A golden moment for Australian baseball

Kingsley Collins

12 February 2015

 

It was without a doubt one of the finest achievements in Australian baseball history – yet one that has strangely never been fully recognised for its magnitude.

 

Playing on Australian soil – for the only time the prestigious series was held in the southern hemisphere – our national team was a dominant force in the 1999 Intercontinental Cup, where it won eight games from nine in emphatically earning its first gold medal in international competition at any level.

 

Sanctioned by the IBAF, the time-honoured Intercontinental Cup attracted eight world class teams – in reigning titleholder Japan, perennial powerhouse Cuba, Italy, Netherlands, South Korea, United States, Chinese Taipei and a star-studded host nation.  

 

Dominated by Cuba since it was introduced in 1973, the Intercontinental Cup offered Australia the opportunity to improve on its third placing in Spain two years earlier, although we were facing serious opposition in Japan and the Cubans – who loomed, with United States, as among the toughest nations to beat.

 

Held in Sydney during November of 1999 – when domestic baseball was undergoing a degree of trauma as the Australian Baseball League had ground to a standstill – the Intercontinental Cup pitted the eight nations against each other in a challenging Round Robin series to be followed by playoffs between the top four nations.

 

Going in with what was arguably one of the very best national squads ever assembled under Head Coach Mike Young, Australia finished the preliminary rounds with a 6-1 record, placing it atop the table and scheduled to face third-placed Japan in the Semi-Final.

 

Japan was the only side to have beaten Australia in the preliminaries, so the payback was ever so sweet when Shayne Bennett, Cam Cairncross and Grant Balfour spun a four-hit pearler - in a 2-0 result - to force a series showdown with Cuba, already an eight-time winner which had swept past United States 7-0 in the other Semi-Final.

 

Starting for Australia in the decider, Phil Brassington conceded a run in the first and another in the second before his team tied it up in the fourth and subsequently rode a stellar six innings of relief by Adrian Meagher - despite Cuba edging ahead again in the sixth.

 

Australia drew level in the eighth, when Adam Burton (pictured) drove in fellow Melburnian Ben Utting – both, incidentally, who are in 2015 still playing at the highest level of club baseball. Pitching scoreless baseball from the eighth through the tenth, Tom Becker continued to stifle the Cuban offence as the game threatened to go deep into extra innings.

In the top of eleven, Cuban Carlos Yanes issued none-out passes to Ron Johnson and Paul Gonzalez before Grant McDonald went down swinging and David Nilsson flied out to centrefield – bringing pinch hitter Gary White to the plate.

 

Under enormous pressure, White – a former minor league professional - drove a ball into centrefield that took awkward hops off the infield cut-out for nineteen year-old Yasser Gomez, allowing pinch runner Peter Vogler to thunder home for the go-ahead run.

 

With their side holding a 4-3 break, Becker, Cairncross and Balfour each retired a Cuban hitter to nail down Australia’s first gold medal at any international baseball event.

 

There were extraordinary scenes post-game as the Australian players raced on to the field to embrace each other and to revel in what had been an outstanding effort against the strongest baseball nations on the planet.

 

“I have never played in a game before or since that I have wanted to win more,” outfielder Grant McDonald told Australian Baseball Alumni this week. “The focus on each play in pitching and batting to win our first gold medal was intense and it was exhilarating at the same time. The crowd was right behind us in the gold medal game trying to lift us.”

 

“The final had some great highlights with Adrian Meagher throwing a gem in relief and Gary White’s hit to score Peter Vogler as the go ahead run for Australia. I remember when Balfour was coming in to get the last out, I was thinking, “Well, this is it right here, we've dealt our last card - are we good enough to win?”

 

“Then Grant throwing nothing but fastballs to the last batter to blow him away and get the final out was amazing.”

Tournament MVP David Nilsson (catcher), Adrian Meagher (pitcher) and Michael Moyle (DH) were named to the All-Star team in recognition of the dominance of our playing group across the board.

 

Australia led the tournament in total runs scored (fifty over nine games) and it was marginally second behind Japan in ERA (1.54 to 1.49). While Moyle batted .323 (three home runs and nine RBIs) and Nilsson carded a stunning average of .379 (with twelve RBIs), Balfour, Becker, Cairncross and Meagher were superb on the hill for an Australian squad that boasted quality performers across the gamut of offence, defence and pitching.

 

“That was a great tournament,” Grant McDonald said. “Everything fell into place. Our pitching was strong and we swung the bats well. It seemed that each game we scored first and never looked back.”

 

“Everyone contributed to our wins with bat and ball. The team was a great unit and Mike Young kept everyone focused and on task during the whole competition," he said. "Playing all those international teams in our backyard in Sydney at the new Blacktown stadium and at Homebush Stadium in the lead up to the Olympics was ideal.”

 

This was truly a remarkable effort by a national baseball team that arguably may have been the best ever to have donned the green and gold. Yet the achievement was never fully recognised by the mainstream media and by a baseball community that has appeared to dwell more on the letdown of the 2000 Olympics and the stunning revival in Athens for a silver medal in 2004.

 

Australian Baseball Alumni salutes our national gold medal squad of the 1999 Intercontinental Cup!

 

May the memories live on for this fine group of athletes – arguably our strongest senior squad ever assembled. And may their exploits in Sydney back in November 1999 be entrenched in baseball lore among the very highest of our collective achievements in the sport.