February 10, 2008
Last year at this time, Tim Cox was getting ready for spring training, a 20-year-old left-hander coming off a season where he had posted a 2.80 ERA over 103 innings for Boston's Low-A affiliate. Today he's back in his native Australia, and while he's still throwing plus curveballs, he has no plans to return to the United States to pursue a big-league career. Cox pitched for the New South Wales Patriots in the just-completed Claxton Shield, where he was named pitcher of the year after allowing only three runs in 24 innings. David talked to Cox about the Claxton Shield, some of the best young players in Australia, and why he decided to give up his dream of pitching in the big leagues.
David Laurila: You're currently competing in the Claxton Shield. As most Americans are unfamiliar with baseball in Australia, can you tell us a little about it?
Tim Cox: The Claxton Shield is an annual national baseball competition held in Australia where all the states of Australia compete against each other. During the 1990s Australia had its own baseball league, the Australian Baseball League (ABL), and the winner was awarded the Claxton Shield. However, since the ABL collapsed, the Claxton Shield became a week-long tournament which was held in January of each year. Excluding the junior national tournaments it is the only nationwide baseball competition, therefore making the standard quite high, as all players want to represent their state. Since the baseball community in Australia is fairly small, the majority of the players know each other quite well, so the games are an interesting battle.
DL: What was expected going into this year's tournament, and what has happened so far?
TC: Although Australia has six states (Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania) and two territories (Australian Capital Territory and Northern Territory) only six teams compete in the Claxton Shield. Those are NSW, QLD, VIC, SA, WA and AP. AP is Australian Provincial, which is theoretically "the best of the rest." The four main states--NSW, QLD, VIC, and WA--are considered the stronger teams, and there are always competitive games when they play against one another. The format for the Claxton Shield was changed this year from a week-long tournament to one that was to be played over seven weeks. The teams were split into two divisions, Southern and Eastern. The Eastern Division consists of NSW, QLD, AP and the Southern Division of VIC, SA, and WA. After each team plays a total of six games--three home, three away--against the each of the two teams in their division, the top teams from the Southern and Eastern Divisions then play a three-game series to determine the winner. This final series is where the tournament is currently at, and it will be NSW versus WA. It's to be held this weekend, and will be a great series of baseball. [Ed. Note: The Perth Heat (WA) defeated New South Wales on Saturday to win the title. Cox took the loss, despite allowing only one run in six innings.]
DL: Relative to pro ball in the US, how would you describe the level of play in the Claxton Shield?
TC: Approximately 80 percent of the players are current or former professional players in the United States, so the standard is quite high. Overall, I would probably rank it somewhere between Rookie ball and Low-A. Some aspects might not be up to pro ball standards; however, other parts are definitely on par.
DL: Who are the best young players in Australia right now?
TC: Tough question. There are so many that it would be wrong of me to single out a couple of players, as it's unfair to the others. Also, I couldn't type out all their names as it would be fairly long. There is a website with all Australian pro ballplayers and their respective statistics.
DL: A young pitcher who has performed very well in the Claxton Shield is Liam Hendriks. Can you say a little about him?
TC: I don't know much about him. He's a couple of years younger than I am, however he is with the Minnesota Twins, so I was able to see him during spring training 2007 a couple of times. He's a location pitcher. What I mean by that is he doesn't have anything to overpower hitters with, but he locates all of his pitches very well. This is the key for any pitcher, no matter what velocity they throw at. Pitching is upsetting hitters' timing. If you can do this you'll be successful. From what I hear, he has good movement on his fastball and consequently induces many groundballs and double plays.
DL: Two other promising young players are Bradley Tippett and Mitch Dening. Can you give us a scouting report on each of them?
TC: Brad and I have played with each other quite a while now. We both live in a similar area, so we've played on each other's team many times. He has a real simple pitching action, which is always a bonus. The ability to repeat a delivery is a big plus for a pitcher, as it becomes easier to make adjustments for certain pitches. Brad is similar to Liam; his stuff isn't overpowering but he does locate well--a result of being able to repeat his delivery. He was used in a closer role this year with the Twins and he seems to be suited to this role nicely. Mitch I've only known since the start of 2007, as he signed with the Red Sox. He's an outfielder who tracks the ball well and has a strong arm. Although he's a great outfielder, his hitting is his strength--he's a left-handed hitter who doesn't necessarily hit for power or average but somewhere in between. He seems to rise to the occasion very well, which he has shown to do so many times during the Claxton Shield. He shows great discipline at the plate, but he is also aggressive when a pitcher makes a mistake.
DL: Prior to signing with the Red Sox as an international free agent in October 2004, you had Tommy John surgery in 2003. Why did you travel to the United States to have Dr. James Andrews perform the surgery, rather than have it done in Australia?
TC: Dr. Andrews has a well-known reputation for Tommy John surgery and was highly recommended. Although I could have had the surgery done here in Australia, my dad and I felt that being such a specialized procedure we wanted it done by a surgeon who had performed it several times before. The only bad thing that occurred for me was that I woke up from anaesthetic at 10 o'clock the next morning for a 1:30 p.m. flight to LA, then a 14-hour flight back to Sydney. I was so heavily bandaged that I looked like I had just survived a war.
DL: How is baseball's steroids scandal viewed by people in Australia?
TC: Interesting question. It's not very publicized here in Australia. There was a bit in the newspaper when Barry Bonds hit his 756th home run, but other than that, it's rarely seen. However, this isn't to say that it's not talked about. The general consensus I receive from people I've spoken to is about the punishment that is handed out--it's not strict enough. In all sports in Australia, first offense is a two-year ban and the second offense is a lifetime ban. How can you justify a 50-game suspension and then a second offense with a 100-game suspension? It seems some players are willing to deal with a suspension, as the gain far outweighs the consequences in their mind. I think there will always be athletes in all sports who are willing to take drugs to enhance their performance. You need to stop it from the other end. If the punishment is only going to be a slap on the wrist, as it is in baseball's case, two things will happen. Firstly, the players will deal with a suspension as it is fairly minor, and secondly, more players will go down the steroid road due to the ineffective consequences.
DL: You spent most of three years in the Red Sox organization before deciding to return home two months into last season. Why did you go back to Australia?
TC: This was a very difficult decision, one that everybody I talk to has their own opinion about. Did I love the baseball? Of course; I loved every minute of it. It was an unforgettable experience, memories that will stay with me for a lifetime. The underlying reason that I came home is something I still haven't perfected into words just yet, even though I have repeated it many times. Do I want to play in the big leagues? Definitely, this will always be a dream of mine. However, I knew I had to approach my pro ball career with a realistic view. The chances of reaching The Show are very slim, and just making it doesn't mean a life of wealth and fortune. You need to stick around for a while before that occurs, i.e. signing your first big-league contract, which can only happen after your minor league deal is finished. I wasn't prepared to sacrifice my whole life to chase something I wasn't necessarily guaranteed. Now, if I had something to fall back on, it might have been a different story, but I was just out of high school. If baseball finished when I was 30, I didn't want to go flip burgers at McDonald's, so I'd go get a tertiary education. After a couple of years, I'd be 33 with no experience. Who wants to hire me? It might be different in the US, but having "played in the big leagues" on my resume might look good, but it won't be a real selling point here in Australia. So, in summary, as much as I dreamed of playing major league baseball, I wasn't prepared to sacrifice my life to chase something I wasn't guaranteed. Some people say baseball is a game of percentages. I was weighing up my options and percentages and I felt this was the right decision. The reason why I left during the season and not at the end was because I was accepted into a highly-regarded financial course in one of Australia's leading financial universities.
DL: How would you describe your experiences in the US, both on and off the field?
TC: Unbelievable. The Red Sox were fantastic, always organized and very professional. I couldn't have asked for a better experience. All of the coaches were a great bunch of guys with a wealth of knowledge, and the front office staff were willing to help out at any time. I was lucky enough to be a part of the (Low-A) 2006 Greenville Drive, which were the first team to play in the new West End Field baseball stadium; it's an amazing stadium in so many ways. Off the field was just as great. Yes, there are always some bad experiences, however on the whole it was great. It was also a great way to see America. Not only was I able to visit the main cities, but I was able to see the small towns and everything else in between.
DL: To close, tell us a few things most Americans don't know about Australia, including a little about your hometown of Sydney.
TC: Prior to the 21st century, very little was known about Australia from an American point of view. Australia is a very isolated country compared to the rest of the world. To fly from LA to Sydney is a 14-hour flight, and because you cross the International Date Line, you arrive two days later. For instance, if you were to leave on a Thursday in LA, you will arrive on a Saturday in Sydney. Australia is a very open country, meaning there are vast distances between cities and towns, and nothing in between. This could be due to the fact that 20 million people live in Australia, less than a tenth of the American population.
However, the 2000 Olympics in Sydney have educated not only America, but the rest of the world has learned more about Sydney and Australia. This has occurred through advertising and promotional television/media. We have some of the most spectacular beaches along the coast, and each has its own unique characteristics. There's a great story that I heard about a man who called a hotel in Perth to book a room for the Sydney Olympics. He asked for a room that looked over the Sydney Harbour Bridge, Opera House, and also Ayres Rock. Unfortunately, Ayres Rock is about 1500 miles away from the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House, and Perth is about 2500 miles from Sydney. It would be similar to me ringing up a hotel in LA and asking for a room that looked over Fenway Park and Niagara Falls. So you can understand the disappointment the guy would have received when he was told that those places of interest were nowhere near each other.