As it was previously in 2010 and 2011, pitching is once again all the rage now in Major League Baseball. Despite seven no-hitters tossed in 2012 by starting pitchers Homer Bailey, Felix Hernandez, Matt Cain, Kevin Millwood (with the help of five relievers), Johan Santana, Jered Weaver and Phil Humber, it’s the men in the pen that garner most of the over-the-top baseball fanaticism. Leading the late-inning charge of borderline insanity is Aussie closer Grant Balfour of the Oakland Athletics. Often seen dumping water over his head before leaving the bullpen and talking to himself in-between pitches, Balfour’s on-field antics are undoubtedly the most anticipated sight to see in the 2012 MLB playoffs.
The raging thunder from ‘Down Under’ was called upon by A’s manager Bob Melvin in five tightly-contested games on five consecutive days to lead Oakland to the American League West Division title. Balfour’s stellar late season hitless pitching insured the A’s sweep of the Mariners and Rangers. The six-foot-two, 34-year-old Sydney native threw an inning per day and retired all 15 batters faced–which extended his streak of putting consecutive batters away to 26. He is just one of two Australian professional players to compete in a World Series as a member of the 2008 American League Champion Tampa Bay Rays and is in a perfect position to get another crack at taking home a World Series ring in 2012 with the A’s.
Since August 11th, Grant Balfour has converted all 17 of his save opportunities while posting a 2.18 ERA, 0.73 WHIP and 26/6 K/BB ratio over 20 2/3 innings. 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, the hard-throwing right-handed hurler struck out 59 hitters and racked up five wins for the third-place Athletics. 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 2008 Opening Day 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. Assuming the role of Rays closer for the ailing Troy Percival until mid-July, Balfour ended his regular season campaign with an impressive 6-2 record and a 1.54 ERA. Grant Balfour made his MLB debut back in 2001 for the Minnesota Twins. Having now passed former MLB star Graeme Lloyd on the career strikeout list for Australian-born pitchers, he is the quintessential Aussie baseball patriarch. A’s pitchers Grant Balfour and Travis Blackley have already made baseball history by becoming the first pair of Australian Major League players to compete in the MLB post-season on the same team. The pitching duo of Balfour and Blackley have another opportunity to imprint their names in Aussie baseball history by becoming only the second and third Australians to win a World Series ring. A fairytale ending for Oakland’s Australian connection would be most appropriate as they both have played a major role in the A’s miraculous run to the American League West title and the post-season. Like a fine wine getting better with age, Sydney’s Grant Balfour and Melbourne’s Travis Blackley are at the pinnacle of their careers and are in line to catapult the underdog to a world championship.
AC/DC, Crowded House, Helen Reddy, Kylie Minogue, Little River Band, and Men At Work are just some of the big names that have sprouted out of Melbourne, Australia. There has never been a drought for world-class talent hailing from the metropolis often referred to as the “cultural capital of Australia” and the world’s most liveable city. Melbourne is the capital and most populous city in the state of Victoria. Four-year-old Michael “Flea” Balzary moved from Melbourne to New York when his father, a customs officer, was transferred in 1967. Shortly after his parents divorced at age seven, his dad returned to Australia, where he now lives on the outskirts of Canberra with his second wife. Flea’s mother later married American jazz musician Walter Urban Jr. and moved the family to Los Angeles in 1972. Flea would often sit in on weekly jam sessions with his stepdad and the constant flow of musicians who visited. While most of the California high school kids were into disco and dance music, Flea listened to jazz legends Louie Armstrong, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. His greatest childhood memory was when he met Gillespie backstage after one of his concerts. Flea’s musical interests diversified when he discovered funk music and Jimi Hendrix became his new idol. He befriended Anthony Kiedis in 1977 and the Red Hot Chili Peppers formed after Flea left Fear and declined an offer to join PiLin 1984.Flea has a strong connection to his Aussie roots. He professed, “I love Australia with my heart and Australian blood coarses through my veins. We are coming to Australia early next year, can’t wait to feel the connection to my birthplace once again.” The bassist owns a beachfront property in the little town of Congo on NSW’s South Coast. Flea said, “Chances are, I’ll end up living there permanently. Without wanting to sound corny, I feel it in my blood when I’m in that part of Australia. I get a lot of power and strength from the land.”
Power and strength are two attributes commonly referred to when Melbourne Ace and LA Angels pitching prospect Alex Da Silva takes the mound. Signed by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim international scout Grant Weir as a free agent on January 10, 2011, the 19-year-old Da Silva has a cannon for an arm. Weir commented, “Alex probably throws harder than anyone in the country. Just his tools are impressive.” Equipped with a 90 plus MPH fastball, curveball, change-up and cutter, Da Silva is committed to working hard everyday to realize his dream of making it to Major League Baseball. This past Australian Baseball League season the six-foot-two Aussie hurler was in good hands pitching under the guidance and supervision of Melbourne Ace manager Phil Dale, a former minor league coach for the Cincinnati Reds and Atlanta Braves as well as a national baseball coaching legend for leading the Australian team to its first ever silver medal in the 2004 Athens Olympics with a 1-0 upset over Japan. We checked in with Alex recently.
Roberto: How are things going for you in Tempe, Arizona? Alex: Feeling pretty good at my first Angels Spring Training camp. It’s pretty good. They are very keen on looking after the players so everything is taken care of. I mean from getting picked up in the morning, breakfast, lunch. It’s just a baseball paradise here, you know. Roberto: It’s everything you expected it to be? Alex: And more… Roberto: Reports from Australia are that you pack some heat with your fastball. Is that true? Alex: It’s a bit more like that back home, but over here I am just another fish in the sea. I’m mean, it’s nothing special, really. That’s where I have to develop. I mean, back home, yeah, There are not many guys that throw that hard. Over here, everybody does. I’m just another number. Roberto: But you’re a hard worker committed to a seven-year contract. Alex: Yeah, seven years but at the moment just (taking it) day-by-day.Roberto: Playing for Melbourne with Travis Blackley and Shane Lindsay must have been inspirational? Alex: You see how they go about their business and whenever they step on the field it’s always 100% business. It gives you something to go off and something to follow. Especially those guys, they are really good examples to follow. They always give you a nudge in the right direction when you need it. They are really good people to have around. Roberto: It must have been tough watching the Australian Baseball League Championship between your Melbourne Aces and the Perth Heat? Alex: At the same time as you’re not playing, you’re still kind of there. You know the guys, especially Darryl George when he was getting up. I grew up with him. I know exactly what is going through his head. I’ve seen him do it since he was like 11-years-old. At the same time, you know they are doing everything they can and hopefully in the years to come I’ll be the guy out there. Roberto: Did you have a case of the butterflies when you took the mound for the first time in the Australian Baseball League? Alex: I played the very first series in Sydney. That was the only series I played. I came on when we were down to a time limit so I was put on to waste a little bit of time. Yeah, the crowd wasn’t too happy so it was a little bit of a new experience for me. You know, the crowd against me. We were trying to do everything we could do to stretch the game a little bit. It’s a tough situation. Roberto: You played with Chicago Cubs catching prospect Alberto Mineo from Italy at the MLB Australian Academy. What were were impressions of him? Alex: When I first met Alberto, he was one of those really fun guys to be around. Always smilng. His English is actually pretty good, but we still messed around with him a little bit. But he took it in the spirit it was meant to be. In terms of a catcher, I really like the way he went about his business. He took control of the game. There were times when I wanted to throw a pitch that I wanted to throw, but he insisted and pulled me back in line a little bit. In terms of catchers that I like, I just like catchers that get the job done and don’t say too much. I do my job, and they do their job. Roberto: But do you take things personally when catchers are insisting on a pitch, and you are shaking them off for another? Alex: I’m not a big fan of shaking guys off. Every now and then I might feel that I know a hitter pretty well and the pitch I want to throw might be a bit more effective. When they put the same sign down twice, I always think they’re really persistent on this one so I give them this one. I’ll go with what they say. You might have a bit of a joke about it later if they get a hit off you. Go back to him and say that it should have been a curveball instead of a fastball. I usually just trust what they do. Roberto: Baseball is still in its infancy in Australia. With the abundance of more popular sports on your home turf, what lured you into baseball? Alex: Well there is AFL, Australian Rules Football, but I didn’t like running that much so that kind of put me off it. I tried karate for a little while. I guess I really liked the guys who played baseball. I played with some pretty cool guys growing up. There was just something there that kept me going back every year. I really don’t quite know what is was, but something kept luring me back. Roberto: Who was an inspirational figure in your baseball career? Alex: My very first baseball coach, Greg Dawes, he was a bit of a hard ass. Even little things like everytime you go out there to make sure your shirt is tucked in and your socks are tucked up stuck with me until now. In a way, that’s the way the game should be played. That little bit of respect he taught me for the game carried on. Now I enjoy it much more because I got all that basic stuff out of the way. Now it’s off to the fun stuff in just playing, and I don’t have to worry about it. Roberto: What is the most frustrating part of pitching? Alex: The hardest part for me is when you throw a really good pitch, you’ll throw a curveball that snaps off really well, and the hitter comes up with something. He might get a hit off a curveball that would have bounced before the plate. I mean what things are out of your control are the things that really get to you. So you do your job really well and you hit your spot, but the hitter just does a better job. For me that’s the hardest thing. Or you do your job, you get a guy to roll over and there’s an error in the field. They’re the kind of things that really get me. I mean you’ve done your job, and at the end of the game you’ve got a loss next to your name. They’re the things that really get me. It’s just things that are not in your control is what frustrates me a little bit. Roberto: Is it fun competing with international players abroad? Alex: The two dominant forces here are the Americans and Latins. Americans are very similar to Australians. There is always the language thing. We say ‘mate’. They always make fun of us saying stuff like ‘Hey mate” and things like that. The Latino guys are really cool to be around, they’ll mix in some Spanish. They’ll mess with you a little bit, and you mess with them back. Just the other day we tricked one of the Latino guys into thinking that ‘vamos’ which means ‘let’s go’ meant ‘French toast’. So he is out on the field yelling ‘French toast’ (laughter). There’s really not that much difference culturally. I’ve been told that Tempe, this area, is very similar to Brisbane. It’s like being at home, just a bit drier and not as many hills. Otherwise, it’s very easy to assimilate into this environment. Roberto: Other than the jetlag and the time difference? Alex: Yeah, it was a bit difficult. My flight from Sydney to LA was fourteen hours, and I didn’t sleep a blink. The first couple days were hard. It took me like four days to feel like I was right. That’s going to happen. You’ve got to deal with it. Roberto: It’s part of the game. What’s next for Alex Da Silva? Alex: After spring camp and extended spring, I hope to make a rookie or rookie advanced team from there. I mean, either way,
I don’t really mind so long I am still playing here. That’s the greatest blessing just to be able to come out and play everyday. At this point, it’s spring, extended spring and short-season. Roberto: Is Anaheim in the future? Alex: I just want to get there. It doesn’t matter when. I just want to make the big leagues. That’s why I am here. That’s why I was signed because somebody thought that I could make the big leagues. That’s just what I want to do. Doesn’t matter when, doesn’t matter who for—whether it be Anaheim or New York—it doesn’t matter. I just want to get there. Roberto: Are you looking forward to pitching for the Melbourne Aces in the 2012-13 Australian Baseball League season? Alex: I think by the end of the season, I might want a little break. I might take a couple weeks off, but I would like to play as many series as I can play with them. I would love to go over and play whatever role Melbourne Ace manager Phil Dale puts me into. Really, I would like to play as much baseball as I can.
Roberto: Any words of encourage or advice for up-and-coming baseball players worldwide? Alex: Never give up. There is always setbacks, but you have got to keep going through the setbacks. I have been lucky. I haven’t had many injuries or anything,
I know some guys that have, and they are still where
I am. The thing is every time you have a setback, you just have got to keep going. Get through, get to the next little bit. Set yourself goals, get to the next little section. For me, my next section is to get through spring healthy and hopefully not giving up too many runs. I don’t expect much from myself at this point, but I mean once I get an idea where I am at extended spring camp then I will set myself some good goals. You know, like I may not want to give up more than one hit for every two innings or something like that. You really have got to set specific goals and when you get those goals—reward yourself! Maybe instead of
just running around your block–you’ll go for a run to the beach. You have always got to have those goals, and at the end of those goals you have got to have a goal to look forward to.Roberto: So have some immediate short-term goals leading to long-term goals? Alex: Yeah, for me where I live at the bottom of the hills there is a place called the 1000 steps. Instead of my normal running, you know, it got a little bit boring so after I had a good outing I would go there. If I was starting, I would say that I wanted to get through five innings and only give up two runs or just be in a leading position coming out when I leave the game. If I got that, then I could go up to the 1000 steps and do my running because it’s a beautiful rainforest which is a bit cooler and a really nice place to run. That was my reward. Or just about anything that I looked forward to. Roberto: What about the growth of Aussie baseball with the injection of the MLB-sponsored Australian Baseball League (ABL) and the MLB Australian Baseball Academy? Alex: In terms of the fanbase, with the ABL in place it has just exploded. It still has a long way to go. As far as the MLB Australian Academy, you can look at how many guys have been signed since the program started… My year alone 12 guys were signed and the year before me was even better. Everyone of them has been through the Academy multiple years. It’s getting the results. Roberto: Any words for your friends and family back home? Alex: Missing you guys. I’m doing you proud! Despite Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea and redhead Alex Da Silva ending up on opposing sides of LA baseball, their love for Melbourne is skin deep. On game day when LA Angel pitching prospect Da Silva gets ready for a start, he pumps up the volume with some of his favorite jams from Red Hot Chili Peppers and Rise Against. When Chili Pepper bassist Flea wants to get fired up before a big concert, he watches Matt Kemp and the Los Angeles Dodgers. Regardless how these two individuals mentally prepare for their performances, both are professionals grounded and undeniably connected by their Australian blood.