Australian Baseball Season Delayed - What Does That Mean For MLB?

Today, we look at the ongoing COVID-related issues hampering the Australian Baseball League and how they might affect the ABL season and MLB overseas signings.

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Pregame Pepper

Did you know…

. . . Glenn Williams, who is currently the head honcho of Baseball Australia, walked a long and winding road in his MLB career. After signing with the Atlanta Braves as a 16-year-old, spending six years with them, then spending five years with the Toronto Blue Jays organization, he finally debuted made his big league debut on June 7, 2005, for the Minnesota Twins at age 27. He had only one brief stint in the Majors, appearing in 13 games that season and getting at least one hit in every single game. Unfortunately, a shoulder injury later that month ended his season, and consequently his Major League career.

. . . Williams’ baseball hero was Craig Shipley, who was the first Australian-born baseball player to debut in Major League Baseball. Shipley had a much longer baseball career than Williams, spending parts of 11 big league seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Mets, San Diego Padres, Houston Astros, and Anaheim (now Los Angeles) Angels from 1986-1998. He has been working in professional baseball ever since, currently as a special assistant to the general manager with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Prior to his MLB career, Shipley played college baseball at the University of Alabama, where he made it to the College World Series in 1993.

Leading Off

Will Australia remain a viable option for prospects this winter?

By AJ Mithen

After barely getting through a 2020-21 season ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic, it looks like the Australian Baseball League faces a similar set of problems for the 2021-22 season.  

On Sept. 15, newly appointed Baseball Australia Chief Executive Glenn Williams announced the Australian Baseball League (ABL) 2021-22 season would be pushed back by a month, to begin in “mid to late December.” ABL’s 2021-22 opening day was supposed to be Nov. 18.

“With each day that passes, it is becoming less likely that we will be able to play the opening rounds as planned due to the current COVID-19 status in Australia and with the various border restrictions in place,” Williams said.

He’s talking about the mess that is travel around Australia right now -- many of the country’s states have kept their borders closed to each other and/or have strict quarantine requirements on those who wish to enter. It’s a situation causing immense problems for sporting organizations as they try to organize schedules.

The situation has also resulted in two of the ABL’s eight clubs pulling out of the competition for the second successive year -- Geelong Korea, a team of South Korean prospects and journeymen who base themselves in the coastal city of Geelong, and the Auckland Tuatara, who are based in New Zealand. Neither team can commit to a season because they genuinely don’t know if they’ll be able to travel to Australia.

The mess of the borders played havoc with last season, which usually runs 40 games over ten weeks. Some clubs played each other 13 times, but other clubs just twice. The ABL playoff series, hosted in a hub in Melbourne, was impacted when border rules changed and teams had to leave to beat lockdowns and had to quarantine when they got home.

It would be much easier if the league was fully professional, but that’s not the case. Many of the local players aren’t full-time baseballers; they work jobs and need to make arrangements to be able to play in the ABL for not a lot of cash. They can’t afford to spend two weeks in quarantine, as several states require from someone who has been in a “designated COVID hotspot.”

The logistical challenges are bound to impact what have been the key drivers for the ABL’s coverage and ability to attract fans over the years -- import players and Aussies who return from the Major and Minor Leagues.

A number of MLB clubs send their young prospects (usually from Low-A, High-A or Double-A) to Australia to get at-bats or work innings during the USA winter. Australia is seen as a safe, stable set of hands with high quality coaches, an understanding of how to support young players and a strong baseball community. 

Tampa Bay, Atlanta, Toronto and Philadelphia sent players to Australia last year, and affiliated Aussie players from the Detroit, Minnesota, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Boston organizations played too. Squads are bolstered by a number of players from American Association clubs, who come to enjoy the summer and maybe use the platform to get the attention of an MLB scout.

Texas Rangers pitcher Drew Anderson and Miami Marlins southpaw Shawn Morimando earned Minor League deals, which became MLB appearances on the back of their performances in Australia last season.

Teams are starting to announce signings of overseas players, but the ABL has yet to make a ruling about imports this season -- that is, whether the league will be Australian players only, or if it'll be left up to clubs to organize overseas players and take on the risks with the associated permits and quarantine requirements.

Williams can’t at this stage say import players will be able to feature in 2021-22.  

“We are currently looking at all available information in order to make informed decisions about the coming season,” he said. “There are some obvious challenges in relation to entry to Australia, in addition to differing state government requirements for travel domestically.

“We are working with government agencies, ABL teams and other stakeholders to have as much information as possible in relation to setting season formats, the schedule and any associated rules.”

Another potential roadblock is the issue of vaccination. At the moment, the ABL doesn’t have a vaccination policy similar to MLB’s 85 percent threshold for players and other on-field personnel.

Whether a player is vaccinated is going to be an issue in Australia, where travel to some states will require proof of vaccination or an exemption from vaccination. Already we’ve seen clubs from the National Basketball League release import players who choose not to get vaccinated, because with the restrictions in place it means they’ll likely only be available for home games. There’s also big doubts about international cricketers being able to enter the country for the summer season.

Williams understands baseball faces a similar problem, and you can read between the lines on where the league will likely go.

“We don’t have a policy mandating vaccinations for players and staff,” he says, “However, based on the potential travel restrictions on people who are non-vaccinated, we have recommended players and staff seek vaccination to increase the likelihood of uninterrupted travel.”

I know this will all seem absurd to some folks reading this in the USA. I’m writing this in lockdown in Melbourne, which shortly will claim the title of “most days in lockdown” in the world.

“Reopening” in major cities across Australia is based on the population meeting 70 and 80 percent fully vaccinated thresholds, which projections say might be met some time between November and December.

So a lot of people are doing it tough here, as we all look enviously at full stadiums across the globe.

I’ve written before about how the ABL is Baseball Australia’s showpiece product to promote baseball to broadcasters, news outlets and corporate sponsors. If another season is hit hard by the pandemic, who knows what the future holds. Smaller leagues like the ABL are in real trouble if they can’t get a season to work.

Baseball fans just want to see the league get up and going, so let’s hope for the best.

AJ Mithen is an Australian sportswriter, co-host of the podcast ‘A Sporting Discussion’ and regular guest on radio ABC Central Victoria and RRR FM. He loves to give space to the sporting stories the mainstream forgets - and he’ll never rest until Australian baseball gets the coverage it deserves. He’s always up for a chat on Twitter @AJMithen.

Extra Innings

“First time lifting weights, coming to the States, being a kind of uber-prospect at the time. Let’s have him in the baserunning group, and the extra hitting group and the extra infield group. It was a large volume of work. Then the way to get players better and develop is to put them out there as much as possible. So mentally, physically and emotionally it was a really difficult transition to come from Australia and not only compete against players who were significantly older, had more experience but were also better than me. Mentally, the Braves got me a lot of money. My expectation was to get off the plane, hit .300 and hit 20 home runs a year.

“I wish I would have concentrated on just getting better. I worked really, really hard, but it was more about me trying to improve and trying to prove myself. I think the way teams are handling younger players better now with work loads, easing them into it. At the time, it was just pretty rare to have a 16-year-old from a country where baseball isn’t their #1 sport.”

- Glenn Williams, discussing his transition from Australian baseball into playing in the Braves’ Minor League system