A passion for the game - at all levels
January 25 2015
The name is synonymous with Australian baseball.
A genuine home-grown superstar with a remarkable fifteen year playing career at the highest domestic levels, Lionel Harris has been accorded a truckload of accolades at home and internationally – including induction into the Baseball Australia Hall of Fame in 2006.
An Australian Baseball Alumni member, Harris has given the sport exemplary service since his playing retirement, holding down a range of roles at all baseball levels from development through to Australian Baseball League administration.
Bursting onto the baseball scene as a high school star in the early seventies, Lionel Harris was an athletic, dominant figure and a fearsome hitter in New South Wales A Grade baseball from 1977 through to 1989, winning the Auburn Orioles Batting Title five times while representing his state and country at the highest levels in his spare time.
Like many of our top-line baseball players – then and now – Harris showed early promise in more than one team sport.
“Back in 1973 – when I was thirteen - I used to play soccer and cricket as a kid and I wanted a change after playing both sports for ten years,” Harris told Australian Baseball Alumni. “I joined the Bankstown Sports Junior Baseball Club and played there for two years, then was approached by the Auburn Orioles 1975 to play with them.”
“I was an Oriole from that point on.”
“I was a reasonable cricketer – and I had Jeff Thompson and Len Pascoe look at me in the nets when I was still at school,” he said. “They reckoned that I was the quickest bowler they had seen for my age and they asked me to try out for the Green Shield cricket team. That year (1975) I made the Green Shield team and played on the SCG.”
Focused more closely on his baseball though, Harris was invited to play for Australia against a visiting American team at Oriole Park and he was shortly after that selected for the NSW Under 15 state team at the 1975 National Championship in Sydney, where he was named tournament Most Valuable Player.
That series heralded the start of a remarkable career in representative baseball.
Lionel Harris went on to play Claxton Shield for New South Wales from 1977/78 to 1988. He was named NSW Player of the Year in 1977-78, 1980-81 and in 1987-88, along the journey earning Claxton Shield All-Star selection four times before a later nomination to the Australian Baseball League All-Star team in 1989.
Harris won the Australian Batting Trophy at the 1981 Claxton Shield in Adelaide and he was selected as centrefielder to the New South Wales and Australian 75th Claxton Shield Diamond Anniversary All-Star Team announced at Geelong Baseball Centre in 2009.
A colossus in club and interstate baseball, he unsurprisingly enjoyed a lengthy and distinguished stay at international level – playing at a range of tournaments in United States, Canada, Japan and Korea.
In his nine years with the Australian national team, Lionel Harris competed in the 1980 Amateur World Series, the 1982 Amateur World Series, 1985 Asian Championship – in which he swatted seven home runs from eight games - and the 1985 Intercontinental Cup, where he was named an All-Star outfielder alongside legendary Cuban slugger Luis Casanova and Taiwan’s Yung-Tai Sung, who recorded the first safe hit in the Chinese Professional Baseball League.
Home Run King at Asian Championships
Harris represented Australia in the Americas Cup Festival of Sport in Perth in 1986 - where he was named captain of the Australian national baseball team – and he spent a second term as skipper for the 1987 Olympics Qualifying Tournament in Japan.
As his achievements and his sporting reputation continued to build, Harris was named the 1988 Bicentennial Auburn Municipality Sportsperson of the Year and he was inducted that year to the Bankstown City Sporting Hall of Fame (Baseball) in recognition of his contribution to community sport.
With Australian baseball enjoying a golden era during the 1980s, creation of a national baseball league to many people appeared part of a natural progression for the sport – although for Lionel Harris, the stay was not for quite as long as his supporters may have hoped.
Suiting up for Parramatta Patriots in 1989-90 – his only Australian Baseball League season - Harris smashed six home runs in just thirty-three games on his way to hitting .296 and slugging fourth in the league, a most emphatic way to sign off on a stellar career at the highest national levels.
The memories and highlights for Lionel Harris are many. As satisfying as the personal achievements may be, there are other intangible benefits and lasting realisations that have become even more important to him over time.
“The friendships that I have made through baseball are among my fondest memories,” Harris said. “I was fortunate to play with and against some of the greatest players in Australian baseball - like Ray Michell, Don Knapp, Doug Mateljan, Tony Adamson, Kevin Greatrex, Dave Munday, Greg Elkson, John Hodges, Brian Wonnacott, Jon Deeble, Matthew Sheldon-Collins, Paul Elliot, Ian Hendy, Graham Cassel, Scott Franklin, Bob Nilsson, Geoff Martin, Alan Albury, Tony Thomson - just to mention a few.”
“That has given me great pleasure. Baseball was an opportunity I had that has led to lifetime friendships,” he said. “That's what this great game has given to me. I have loved every minute of it - which is why I am committed to putting back in whatever way that I can.”
Flag-bearer for Australia in Seoul
Pressed on his more vivid memories of opponents at home and abroad, Lionel Harris readily identifies the above names as some of the more remarkable to have played with or against.
“I always respected my teammates and quality opponents. Some of them I have mentioned already, although there were just so many players who I loved to watch – whether I was playing with or against them,” he said.
“Kevin Greatrex from South Australia was a power hitter among the most dangerous in my day. All states would dread it when he came to the plate.”
“From a New South Wales perspective, Jon Deeble from Victoria was one of the toughest competitors of the lot. He beat us three years in a row at the Claxton Shield. He just dominated us with his screw ball.”
“Internationally, the teams I loved playing against were Cuba, Japan, USA, Canada and Korea. Those teams always challenged you as a player and they always came ready to play. I wouldn’t say that I feared any of the international teams, but I certainly respected them – especially Cuba. They always had six pitchers who could throw over 90 MPH. We would get one off the mound and another just as fast would come on. And they also had awesome power hitters who could hit the long ball consistently.”
“It was always a great feeling to know you were playing against great teams,” he said.
Although baseball is demonstrably a team game, it is structured around individuals contributing in their own ways to the well-being and the success of the unit. While recognising the high quality of his teammates and his opponents over the distance, Lionel Harris does have lasting memories of what are special personal moments in the sport.
“Hitting my first home run internationally was a great memory, at Seoul Stadium, Korea, over the left field fence in 1979. Others include hitting a home run at Jamsil Stadium in Korea, two at Sebu Stadium in Japan, a grand slam against Korea in 1985 and a 1-0 home run against Japan in Melbourne at Ross Straw field,” he said.
“I hit a few long balls in my day. The longest I hit was at Norwood Oval – one that went over the left field fence, over the AFL fence, out of the AFL field and into the school behind the AFL field. I was on record as hitting the first ball over the centrefield fence at Ross Straw Field in Melbourne after it was built. It went over a 30 metre fence that was straight away centrefield.”
Harris describes his “most disappointing non-home run” as occurring when Australia played Korea at the Gabba cricket stadium in Brisbane during the eighties.
“I hit a ball from one side of the field and it reached the fence on the other side,” he explained. “The Korean team formed a seven man relay. I was sent home by the third base coach - no names mentioned - and was thrown out at the plate.”
Lionel Harris caricature drawn at Camden Yards
After such a brilliant playing career, Lionel Harris could have been excused for putting his feet up and basking under past glories in baseball retirement. Not so, as the popular big man has remained actively involved in coaching and baseball administration at state and national level.
A Level Four accredited coach, Harris has served NSW under-aged state teams as Hitting Coach and as Head Coach. He has been involved with the New South Wales winter programme for several years under High Performance Manager Glenn Williams and he was Australian Assistant Coach for the 2011 and 2012 Cal Ripken series in Aberdeen, United States.
Coordinator for the New South Wales Little League Winter Development Programme in 2013, he was Head Coach and Executive advisor to the Plumpton Braves Junior Baseball Club in 2014 and he was Head Coach of the Central Region team that played at the Dingo World Series earlier this month.
His commitment to baseball administration in New South Wales remains unabated. Lionel Harris was Executive Officer for the New South Wales Under 23 team for five years and he was a member of the Sporting Organisation Committee for the 2009 World Masters Games in Sydney. He has been a member of the ABF Heritage Committee, a club delegate for Bankstown Baseball Club, a Technical Officer for the NSW National Little League Championships (2012 and 2013) and he was Team Executive Officer for the Sydney Blue Sox in 2013-14.
Currently Lionel Harris is a member of the Bluesox Advisory Board and he is Head Coach and Executive Advisor to the Plumpton Braves Junior Baseball Club.
With such extensive and long-standing engagement in the sport, he has some strong thoughts on the future of Australian baseball and the ABL.
“The first ABL was a great initiative,” Harris reflected. “It started the beginning of a professional approach to the game. In the early 1990s you saw scouts come down to Australia and this started the trend of players being seen and signed to Major League organisations.”
“The current ABL has a strong product on the field with teams being made up largely from home-grown players who are coming back from the Major League organisations to increase the strength of the domestic talent. Having the teams allowed up to four imports has stabilised the team dynamics and is generating a better competition,” he said.
“I think the future of the ABL is looking good. We just need to get more sponsorship in and around the game to make it grow and to continue to draw the crowds to the game. The product on the field is good. Anyone who comes and watches the games will be entertained by what they see.”
Lionel Harris remains positive about the current state of Australian baseball and he is optimistic for what the future holds – especially for our emerging young players contemplating the option of either college baseball or a professional signing should the opportunity arise.
“Australian baseball is strong, it is getting better and it has good depth developing,” he said. “We now have teams that compete at the Cal Ripken World Series, Under 15 WBC, Under 21 WBC, Men’s WBC and our national women’s team. Maybe in 2020 we could be back in the Olympics.”
“We currently have over 200 baseballers playing in the United States, spread over all Major League organisations or going to college,” Harris said. “The recent pathway talks held at the Under 16 and Under 18 Nationals - where there were discussions about the age of signing being raised from 16 to 18 years of age - is a positive move. That will give our players a better chance to compete when they go across to the States. They will mentally be stronger and physically stronger, which means the chance of fulfilling their dream is a lot closer than before.”
“Even though I did not go to college in the states, I am a firm believer that the best choice for our players to take is to go to college. They will get an education that they can fall back on, and they will get a lot more at bats than they would going over at 16 or 17 years of age.”
A baseball lifer, Lionel Harris continues to give much back to the sport with which he has been intimately involved for over forty years. Why does he keep doing this? What is it about the sport, and about the people, that makes him – or any of us - want to devote so much of our time and energy to amateur and grassroots baseball?
“I just have a passion for this great game – at all levels,” he told Baseball Alumni. “Baseball gave me a great opportunity during my playing days to see the world, to broaden my horizons, to be good at what I did. I saw Japan, Korea, USA, Canada. I have developed long-lasting friendships in baseball from around the world – contacts that I treasure and stay in contact with.”
“I love being involved at the grassroots level and being able to put back into the game,” Harris said. “I feel that I can influence the players and help guide them to become better. I get great satisfaction in showing a player good techniques and seeing him or her execute those techniques and I enjoy the delight they get from performing the tasks correctly.”
“My best friends are baseballers - in fact probably all my friends are from baseball, which keeps me close to the ground on what is going on.”
“I love watching baseball games – at all levels. I watch our Australians playing in the states on MLB TV, I watch local games, I’m involved with the Plumpton Junior Baseball Club - a great club with great volunteers. I help Baseball NSW where I can and I remain involved with the Sydney Bluesox.”
“I’ve been fortunate enough to have travelled with state teams and more recently with the Cal Ripken World Series team in 2011 and 2012. That was great experience,” he said.
“Why do we do it? What do we get out of being involved? Well, a recent illustration might sum this up,” he said.
“Just this January I was involved in the Dingo World Series on the Gold Coast. It was a great experience. A well-run tournament, spirited competition, teams from around the world, friendships made that will be long lasting. The kids had fun, the volunteers were great.”
“That - to me - is what the future of the game holds in its potential. A foundation of over 300 kids and parents from around the world and across the country coming together for a family holiday and a celebration of playing baseball that will help grow our great game.”
“What better way to go?”
Australian Baseball Alumni extends its sincere appreciation to national baseball great Lionel Harris for his assistance in the preparation of this article. His is among the many inspiring stories lived by committed baseball people throughout the land. We will seek to bring our members and supporters more of such stories over the months and years ahead.