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Wednesday, March 4, 2009
Welcome to Australia

By Joe Connor
Special to ESPN.com

QUICK FACTS

Most Known For (besides baseball): Kangaroos; vast expanses and underwater jewel, the Great Barrier Reef; and to North American TV audiences, FOS-TA'S! Australian for beeeeer! (but "VB," Victoria Bitter, is the beer of choice down under, mate).

Location: Oceania/Australia, continent between the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific Ocean

Size: 2,966,136 square miles, or slightly smaller than the 48 contiguous U.S.

Population: approximately 21 million

People: Caucasian, 92%; Asian, 7%; Aboriginal, 1%

Language: English (Aussie-style)

Government: Democratic, federal-state system recognizing the British monarch as sovereign

Capital: Canberra (population: approximately 310,000)

National Anthem Famous Verses: "Beneath our radiant Southern Cross, we'll toil with hearts and hands; to make this Commonwealth of ours, renowned of all the lands."

QUICK AUSTRALIA BASEBALL HISTORICAL FACTS

Most Known For Its ... : Tough as nails athletes (rugby demeanor, mate); Winning silver medal at 2004 Olympics; All-Star catcher Dave Nilsson.

Baseball's Australia Debut: U.S. gold miners first introduced the sport to the island's citizens in Ballaret, Victoria, 90 miles outside Melbourne, on their rest days in the 1850s.

First Aussie-born player to play baseball in U.S.: Joe Quinn, born: Sydney (1884, St. Louis Maroons).

Some Aussie MLB Record-Breakers: Dave Nilsson became first Aussie to be selected to an All-Star Game (1999); Graeme Lloyd won two World Series rings with the New York Yankees (1996, 1998).

Australia's Best Baseball town: Sydney, if only because six players born here have made it to MLB, but Melbourne's not far behind. Queensland has improved as a result of an MLB-influenced academy there where former MLB players like Nilsson and Llyod have coached.

Australia's Other Baseball Hot Beds: Baseball is a popular niche sport, especially in and around the cities of Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth.

Australia's Baseball Weather: Pretty good year-round, mate, generally arid to semi-arid; temperate in south and east; tropical in north.

Biggest Sports Competitors: Australian rules football, rugby, cricket, tennis, golf, surfing, swimming, basketball. Immigrants on the mines introduced Australian Rules football, akin to Gaelic football, around the same time Yanks were introducing baseball.

Distinctly Aussie: Aussies like to abbreviate and have there own vernacular. Australia is "Oz," Americans are "Yanks" and Umpires are "Umpies." But that's not all. "Wooshta" is lingo for a player who strikes out swinging. "Inshoot" refers to a curve ball that's coming inside on a batter. "Two dead" or "two missing" can refer to two outs. MLB scouts are "bird dogs." Also, "leave the rubbish" reminds a teammate not to swing at bad pitches. "Down his throat" is a long, lazy fly ball to an outfielder who easily makes the catch. "Hard on you!" refers to a close ball or strike call from the umpire that players or managers take exception to.

QUICK TEAM AUSTRALIA AND PLAYER FACTS

Biggest International Rival: Japan

Biggest International Successes: In 1999, Australia stunned the Cubans to win the Intercontinental Cup, its first ever -- and lone -- championship in international baseball. After a disappointing performance on its own soil in the 2000 Olympics, the Aussies mastered another big upset at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece, when they knocked off Japan en route to a silver medal.

2006 WBC Showing: 0-3

Back from the 2006 WBC Team: Luke Hughes (Twins prospect); Justin Huber

Gone from the 2006 WBC team: Peter Moylan, Ryan-Rowland Smith (Mariners)

Now on 2009 WBC Team: Mitch Dening (Red Sox prospect), Drew Naylor (Phillies prospect), Chris Snelling, Travis Blackley

Missing in Action From the 2009 WBC Team: Grant Balfour (Rays)

PLAY BALL -- IN AUSTRALIA!

Overview: Australia's ability to get its young prospects signed by MLB organizations has a large part to do with the fact it has an outstanding amateur program. Although some MLB scouts despise the rule, pitchers under 16 years of age can only throw 80 pitches per game maximum, and then must rest for three days. National championship tournaments have been held throughout the country since 1934, with the country's seven states (provinces) competing. The tournaments MLB scouts most often attend are under 18s, under 16s and under 14s.

State Superpowers: Victoria, South Australia and New South Wales traditionally have the most championships, but smaller states, like Queensland and Western Australia, have also fared well.

Ballpark Atmosphere: Mostly well-kept fields, as opposed to ballpark. The best facility is the olympic ballpark that hosted the 2000 Summer Games. Parents and friends watch their sons and mates in lawn chairs, like high school games in the U.S.

Claxton Shield/Winter League Baseball: The premiere championship is called the Claxton Shield, and it's been held since 1934. The best players from each state compete. In 1989, Australia tried its hand at Winter League Baseball, which replaced the Claxton Shield. This meant that players outside of Australia, including MLB prospects, could compete. Teams often only played once a week. The Australia Baseball League lasted for 10 years, but due to mounting debts, was sold to former MLB catcher Dave Nilsson and the International Baseball League of Australia. That league only lasted two years. In 2001, the Claxton Shield returned once again as the premiere nationwide tournament.

Notable Alums With MLB Ties: Kevin Millwood, Shea Hillenbrand, Vernon Wells, John Jaha and Homer Bush were among some non-Aussies to compete who would later play in MLB. Many Aussies also played, including Dave Nilsson and Graeme Lloyd.

Joe Connor is a contributor to ESPN.com who has visited more than 30 baseball countries on six continents. He's the author of "A Fan's Guide To The World Baseball Classic," which is available for purchase exclusively at his Web sites: www.modernerabaseball.com and www.mrsportstravel.com.