In less than a week, the Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks will board their chartered airplanes for their 15-hour flight to Sydney, Australia. In less than two weeks, they will have already played the first two games of Major League Baseball’s 2014 season.
With their two-game series at the historic Sydney Cricket Ground rapidly approaching, we thought we’d catch up with the perfect ambassador for Australian baseball, Craig Shipley. Not only was he the first Australian-born player in the modern era to compete in the major leagues, he broke in with the Dodgers. Oh, and he now works for the Diamondbacks, as a special assistant to general manager Kevin Towers.
Q. Craig, how would you describe the state of baseball in Australia in 2014?
A. It’s not a major sport. There is tremendous competition in Australia for the attention of sports fans. It’s one of the countries in the world where you have more competition for athletes and media attention than virtually any other. You have cricket, Australian-rules football, rugby, rugby union, field hockey, tennis, swimming. There are lots of sports in Australia and most kids play some type of sport. Baseball just doesn’t have the profile other sports have. It doesn’t have the participation base.
Q. So, what drew you to the game?
A. Thirty years ago, baseball was the winter sport and cricket was the summer sport. At some point around that time, baseball switched to a summer sport. My dad had played cricket, but when he was in his 20’s, he chose to switch to baseball. It was the first sport I was exposed to. He was heavily involved in the local club. I’ve been around baseball since I was born. I probably started playing when I was six or seven. I played other sports, too. I played soccer for a year, rugby for three or four years, including my last year of high school. Outside baseball, rugby was my favorite sport.
Q. So, how did on earth did the Dodgers find you?
A. At the time I left Australia, nobody scouted the country. Kids of my generation who wanted an opportunity had to figure out a way to get into a U.S. college. I’d made my first trip to the U.S. in 1979 on an under-18 national team that played at Georgia Southern. It was my first exposure to American baseball. At the end of that trip, I expressed an interest to one of the coaches who had just left Georgia Southern to be an Alabama assistant coach. I said I’d like to play college baseball and asked him what I needed to do to play in college. I came back the next year and stayed in touch with the coach. His name is Roger Smith and he’s now a scout for the Cardinals. Eventually, he caved in from me badgering him all that time.
Q. So, the Dodgers drafted you out of Alabama?
A. At the time, if you weren’t a U.S. citizen, you didn’t go into the draft. I was a free agent. I think they changed that the next year. But I had been exposed to the Dodgers 15 years before, when [Dodgers coaches] Monte Basgall and Red Adams visited Australia. I just remember them standing on our field in a Dodger uniform. It made a huge impact. We weren’t exposed to major league baseball. We didn’t get it on TV, nobody scouted the country. We knew it existed, but it was in this far-away place with no legitimate access to information. To see these guys on the field, that was a big deal. When I was in college, if I had an opportunity to sign with the Dodgers, it was pretty much a done deal.
Q. How do you expect this Opening Series to be received in Sydney?
A. I think there is going to be a huge reception. Australia is a sports-mad country. The games will be sold out, they’re at a historic venue. There’s a tremendous amount of attention on this series and it’s really starting to build as it gets closer and closer. It’s going to be a very successful event and, as you know, when MLB takes the show on the road, things will be done very well.
Q. Since you were a kid, has there been a lot of progress made in building up baseball in Australia?
A. I base a lot of whether we’re making progress on the amount of participation. I’m on the board of Baseball Australia and I’ve always been plugged into what’s going on there. I went in 2002, coaches the Australian team at the World Cup. I was on the staff during the first WBC, which was not a huge commitment but was fun. MLB has been influential and the reach is now global. In that regard, things have changed. They have an MLB academy there in the summer, which is a great thing for young players in the country. But participation-wise, the numbers have remained fairly stagnant. Hopefully, this series will give some impetus and attract enough attention to get more kids into baseball.
Q. You broke into the majors in 1986. Since that time, it certainly seems as if Australian players have become more commonplace in the majors. I’ve covered a few. The Dodgers had Peter Moylan. The Angels had Rich Thompson.
A. Yes, but Grant Balfour is the only player widely projected to be on an Opening Day roster this year. Travis Blackley spent some time with Texas and Houston last year. Ryan Rowland-Smith is trying to make our roster. The problem is no longer scouting. Australia has been heavily scouted for the last 15 years. If any country has a history of playing baseball, it will be scouted and Australia has a long, long history. What determines the number of players coming from a country is how many athletes are playing that sport. If you go to Cuba, the Dominican Republic or Venezuela, most young boys are playing baseball. You have a lot more athletes to choose from.
Q. Some players, most notably Zack Greinke, have grumbled about having to make the long trip to play games. Do you think the ones who go will have a better time than they think they’re going to have?
A. I would imagine. The culture is very similar to the U.S. There’s no language barrier. The foods are the same. The diets are very similar. You’ve got a beautiful city with one of the prettiest harbors, if not the prettiest harbor, in the world. The ballpark is 10 minutes from the hotel. I think the players will really enjoy the trip.
There’s no way around it. It’s a long flight. Fifteen hours on a plane for anybody isn’t a particularly fun thing to do. But once they hit the ground and are exposed to the city, I think most, if not all, of the players and the traveling parties will really enjoy it.