Australian experiment works for Orioles

December 18, 1990|By Kent Baker

A player for the system is not the only item that Baltimore Orioles assistant general manager Doug Melvin returned with from Australia last weekend.

He also carried back an upbeat report on the status of the Perth Heat, with whom the Orioles have a working agreement in the Australian Winter League.

"I was impressed by the standards and structure of the organization, the league they play in and the enthusiasm for baseball," said Melvin. "There were 3,500 [fans] at one of the games I saw. They've made great strides. This has been a good experience so far."

Although Australian baseball is still in its infancy, it has progressed to the point where Melvin signed third baseman-outfielder Clayton Byrne to a minor-league contract.

Byrne, 18, is typical of the Australian player. He works full-time at a bank during the day and plays "in his leisure time [at night]," said Melvin. "They show a love for the game."

Melvin describes him as "a gamer with an above-average arm, above average speed and a quick bat. And his size is 186 centimeters and 85 kilograms [about 6 feet 1, 175 pounds]."

The league is composed of eight teams, which are allowed four American-born players each. That number will rise to five next winter.

Pitchers Todd Stephan and Pat Leinen and position players Tim Holland and T.R. Lewis, all of whom played for the Class A Frederick Keys last summer, are with Perth, staying with the families of Australian players on a sort of exchange-student basis.

Melvin likens the caliber of play to the Class A South Atlantic League in this country, a step above rookie ball, and all the former Keys are prospering.

Melvin said interest in baseball is to the point that 13,000 children 7 to 11 registered for tee-ball in Perth, a city of approximately 1 million.

"You see a lot of the same skills used in cricket, the hand-eye coordination, the bat control," he said. "What the Australians are requesting most is instructors at the amateur level. There is a shortage."

All the native-born players use aluminum bats to challenge a pitcher 66 feet away from the plate.

Because of increased fan interest, Melvin said, Perth owner Brett Fogarty, 32, is considering moving the team into a domed stadium next season for anticipated crowds of 10,000 to 12,000 per game. Tickets are $10 Australian ($8 U.S.).

Dan Knapp, a former University of Oregon player who had a brief fling in professional baseball, is the Heat general manager, and Mike Young, who has been involved in Australian baseball as a player, manager and scout since 1982, is the field manager.

"We plan to send players there next year," said Melvin. "The climate is excellent, and our players can pick up at-bats and innings instead of sitting at home. They really enjoy it."

* Catcher Mickey Tettleton has until tomorrow to decide whether to accept the Orioles' offer of salary arbitration. Tettleton, a free agent, apparently has not received an acceptable offer from another team yet. He has been seeking a multiyear deal.

Tettleton agent, Tony Attanasio, already has said that he would "under no circumstances" leave Tettleton on the market beyond the deadline for accepting the Orioles' offer. By offering arbitration to Tettleton, the Orioles probably made it more difficult for Tettleton to get a deal from another team, because he would have been a better buy if draft-choice compensation were no longer required.

* The Orioles' short-season Class A farm club in the Midwest League will operate next summer in Kane County, Ill., near Chicago. The club was moved by the ownership from Wausau, Wis.

Melvin said that a sixth affiliate will be added in Florida's Gulf Coast League, with its base at Twin Lakes Park in Sarasota.

"We're just waiting for approval," he said.

The Orioles had been the only major-league team with just five farm teams.

* General manager Roland Hemond has left Baltimore to join his family in California for the holidays, then will go to Mexico.

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