They were the only fans in the wooden grandstand beyond the right centerfield fence, 10 teenagers strung across the top row like kookaburras on the wire. They began chanting "Din-Go, Diiiiin-Go," and from one end to the other, they rose and then sat. "Now we've seen the Australian Wave," said Mets scouting director Roland Johnson. Before Johnson finished his sentence he heard the crack of a bat, looked up and saw a towering fly ball hit by 18-year-old David Nilsson—Dingo to his mates—land in the grandstand of Holloway Field, a home run. "Luvly!" shouted a man in the concrete bleachers behind home plate. The Queensland Rams had tied up the Western Australia Brewers 4-4.
This is as good as baseball gets in Australia, as the Rams and the Brewers are two of the country's best teams, made up of "professionals" from 18 years old and up. Do not read too much into the fact that the chain link leftfield fence of Holloway Field is in the shadow of the Brisbane Soccer Stadium or that there are but six light poles with five bulbs each; and chips—not fries—are $1 (Australian) at the concession stand. About the biggest difference between baseball as played in Australia and in the U.S. is that they throw the ball around the infield backward Down Under, ending up with the first baseman's handing the ball to the pitcher.
Baseball is not a newcomer to Australia; it has been played in the Land Down Under for 120 years. But, quite suddenly, American major league teams are regarding Aussie baseball as more than a curiosity. Two Rams, Nilsson and right-fielder Tony Hrabar, are considered top prospects in the States, which explains the presence of Mets scouts Johnson and Joe Mason.
What has brought them to Australia is the Claxton Shield competition, which amounts to the Australian national championship. Cricket had its Sheffield Shield, in which all-star teams from each of Australia's six states competed for the national championship, so back in 1931, Aussie sportsman Norrie Claxton decided baseball should have its championship, too. What began as a simple two-week, one-site tournament back then has now grown to a 20-game "regular" season among the six state teams—two home games and two away games against each rival—followed by a 10-game playoff between the two leaders. In 1987, Nilsson went from being the Claxton Shield MVP (the final series was played in February) to a guy with a $50,000 signing bonus with the Milwaukee Brewers. During the subsequent U.S. baseball season, he justified that investment by making the conversion from first base to catcher, batting .394 for the Helena Brewers, being voted the Pioneer League's second-best prospect and hitting .340 in the Arizona Instructional League, all before his 18th birthday. David is the third Nilsson brother to play in the U.S. The other two were pitchers: Bobby, who signed with the Reds in 1978 and was released four months later, and Gary, who signed with the Tigers in 1984 but quit after a year and a half because of an injured shoulder. The three Nilsson brothers still play together for the Rams when it's winter in the U.S.
If David makes it to Milwaukee, however, he will not be Australia's first major leaguer. Unless you count a 19th-century infielder named Joe Quinn who was born in Sydney and raised in the U.S., that distinction belongs to Sydney-raised shortstop Craig Shipley, who has played parts of the last two seasons for the Los Angeles Dodgers. But Shipley, who attended the University of Alabama before signing with the Dodgers in 1984, hasn't played in Australia for seven years.
The Australian game may not look very different to American eyes, but the play-by-play commentary provided by the public address announcer at Holloway Field certainly sounds different to American ears. "A little outside, that brings it full chord," the booming voice intones as the count reaches 3 and 2. After a line drive up the middle: "That's two safe hits for Riley." When Western Australia's Mickey Riley tries to stretch it into a double, the announcer urgently calls, "...and he's trying to go to second!" Mike Young, the Queensland Rams coach, thought that was a bit much and sent one of his players to the announcer's booth to protest such calls while a play was still going on.
Local argot can occasionally cause Yanks to do audio double takes. Innings are called "digs," or, as in cricket, a single inning can be referred to as an "innings." After the third out is made, the home plate umpire shouts, "Side away." A player doesn't make a catch, he makes a "take," and a good catch is a "top take." You don't shag fly balls, you "fox" them. One can "bat for the team," which means hitting to the opposite field instead of taking a full swing, and a hit is more than just a hit, it's a "safe hit." Sliders and curveballs are "sliding balls" and "curving balls," a foul tip that hits the catcher is a "foul snick."
After squinting at Claxton Shield play for two nights in the dim light of Holloway Field, the consensus among American scouts was that the Rams and Brewers had about six players of Triple A caliber, another half-dozen who could play Double A, a lot of guys who could make independent Class A clubs, as well as major league prospects Nilsson and Hrabar. "There's definitely something here, although they've got a long way to go," said the Mets' Johnson. "We'll likely have some type of team here within two years, an instructional league team or maybe we'll simply send players to their existing clubs," said Mason.
The Mets, like the Blue Jays, Athletics and Dodgers, are scouring the world for new talent. "Baseball is becoming an international game, particularly in the Pacific from Japan to Korea to Taiwan to China on down to Australia. We'd be stupid not to take close notice," says Mets vice-president Joe McIlvaine. "Especially since the talent in half of the world's eight major baseball-playing nations—Japan, Cuba, Taiwan and Korea—won't let their players play for the American professional teams."
But Johnson and Mason learned that Australian talent may not be as available as the American clubs would like. The two got their first inkling one afternoon at practice for a national under-18 tournament in Perth, when they heard an Aussie youngster ask Toronto scout Wayne Morgan, "Are you one of the American spies?" That same night the Mets contingent walked out of the tournament site at Parry Field because of remarks by Australia Baseball Federation vice-president Neville Pratt. In his speech offically opening the tournament, Pratt offered "a warning. We have a number of major league scouts here. The ABF has no objection to a player signing a professional contract. However, there has been a spate of signings for paltry amounts of money without the player or his parents being fully advised of the ramifications.... Apart from the Los Angeles Dodgers, who have regularly made their coaches available to this country and hosted our Australian youth teams, the other American clubs have done nothing to advance baseball in Australia." Johnson and Mason got up and left.