promising MLB starting pitcher but also a potential future Cy Young candidate. Padres’ faithful look for Josh Spence to have a breakout season in 2012.
Postseason baseball–courtesy of former Minnesota Twins Double-A affiliate New Britain Rock Cats teammate Michael Cuddyer’s game-winning home run–saved the life of pitcher Brad Thomas. Changing his travel plans and ultimately his fate, Thomas would not leave on this particular date and flight to his native Australia because advancing to the Eastern League’s finals pushed back that trip for him. With airline tickets in hand for he and his wife, Kylie, on American Airlines Flight 11–which took off from Boston on September 11th destined for Los Angeles but instead crashed into the World Trade Center, Brad Thomas lived to tell his story. He commented, “Michael pretty much saved our lives single-handedly by knocking in the winning runs in the last of the playoff games that took us to the next round.” Cuddyer was Thomas’ first roommate in professional baseball in 1997. They played parts of the following seven seasons together, making their way up through the Twins minor league system. When Brad Thomas began pitching for the Detroit Tigers in the 2010, their friendship took a slight turn. Friend or foe–when pitching to an opponent, even a lifesaver–it’s a different ball game. In four career at bats facing the left-handed reliever, Cuddyer is hitless with a walk. Off the diamond, however, they are life-long bros.
While Cuddyer continues to thrive in Minnesota, the future is unknown for the 34-year-old Thomas. With a 6-6 career record and a 5.80 ERA in Major League Baseball, it’s probable that this Aussie will be looking for another minor league deal or a return to Japan or Korea for another new lease on life in the world of baseball. He recently had a great abbreviated season in the Australian Baseball League with the Sydney Blue Sox. The Sydney native made four starts and five total appearances amounting to 22.1 innings pitched. With a 2.42 ERA and a 1-1 record in the 2011-12 ABL season, Brad Thomas demonstrated that he is once again MLB ready.
With a landmark partnership between the Australian Baseball Federation, Major League Baseball and the Australian Sports Commission, the sky is the limit for the recently revamped Australian Baseball League. In an effort to propel baseball’s profile on the Australian sports landscape and foster participation in the game, the ABL seeks to showcase the wealth of talented Australian baseball players on their own home turf and to teach what their fellow Aussie predecessors from decades past have mastered in elevating the sport on the international level. Teams boast elite national players from across Australia along with personnel from Major League Baseball feeder clubs, the Nippon Professional Baseball League in Japan, the Korean Baseball Organization and the Chinese Professional Baseball League. The ABL pioneers the pathway of development for many emerging Australian baseball prospects as well as offers a vibrant alternative off-season league for games hosted in the northern hemisphere. Currently in its second season as Australia’s premier professional baseball competition with the 2012 ABL Championship Series between defending champ Perth Heat and challenger Melbourne Aces this weekend, be sure to tune in and watch the excitement of what is truly the ABL’s answer to the MLB World Series. For further information on the Australian Baseball League, visit their official ABL website.
After Stanton’s Double-A hitting coach started calling the 6-foot-5, 240-pound right-handed
high school three-sport letterman “Paul Bunyan”,
and later Tampa Bay Ray pitcher David Price coined him “a man-child” during MLB batting practice, it was just a matter of time before Southern California native Mike Stanton would be compared to Harmon Killebrew, Dave Winfield, Mark McGwire, and Bo Jackson. Playing football, basketball and baseball while attending Notre Dame Prep in Sherman Oaks, Stanton was tempted by USC with a football scholarship, but instead was snagged to play professional baseball as a Marlin in the 2nd
round of the 2007 draft. Upon hearing that
Mike Stanton chose baseball, Hall of Famer
Dave Winfield considered the pivotal decision a “potential game changer” and cited that “baseball needed something like this…” Prior to the start of the 2011 season, Terry Francona was asked to identify the MLB’s most improved player and New York Times national baseball writer Tyler Kepner was asked to forecast a MVP candidate; both had Mike Stanton at the top of their lists.
Despite being plagued by injuries in 2011, Stanton did not disappoint with 34 home runs (5th in NL), a .537 slugging percentage (8th in NL), a .893 OPS (12th in NL), 70 BB (13th
in NL), and 87 RBI (18th in NL).
While most fans were mesmerized at the rate of speed of Aroldis Chapman’s fastball, I was focused on the MLB-best 107.4 MPH velocity of home
runs off Stanton’s bat. Like Stanton growing up in Los Angeles, we both sat in the right field bleachers to get
a close-up look at our favorite players: his being Dodger Raul Mondesi and mine being visiting Pirate Roberto Clemente. Born to an African-American/Puerto Rican mother and an Irish father, Stanton’s parents loved the Italian name “Giancarlo”. On November 8, 1989, Giancarlo Cruz Michael Stanton was put on this planet to become baseball’s knight in shining armor. Sharing Italian first names and a common love for the City of Angels, I am proud to have witnessed first-hand the rapid transformation of a San Fernando Valley teenager who has become the modern day Sunshine State’s Paul Bunyan. Destined for South Beach super-stardom, Mike Stanton will soon be sharing sunscreen with local celebs Shakira, Anna Kournikova and Gloria Estefan. Whether it’s lather up or batter up in Miami, the future MLB home run king is here to play!
In between games at the 2011 MLB All-Star Series in Taiwan, Yankees superstar Robinson Cano and his father, Jose, visited kids at Taichung’s China Medical University Hospital. When begged to promise hitting a home run in that night’s game,
Cano chuckled and smiled before answering sensibly.
“I promise…,” he continued, “I will do my best.”
When playing in MLB, the three-time Silver Slugger recipient and winner of the 2011 Home Run Derby–which raised over $600,000 for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and other charities–is the Captain for the Yankees Children’s Health Fund Home Run Club, where fans pledge their support for quality care to homeless and low-income children with every Yankees home run hit in a season. In his hometown of San Pedro de Macoris AKA the “Cradle of Shortstops” because of countless MLB players who were born there in the Dominican Republic, Cano remembers those who are forgotten and even not heard at the CAES Children’s School for the Deaf by showering the kids with gifts and love for the holidays. The RC24 Foundation’s mission is to serve under-privileged children internationally and improve their quality of life. The pediatric rehabilitation ward at New Jersey’s Hackensack Medical Center was named after Cano in tribute to the All-Star for his frequent visits and contributions, which inspired author Ray Negron to make Cano the central character in his children’s book, “Boy of Steel”—a cancer-stricken boy’s story about his baseball hero. Committed to upgrading the subpar medical conditions in his native homeland by personally subsidizing children’s health care and purchasing ambulances after a friend died while waiting to be transported to a hospital, Cano believes the concept of giving back is just as important–if not more important than playing baseball. He considers himself blessed to play the game he loves for a living and wants to help as many kids as he can with the fruits of his labor. Instead of simply lending his name or making public appearances to raise money for his RC24 Foundation, Cano is a hands-on international ambassador for the welfare of children. American Red Cross National Celebrity Cabinet bilingual member Cano records public service announcements and donates large amounts of money and blood.
Finalist for the 2006 Roberto Clemente Award, MLB’s accolade to the league’s ultimate humanitarian who exemplifies the late Hall of Famer’s values and commitment to community and benevolence, Robinson Cano shares the same altruistic mindset and the same “RC” initials as the Latino legend. At 29-years-old and on pace to join Clemente in the elite 3,000 hit club, Cano is showing increasing power every season–which is great news for the Captain for the Yankees Children’s Health Fund Home Run Club.
Voted by millions of visitors to MLB.com, front-office personnel and MLB alumni to receive the Greatness in Baseball Yearly (GIBBY) ‘Wow Factor’ award, Robinson Cano is undoubtedly the most interesting player in the game today.
In celebration of the current #6 ranking in the January 2012
Top 50 MLB.com Blogs, MLBblogger is pleased to announce the world premiere of the MLB Fan Cave video submission of Roberto Angotti chatting about his favorite baseball memory: Roberto Clemente’s 3000th Hit(see it now by clicking on the hyperlink above). Viewers will be surprised to catch a glimpse of UK reggae legend Pato Banton, who provides an excellent introduction and his signature token “Flash It” phrase at the beginning of this fitting tribute to the late and great Latino hero.One thing that Ryan Howard has over Pujols–and even Fielder–is earning power. He will make more than Albert Pujols every year until 2016–at which time their salaries will even–and earn more than Prince Fielder until 2017–when Howard becomes a free agent. Having undergone surgery on his torn left Achilles tendon in mid-October, the Philadelphia Phillies star first baseman Ryan Howard will miss 2012 Opening Day but will return to one of MLB’s most hitter-friendly fields at Philly’s Citizens Bank Park in May.