There are voices in David Nilsson's head, and they sound as if they want to sell him a Subaru Outback. They speak with that easy Paul Hogan lilt, like old pals standing around the barbie and throwing back a few Foster's. They are friendly and comforting until the subject turns to the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, and then the voices in Nilsson's head turn into a vice grip on his heart.
The world is coming to Australia next year, and Nilsson, the pride of Brisbane, has a small problem: He's not sure if he will be there to welcome it. The Milwaukee Brewers' 29-year-old catcher has played professional baseball in the U.S. for the past 13 summers, but if he plays next year, in some ways it will be his most difficult season. He will have to watch the Games from half a world away as his friends and family throw the biggest party in the history of his homeland. Can he do it? Will he even try? When asked if he could skip the Games, Nilsson says, "I could do it. But I'll be honest: It would be very tough."
Nilsson insists that the folks back home are not pressuring him to put his big league career on hold and represent his country in 2000, but he can't ignore the siren song of his native land. The name of the island continent rolls off his tongue in a little more than a syllable—"Ah-straya," he says—and a proud smile invariably follows. He can't lie: He comes to the U.S. for baseball; he goes home for everything else. "I don't mean any disrespect to America, but there's no reason for me to be here. My friends, my family, everything in my life is back in Australia," says Nilsson, who during the off-season returns to the Gold Coast, outside Brisbane, with his Aussie wife, Amanda, and his one-year-old son, Jacob. "I feel very comfortable in the United States, but there's always a part of me that knows I don't belong here."
Before this season Nilsson made sure he wouldn't have to be here next September. In a negotiating move that probably says more about his intentions than his words do, Nilsson cut an unusual deal last December that assured him of free agency at the end of this season. The Brewers relinquished a one-year option to extend Nilsson's contract through the 2000 season for $5.5 million. In exchange, Nilsson allowed the cash-strapped team to pay his '99 salary ($4.7 million), plus a $1.5 million buyout, over a three-year period, interest-free. Now, at season's end he can go home and stay there to compete in the Olympics or sign with another major league team, a decision he says he will make by November. A return to Milwaukee, the only organization he has ever played for, appears unlikely.
In the meantime Nilsson is finishing his eight-year Milwaukee tenure with a flourish. Entering the season he was a lifetime .280 hitter who was prone to injury. But at week's end a hale Nilsson was hitting .316. He also had 16 home runs—he hit a career-high 20 in 1997—and 41 RBIs, and he was seventh in the National League in slugging percentage (.609). In a different year, Nilsson might be a shoo-in for the National League All-Star team, whose roster will be announced July 7. But with so many of his catching rivals (the Pittsburgh Pirates' Jason Kendall, the Philadelphia Phillies' Mike Lieberthal, the Atlanta Braves' Javy Lopez and the New York Mets' Mike Piazza) having marvelous seasons, Nilsson might not make the squad.
Nilsson appears to be reaching his offensive prime at the same time he's reaching the free-agent market for the first time. The result: His love for country and his desire to play in the Olympics could be tested by a big-budget ball club's love for a 6'3", 229-pound, lefthanded-hitting catcher who also has experience at first base, in the outfield and at DH. Could, for instance, his deep-pocketed countryman Rupert Murdoch lure Nilsson to Los Angeles to play for the Dodgers for, say, $8 million a year? "I don't know what David's going to do, but nothing would surprise me," says Nilsson's agent, Alan Nero. "Could you turn down $50 million to represent your country? I know I couldn't. But, believe me, David Nilsson could."
While most people respect his love of country, not everyone in Nilsson's world is ready to cast a sentimental vote for true-blue patriotism over major league green. "I think it's crazy," says David's father, Tim, who pitched for the Australian national team in the 1960s and now helps run the family's printing company in Brisbane. "How could anyone choose the Olympics over the major leagues? It makes no sense. The major leagues is the ultimate. Compared to the majors, the Olympics is like rookie ball."
Of course, young Nilsson has been toiling in the relative obscurity of Milwaukee. At 34-40, the Brewers were the only sixth-place team in the majors at week's end. The team hasn't finished above .500 since Nilsson's rookie year, in '92. "At some point in my career, it would be nice to see if the grass is greener somewhere else," he says.
In Sydney, Nilsson would be the biggest baseball star on the host team, and for once in his career he believes he would have an opportunity chance to win something. "Quite frankly, the way the Olympics is set up, I feel Australia would have a chance to win a medal, maybe even a gold medal," he says. Participating in the Summer Games would also give Nilsson a chance to attract more of his countrymen to the sport. First played in Australia in 1856, baseball is still minor compared with cricket, rugby, Australian-rules football, tennis and even swimming, but Nilsson is the biggest fish in the baseball pond. Indeed, they say he owns professional baseball in Australia, and he has the receipts to prove it. Last December, in hopes of rescuing the game, Nilsson struck a deal to create a new league that absorbed six of the eight teams from the country's existing league. He declined to reveal the price, but one publication said he paid $630,000. "I didn't do this just to say I'm an owner," he says. "I think there's a chance for me to benefit financially."
Nilsson wants to lure more American players to the October-to-February league. (Last season there were around 20.) In the early '90s he was joined in the winter league Down Under by some Milwaukee mates, including first baseman John Jaha (now with the Oakland A's) and outfielder Troy O'Leary. "Dave is huge over there," says O'Leary, who now plays for the Boston Red Sox. "We went to Brisbane one day, and we couldn't even walk the streets. It was like going to the mall with Jose Canseco or Michael Jordan." A humble Nilsson disputes O'Leary's recollection. "I'm no superstar at home," he says. "Very few people know who I am."