Down Under, leagues play catch-up as sport catches on

On Baseball

January 28, 1996|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Orioles player development director Syd Thrift should wake up just in time to watch the Super Bowl tomorrow. The game will begin at 7:20 a.m. Monday, but American Rules Football has yet to gain a major foothold in Australia.

Baseball is another story. It may not be the international pastime just yet, but the game has gone global in a big way, and the Orioles have been a big player Down Under for several years. The club is affiliated with the Perth Heat of the Australian Baseball League, and Thrift has spent the past week seeing the game from a new perspective.

"I've been trying to get here for 25 years," he said by telephone Wednesday . . . or was that Thursday? "It is the most magnificent environment I've seen in all my life. It's the perfect place for

baseball. It's the perfect place for anything."

Of course, it's summer over there, and Thrift left Baltimore when there was 3 feet of snow on the ground, so his judgment might be slightly clouded, but you get the idea. Baseball has come to a new frontier, and no one can appreciate that more than an old scout.

"It's very interesting baseball," Thrift said. "I haven't seen it before, but I know from what I've been told that it has improved dramatically. . . . I think they will do very well in the Olympics this year. I can tell by the quality of the players that they will be very competitive."

That should not come as a complete surprise. When Hideo Nomo became only the second Japanese national to play in the major leagues, there already were two Australians on the Milwaukee Brewers' roster. Catcher Dave Nilsson and pitcher Graeme Lloyd have become serviceable major-league players, and there are others on the way.

The Orioles have not had such a positive experience. They have yet to extract a major-leaguer from Australia, and they lost one of their top pitching prospects there. No. 1 draft choice Jay Powell hurt his arm pitching for Perth two years ago, prompting the club to trade him for veteran second baseman Bret Barberie, but the Orioles still are high on the future of Aussieball.

They have signed two promising Australians during the past year, and both -- catcher Andrew Utting and pitcher Cameron Forbes -- will take part in minor-league spring training camp in Sarasota, Fla., next month.

Rochester Red Wings manager Marv Foley is managing the Perth club, which includes Orioles prospects Kevin Curtis, Kris Gresham and Calvin Maduro.

Highly rated left-hander Rachaad Stewart also played there before he was traded to the Atlanta Braves in the deal for Kent Mercker. Each team is allowed just one American pitcher, so the Orioles split the season between Stewart and Maduro to avoid a repeat of the Powell fiasco.

Though the Australian League is evolving rapidly, it still is not on a competitive par with its more established Asian and Latin American counterparts. Most of the players have other jobs and most of the games are played on weekends.

Said Thrift: "It's hard to put it in a classification because they use aluminum bats and they don't play every day.

"I think right now a good Top 10 college program would have an edge, because there are more players to recruit from . . . but I'm impressed with the way they go about it."

The logical next step

Last year, the Los Angeles Dodgers paid $2 million for the privilege of signing Japanese pitcher Nomo. This year, the bidding war for two Cuban pitchers took the economics of international baseball to a new level when the two combined to command nearly $8 million. What's next?

Some baseball executives believe that it's just a matter of time before the game adopts a worldwide draft to assure that the distribution of international talent does not become another small-market, large-market problem.

Orioles general manager Pat Gillick said last week that he would be in favor of it, though it was not a major topic of discussion at the quarterly owners' meetings in Los Angeles. Thrift said last week that it seems inevitable.

"I think it'll happen in the next few years," Thrift said. "It's headed that way. It has been discussed."

Interest in an international draft began simmering in the 1980s, largely because a small group of teams -- most notably the Dodgers and Toronto Blue Jays -- had all but cornered certain segments of the international market.

McDonald's departure

San Diego Padres CEO Larry Lucchino and Texas Rangers general manager Doug Melvin -- both former Orioles executives -- expressed interest in Ben McDonald after the Orioles left him untendered in December, which can only mean that the people who know him best feel he still has the potential to be a premier pitcher.

Lucchino, who locked up in a bitter contract dispute with agent Scott Boras after McDonald was drafted in 1989, wonders now whether McDonald would have reached his full potential quicker if he had gotten to the major leagues slower.

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