Posted on 20 March 2011.
One of the great things about baseball is the people who you come in contact with. Over the winter I have been able to talk baseball with Australian author Nicholas R.W. Henning who has written a couple baseball novels. Recently Mr. Henning was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions about Australian baseball. Here is what he had to say:
Among other works you have published two baseball novels (Boomerang Baseball and The American Dream: From Perth to Sacramento). I read and enjoyed Boomerang Baseball. It seemed like it could have had a little autobiography in it. Can you tell us a little about your baseball background?
Yes, Boomerang Baseball is very autobiographical. I saw the film Major League when I was 12-years old and became addicted to the game. From the age of 12 to 16 all I wanted to be was a professional baseball player. But my talent didn’t match my aspirations. It wasn’t until I was 25-years old that I tried my hand in the Sydney Major League competition. It’s probably a fair assessment to say that I over achieved by getting a lot of time in first grade. There I pitched to Australians who were playing in the U.S. Minor Leagues and College Baseball. There was also many former Australian Baseball League players, and plenty of young talent. I pitched to Glenn Williams and Trent Oeltjen who both went on to play U.S. Major League Baseball. Williams crushed me, but I had some luck against Oeltjen. The biggest thrill though was pitching to Brendan Kingman who is my all-time favourite player, and throwing with Brad Thomas. Kingman was once on the 40-man roster for the Mariners and won a silver medal at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games. Thomas is currently playing MLB with the Detroit Tigers. He also had some great years playing in Japan and Korea, and played baseball at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. As a baseball player I feel like I got to play beyond my actual ability, and this happened when I was just playing for fun.
Baseball is big business here in the United States and while it continues to grow in Australia, it still lags behind other sports. How has it changed over the past few decades, and do you feel it will continue to grow in popularity?
Well, baseball was actually more popular in Australia in the mid-1990′s. Since 1999, which was the year the previous Australian Baseball League folded the sport has declined in Australia, in terms of fans and participation. The 2000 and 2004 Summer Olympic Games helped the sport stay on the peripheral of Aussie baseball fans, and the Australian sports public, but the last five years have been hard times. Yet, even though the sport has suffered a decline, the Major League Baseball Academy on the Queensland Gold Coast has provided a wonderful service. More Australians have signed professional contracts between 2000 and 2010 than from between 1989 to 1999. I actually believe that the MLB Academy was the unofficial life support for professional baseball in Australia, as it gave aspiring players a target, as we didn’t have a professional league from 1999 to 2009.
The ABL returned this season with some very exciting baseball. What was your take on the league this year, and where do you see it headed in the future?
The re-born Australian Baseball League has helped the sports popularity, but it’s going to take quite a few years for the sport to built itself up again. The level of playing talent is an all-time high and this is baseball’s trump card in Australia. Essentially baseball needs to survive professionally in Australia for it to really become popular. I believe for this to happen the ABL needs to establish itself as a highly desired winter (your winter) baseball league, with continued investment from MLB and new investment from baseball powerhouses such as leagues from Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. The sports market in Australia is stretched, and professional baseball’s long-term survival here will always require overseas investment.
Many people may not be aware of the fact there are many Australians playing professional baseball abroad. I have noticed in other countries that fans don’t follow them unless they reach the Major Leagues. What is the overall situation in Australia? Will the Australian media follow players in the minors, or someone like Travis Blackley playing in Korea?
The Australian media infrequently follows local or overseas (Australian) baseball stories. However, in the 1990′s baseball did get some coverage in terms of highest paid Australian athletes, and quite a few stories were done on Dave Nilsson. Also, Graeme Lloyd participating in the 1996 and 1998 World Series was a good news item, as was Grant Balfour playing in the 2008 World Series. In recent times what has made the news is guys like Balfour signing an $8,000,000 multi-year contract. U.S. sports in Australia capture attention because the player salaries are much higher than what we pay professional rugby league or Australian Rules Football players. The Australian players in the U.S. are the ones that infrequently make the news here, and usually in print media. Players like Jeff Williams in Japan, and Travis Blackley in Korea have a much harder time getting Australian media coverage. Most fans of baseball rely on Internet sources to keep up to date with Australians playing overseas.
How has the media dealt with Major League Baseball in the past? Are there more games being shown on television now with the likes of Grant Balfour, Peter Moylan, Ryan Rowland-Smith, Trent Oeltjen, and more playing?
In the 1990′s MLB games used to get free to air coverage, but Australian Cable Television changed that, which was a real shame because in Australia cable television is second to free to air. The Australian Government has passed legislation to keep certain sports and certain sporting events on free to air. Unfortunately baseball was not on the list, which means that to watch MLB games you must have cable television. Cable television does provide quite a few games a week, and if we’re lucky we get to see a game featuring an Australian. As Fox (Foxtel) is the number one cable provider in Australia we get games that are part of their programming. Cable television has certainly increased the number of MLB games available for Australian viewers, but the free to air market is very thin in terms of coverage. Digital television networks in Australia are also planning to provide some baseball coverage too.
What about the media coverage for the ABL? I was able to watch many games online through a few different webcasts. Did the league receive a lot of TV coverage?
The ABL Grand Final Series was covered by Foxtel, which I felt was to a decent standard. The ABL is hoping to gain a television deal with Foxtel for the entire 2011 / 2012 season. This would be a huge breakthrough for baseball in Australia to have games televised during the whole season. Highlights of ABL games did get featured on some television news networks throughout the 2010 / 2011 season, and the ABL had a catchy television advertisement going into the season, which helped generate talk.
The ABL reformed with 6 teams. To an outsider like me that seemed like a great place to start. Do you see any potential expansion in the coming years if the league can become or stay (I don’t know the financials) profitable? If so, where might they expand?
The only expansion I am in favour of is bringing in some teams from Asia and elsewhere from abroad. It would be a perfect opportunity for clubs from Japan and Korea to assess player resources going into their seasons. Ideally, I would like to see a team from Korea, Japan, and Taiwan. If the ABL can establish itself as a highly desired winter baseball league, then the opportunity to field teams from all over the world is a possibility. The ABL needs a global vision to grow and to be financially viable indefinitely.
Once again I would like to thank Mr. Henning for taking the time out of his schedule to answer some questions. Australia is an intreguing place where baseball could potentially grow quite big. It’s not going to happen overnight but if the ABL can survive and flourish, look for more players from Australia to land in the Major Leagues.
You can also find Mr. Henning’s books on Amazon. Check out Boomerang Baseball and The American Dream: From Perth to Sacramento. You can also check out our review of Boomerang Baseball here.
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