August 28, 2010
A Baseball Life of an Australian, by Tim Cox
A native of Sydney, Australia, Tim Cox pitched in the Red Sox organization from 2005-2007.
What had started as just a game became a passion and led ultimately to a profession. It was only at this point did I truly appreciate the saying “Baseball is a way of life”. This is not to say one must play over 100 games in a season for such an understanding to occur, however for an Australian, the experience of professional baseball is an eye-opener.
The existence of baseball in Australia has few similarities to America. While American sport is conducted through schools and colleges, sport in Australia is managed by amateur organizations (“clubs”) situated and named after the respective suburb/district. Games are played once a week on Saturdays against teams from other nearby clubs. If you have visited a major city of Australia and ventured into the suburbs, you will know how busy it is on Saturdays. As with all sports, junior (i.e. under the age of 18) baseball teams are based on age. I cannot speak for the formats of the other states but in New South Wales (therefore Sydney) it begins at under 11’s (or U/11) and continues up to U/18. However, ages 13, 15 and 17 are skipped. This is predominantly driven by the fact that there are not enough numbers to field teams in each age group. Representative teams for each age group (excluding U/11) are selected and compete in a state-wide competition where games are played on Sundays. Following the same pattern, a team is selected to represent each state which competes in the national tournament played over a two week period in January.
It is at this national tournament, as well as the academy set up by MLB, where the best young talent of Australia are seen by scouts from professional clubs. The academy is a program which runs for 6-8 weeks, starting in June, and is designed to mimic spring training. It is only at the academy where a player will experience a glimpse of life as a professional baseball player.
To say that perceptions, expectations and knowledge of the minor leagues are varied in Australia is an understatement. Unless you know someone personally who is experiencing -- or has experienced -- the professional baseball lifestyle, knowledge of baseball in the USA is very limited. Over the past five years there has been a growing number of Australians making their way over to America. This has certainly helped the Australian baseball community gain a better understanding of the life of a professional baseball player.
Prior to 2003, my knowledge of professional baseball in the USA was almost nonexistent. I knew of the Yankees and the Red Sox, and a couple of the high-profile players, but nothing more. This was due to the fact that baseball games were rarely televised and never reported in the news. The year 2003 changed all that for me. I flew to America to get Tommy John surgery by Dr. James Andrews (a big decision at 16 years of age) and it was during this trip that my education began. Before I flew to Birmingham, Alabama for surgery, I went to see an Angels game and was fortunate to sit next to a baseball fanatic. It was he who was able to explain it all.
I signed with the Red Sox in July 2004, 14 months after my surgery. By this time, I thought I had a good understanding and expectation of what I was about the experience in the coming year (2005). Oh how wrong I was! Looking back, I don’t think anything could prepare an 18 year old for a full year of pro ball. After the first week or so of spring training, the body adjusts but this is not the biggest hurdle; toward the end of July it becomes just as much a mental battle as a physical one. Is it still enjoyable? Certainly, but by this time the monotony does get to you. I firmly believe it is this aspect, the “Groundhog Day Effect” if you like, which separates the men from the boys.
Throughout my first year of pro ball I saw a number of players fall victim to “the grind” (as most call it) and consequently had their careers cut short. I’m sure you could guess the kinds of incidents that can occur which result in a player being released. Is it culture shock or lifestyle related? Maybe. I think the ability of a player to survive the monotony acts as a “natural selection” for an organization.
As mentioned above, it is by far the biggest obstacle encountered each year, and observing how a player handles himself throughout this time provides a unique insight into their character. A prime example is a teammate of mine from 2005. Was he talented? Of course, but his professional career was cut short as his inability to keep sober caught up with him. One particular night after a game he had had too much to drink and ended up with alcohol poisoning. He was discharged from hospital the following morning and summoned by the coaches who were demanding answers. What I found most remarkable about the incident wasn’t the fact that he became so drunk so quickly after the game, but rather his attitude the next morning. He was quite blasé about it all and thought it was a little funny. This certainly highlighted his level of maturity. The Red Sox were about to release him but ended up trading him a couple of days later.
The first trip over for any Aussie is certainly a daunting yet exhilarating experience for all the right reasons. The easy-going nature of Australians and the hospitality of Americans makes the first days much easier than expected. Once settled in, rumours of Australia become the topics of discussion. It was at this point when I planted a seed for a hoax which lasted the whole season. I think all Australians have told their teammates of the drop bear. It’s something that is guaranteed to get a reaction. For those of you who don’t know, it’s an animal that lives in the treetops and attacks prey by dropping onto their heads from above. There are many techniques to prevent an attack, the most effective being forks in your hair or holding a screwdriver above your head while walking through the bush. Once most hear this part, they realize you’re just messing with them, however, if you are persuasive enough, it is surprising how many players walk away thanking you for the tip.
My prank did involve an animal but not a drop bear; it was a kangaroo. For most of the season, I convinced many of my teammates that I had a pet kangaroo which I rode each day to and from school. I am not the first and undoubtedly not the last to try this prank, however I was able to provide “photo evidence” which gave me some credibility. My house in Australia backs onto a large national park. Many visitors have said that our house is a zoo due to all the animals that appear each day. This is more apparent during the summer season when there is little rainfall. Various animals appear on our land to eat the green grass and/or search for water. Kangaroos are frequent visitors during the summer and consequently I have many photos. Any attempt to get close is generally unsuccessful as they are very alert, but on occasion up-close photos are possible. This is far from what happens at the zoo where the kangaroos are very tame. So using photos from home and the zoo, mixed with some propaganda (ok maybe a lot of gibberish), I had somewhat of a compelling story. Every couple of weeks I’d produce some photos emailed from home and add a story or two to keep the hoax going. Near the end of the season I confessed to them all with interesting reactions. There were some who suspected things weren’t quite right however most were either really disappointed it wasn’t true or didn’t believe it was made up.
Should anyone have the opportunity to play professional baseball, I urge them to jump at the chance. There is no question that some personalities are not suited to the lifestyle, however I do believe it is a life changing experience and one that I wish all to have -- whether you are an Australian or not.