Australians out to surprise in Classic

Rays' Balfour could add experience to up-and-coming team

Dave Nilsson, a longtime Milwaukee standout and a leader of the Australians' 2006 Classic team, apparently won't return in '09. (Doug Benc/Getty Images)

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Australia has a chance to put a World Series touch to its team in the World Baseball Classic.

Grant Balfour, who had a superb season pitching for the Tampa Bay Rays, could join the Aussies when they play in Mexico City in the second Classic in March.

"I have no idea if I'm going to play or not," Balfour said. "I'm going to see what the Rays come up with as far as a contract and see what they think."

The 30-year-old right-handed reliever is an old hand at international competition.

"I played in the Olympics with them and in the Intercontinental Cup with them and youth teams and things like that," Balfour said. "So I'd definitely like to represent my country."

There's no question that Australia is aiming for a better Classic showing after losing all three games in 2006 -- to Italy, 10-0; Venezuela, 2-0; and the Dominican Republic, 6-4.

Justin Huber, an Aussie first baseman then with the Kansas City Royals, thought back to that final game against the Dominicans.

"You've got Miguel Tejada throwing across the infield to Albert Pujols; Alfonso Soriano playing second base. All these superstars coming onto the field at the same time was just awesome," Huber said. "I mean, Jose Reyes was on their bench. He wasn't in the game. And you look on our bench and we've got Johnny A-Ball or Johnny Never-Played-Pro-Ball-Before. And they've got Jose Reyes."

Unlike in the Dominican or other Caribbean countries or in the United States, baseball is not a dominating sport Down Under. In baseball history, just 23 Australian-born players have reached the Major Leagues, although others born elsewhere but with Aussie roots have made it.

In a country where cricket and rugby are big, Balfour just stumbled across baseball near his Sydney home.

"My dad and I were walking around one day in the park not far from the house, and we eventually stumbled across a game," Balfour said. "We saw some kids playing tee-ball and we didn't even realize what it was. We asked, 'What's this game?' They said, 'It's tee-ball, part of baseball.'

"And we fell in love with the game."

His father, David Balfour, started a baseball team, formed a league and became a coach. It worked. The Tampa Bay reliever had a 6-2 record with a 1.54 ERA in 2008, and his relief work was a key factor in putting the astonishing Rays into the World Series against the Phillies.

Balfour was a catcher until he was about 17, and, no, he did not start talking to himself on the mound in Australia. That habit became a postseason TV staple.

"It gets me fired up and keeps me focused and that's what works for me," Balfour said. "That's my niche, that's my thing. It keeps me on my toes. I really stay focused and I see the glove and I tell myself what I want to do, and then it's just visualizing and talking through what I want to do. That's what I do to be successful, as crazy as it might be."

Balfour and Huber, who played last year for the San Diego Padres, are two of eight Australians who were in the Majors in 2008. The others were pitchers Ryan Rowland-Smith (Mariners), Rich Thompson (Angels), Phil Stockman and Peter Moylan (Braves) and shortstop Brad Harman and outfielder Chris Snelling (Phillies). Stockman was born in England and Snelling in Florida, but they grew up in Australia.

Possible Team Australia Roster
Position
Name
INF
Brad Harman
INF
Adam Morrisey
INF
Luke Hughes
INF
Michael Collins
INF-OF
Justin Huber
OF
Chris Snelling
OF
Trent Oeltjen
RHP
Grant Balfour
LHP
Ryan Rowland-Smith
RHP
Rich Thompson
RHP
Phil Stockman
RHP
Chris Oxsping
LHP
Brad Thomas
LHP
Adrian Burnside
LHP
Travis Blackley
LHP
Paul Mildren
LHP
Craig Anderson
LHP
Damian Moss
LHP
Adam Bright
LHP
David Welch
RHP
Josh Hill
RHP
Brendan Wise

At least 12 Aussies played at the Triple-A or Double-A levels this year, and many more are in the lower Minor Leagues.

"It's a lot easier," Balfour said. "They look to sign guys down there now more so than in my time even. It was probably tougher for guys like [Craig] Shipley and Graeme Lloyd and [Dave] Nilsson when they came over."

Now there's a good talent pool, although Nilsson, a longtime Milwaukee standout and a leader of the '06 Classic team, apparently won't return.

And the Aussies will be missing Moylan, a righty who went from the 2006 Classic to the Majors and a brilliant season in 2007 as a setup man for Atlanta. He underwent elbow surgery early in the summer and won't be ready.

If anything, the Aussies seem to be deep in pitching.

"That's typically how things have gone," Huber said. "We've been signing more pitchers out of Australia than position players, so we do have a bit of a void to fill in the hitting department."

In Huber's view, Australia's interest in baseball may have flagged recently. There's a new rival in what's called "Twenty20 cricket," a souped-up version of cricket that is played in about 2 1/2 hours instead of days. He's hoping Major League Baseball will support the reformation of an Aussie national league. A good showing in the Classic would help.

"Are we ever going to rival the Dominican Republic? No, probably not," Huber said. "But can we get a lot better than we are? Yes, absolutely. Can we produce more Major Leaguers? Absolutely.

"Australia is sort of the land of the underdog. There's a real underdog mentality here. People really rally around the underachiever. Australia baseball punches above its weight. For its population and the popularity of the sport here, we really hold our end up in a surprisingly good way. I'm excited about the way things are going to go from here."

Australia, in Pool B at Mexico City, is scheduled to play host Mexico in the night game of a March 8 opening bill at Estadio Foro Sol. The day game matches the other two teams, Cuba and South Africa.

"They put us in the easy division, huh? With Cuba," Balfour joked.

Balfour, a setup man for the Rays, would prefer a closer's role if he competes for Australia. Huber might play third base or first or maybe the outfield. It depends on how manager Jon Deeble sorts through roster possibilities.

"If we could put our best team on the field, I think it'd be fun to watch," Huber said. "I think we could surprise some guys."

Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.