With the Australian Baseball League Championship Series set to begin Friday, this seems like a good time to write about notable Aussies in the Midwest League — something I’ve been wanting to do since learning two Australia natives will be MWL managers this year.
Andrew Graham is the new manager of the West Michigan Whitecaps; Michael “Tubby” Collins is the new manager of the Fort Wayne TinCaps. Collins currently is managing the Canberra Calvary, who face the Perth Heat in the best-of-three Australian Baseball League Championship Series. He managed the Calvary against the Heat in last year’s ABLCS, too — and the Calvary won. Last December he was named the 2013 Australian Capital Territory Coach of the Year.
Collins’ TinCaps and Graham’s Whitecaps are scheduled to play each other 19 times during the 2014 season. Their first meeting will be on April 25 at West Michigan’s Fifth Third Ballpark. According to the Australian Baseball League, that will be the first time in U.S. professional baseball history that two Australian managers will face each other.
Both managers played in the Midwest League. Graham was a Whitecaps catcher in 2004 and 2005; he batted .219 with 1 HR and 19 RBI in 183 at-bats spread over 58 games. Collins fared better in his 133 MWL games with the 2004-05 Cedar Rapids Kernels, batting .293 with 8 HR, 76 RBI and 16 SB. In 2005, Collins finished third in the MWL with a .320 batting average.
Neither player reached the major leagues; only 28 Australia-born players have. Of those 28, 13 played in the Midwest League. Two played in an MLB All-Star Game.
The two All-Stars were RHP Grant Balfour, who recently signed a two-year deal with the Tampa Bay Rays, and C/OF/1B Dave Nilsson, who played with the Milwaukee Brewers from 1992-1999.
Balfour went 8-5 with a 3.53 ERA, one save and 95 strikeouts in 91.2 IP for the 1999 Quad City River Bandits. He also made two rehab appearances with the 2006 Dayton Dragons, striking out three batters in two innings.
Nilsson batted .223 with 4 HR and 41 RBI in 95 games with the 1988 Beloit Brewers (now the Snappers). He did rehab stints with the Snappers in 1995 (6-for-11 in 3 games) and 1998 (5-for-12 in 4 games). He homered and drove in seven during each rehab stint.
The other Australia-born MLB players who played in the Midwest League are, in alphabetical order:
LHP Cameron Cairncross pitched in 15 games for the 2000 Cleveland Indians. He went 8-8 with a 3.61 ERA and 138 strikeouts in 137 IP for the 1992 Waterloo Diamonds.
Trent Durrington was an infielder for the Anaheim Angels and the Milwaukee Brewers in parts of five seasons. He batted .250 in 25 games with the 1996 Cedar Rapids Kernels.
RHP Mark Ettles pitched in 14 games for the 1993 San Diego Padres. He went 1-2 with a 2.25 ERA, eight saves and 24 strikeouts in 16 IP for the 1991 Waterloo Diamonds.
RHP Liam Hendriks pitched in 30 games for the 2011-13 Minnesota Twins. He pitched in 17 games for the 2009-10 Beloit Snappers, going 5-6 with a 2.77 ERA and 101 strikeouts in 100.2 IP.
INF Luke Hughes played in parts of three seasons with the Minnesota Twins and the Oakland Athletics. He batted .257 with 7 HR and 42 RBI in 72 games with the 2005 Beloit Snappers.
OF Trent Oeltjen played in 99 games over 3 seasons with the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Los Angeles Dodgers. He played in 133 games with the 2002-03 Quad City River Bandits (all but 10 in 2003), batting .295 with 4 HR, 45 RBI and 30 SB.
RHP Chris Oxspring pitched in five games for the 2005 San Diego Padres. He went 4-1 with a 4.15 ERA and 54 strikeouts in 56.1 IP for the 2001 Fort Wayne Wizards (now the TinCaps).
LHP Ryan Rowland-Smith pitched for the Seattle Mariners from 2007 to 2010. He pitched in 25 games for the 2002-03 Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, going 4-2 with a 4.28 ERA, one save and 75 strikeouts in 73.2 IP.
LHP Josh Spence pitched for the San Diego Padres in 2011 and 2012. He went 2-2 with a 3.71 ERA and 31 strikeouts in 17 IP for the 2010 Fort Wayne TinCaps.
LHP Brad Thomas pitched in 72 MLB games, mostly for the Detroit Tigers. He went 11-8 with a 2.95 ERA and 126 strikeouts in 152.1 IP for the 1998 Fort Wayne Wizards.
RHP Rich Thompson pitched in 82 MLB games, mostly for the Los Angeles Angels. He went 1-2 with a 0.24 ERA, nine saves and 54 strikeouts in 37.2 IP for the 2003 Cedar Rapids Kernels.
It is worth noting that 27 of the 28 Australia-born MLB players are from the Midwest League era, which started in 1956 (or 1947 if you count the predecessor Illinois State League/Mississippi-Ohio Valley League, which the MWL includes in its record books). The one pre-MWL player was Joe Quinn, whose 17-year major-league career stretched from 1884 to 1901. Almost his entire playing career was spent in the National League, with the exception of 1884 in the Union Association, 1890 in the Players League, and 1901 in the American League.
Quinn was a player/manager for the 1895 St. Louis Browns and the 1899 Cleveland Spiders. Both teams were terrible, which I’m sure has nothing to do with the fact that there hasn’t been another Australia-born manager in the major leagues since Quinn. Perhaps someday Collins or Graham will become the next one.
Regardless, MLB surely will see more Australia-born talent enter its playing ranks, as it has made a strong commitment to expanding its brand further into the Land Down Under. In fact, MLB’s opening series will be played in Sydney, Australia, on March 22 and 23, featuring the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Finally, I’d like to add that the Baseball Australia Hall of Fame, which was established in 2005, will induct a former Midwest League player this year: Brendan Kingman, who batted .243 with 3 HR and 38 RBI in 93 games with the 1994 Kane County Cougars. He was the Australian Baseball League’s first Triple Crown winner (.487, 28 HR and 66 RBI during the 1997-1998 season). You can read more about his career here.