Aussie expatriate lands coaching gig in UK
18 June 2016
Currently not in IBAF top twenty world rankings, Great Britain has a baseball history dating back to 1749, with organised domestic competition being played since 1890 and its national team finishing second in the 1938 World Cup.
While it has remained a relative minnow in baseball ever since, Britain has a chance of qualifying for the 2017 World Baseball Classic should it be successful in New York during September.
Now living in London, former Australian baseball player and coach Cam McHarg was recently appointed among staff for the Great Britain Under 18 national squad as it prepares for the Under 18 European Championship that will be held in Gijon, Spain, in mid-July.
Cam McHarg spoke to us this week about his baseball journey.
“I started playing baseball when I was eight or nine,” McHarg said. “I became involved largely through a teacher at school who was playing at Westgarth (in Melbourne) at the time and who set up an Under 10 team.”
“Although I played a number of other sports – like football, basketball, tennis and cricket – I loved playing baseball and was with Westgarth for a number of years, and then Research when Westgarth didn’t have an Under 16 winter team.”
Like so many people starting out in sport, Cam McHarg had his mentors – including one Max Sherriff, who was President of the Doncaster Summer League club as well as being involved with Westgarth.
“He suggested giving summer baseball a try – which I did – and I finished up playing all-year round at both clubs for the next ten years or so,” McHarg recalled.
Moving to the east suburban Malvern Baseball Club in 2000, McHarg embarked upon a lengthy career that ultimately led to his becoming involved as a junior coach.
“At Malvern there was a bunch of guys who I had also played with at Westgarth,” he said. “People like Ross McLean, the Whitford brothers and Clint Summerville.”
“I played there for ten years, saw the club go from Division Two to winning the Division One title in 2005 and I officially retired as a player after the 2009 summer season.”
Sensing that his playing days were done, Cam McHarg remained attuned to other possibilities in the sport and he seized upon an opportunity presented to him by a member of one of Australia’s most decorated baseball families.
“During the 2009 winter season Mike Deeble mentioned he was going to coach the Victorian Under 18 team at the National Championships. I said if he needed a hand I would be happy to help him out,” McHarg said.
“Well, the rest is history as they say. I coached with Victoria White with Mike that year at Geelong and I really enjoyed it. I was probably a little raw in terms of my coaching, but it was a great learning experience being around great coaches like Mike, Scott Dawes, Dave Hargreaves, Damian Shanahan and plenty of others. I coached in 2010 at Geelong, 2011 for Victoria Blue in Lismore and Victoria White again in Geelong in 2012.”
“In 2010 I was also appointed as the Head Coach of Westgarth,” he said. “It was great to be able to put into practice what I had learned in the last few years, but I had had started a new job and had to step down after the season due to work commitments.”
Those commitments, and his all-important family responsibilities, heralded the start of a journey that took Cam McHarg from the familiar confines of suburban Melbourne to a new phase of life living in south-west London, which in turn led to further baseball connections.
“In 2014 my wife started working for a global health care company whose head office is in London,” he said. “As her responsibilities grew it meant long periods away from home, which was becoming difficult with three young children. The company was great about the family but if her role was going to be ongoing it would mean re-locating to the UK.”
“We spent six weeks in London in late 2014, seeing if the kids could handle living in another country. When her role became permanent we had to pack our things and move across the globe in January 2015.”
Knowing little about baseball in United Kingdom but keen to become involved in some capacity, McHarg did his research and made contact with appropriate people in the sport.
“Before we moved over here I did some googling and I spoke to some players who had been here before, but that was about it,” McHarg said. “When I was here in 2014 I set up a meeting with Will Lintern – who is the Head Under 18 Coach and is also the National Development Manager for Baseball UK. We had a chat and left the door open for me to have some involvement when we moved over.”
“Once I moved over it all started happening pretty quickly. I told Will I was here and the next thing you know I am at Milton Keynes, in one of the High Performance Academy sessions.”
“I am not part of a particular club over here,” he said. “I thought it was best to stay neutral when I am involved with the national teams programme.”
There is an estimate of around 5000 people all up playing baseball in Great Britain, at all levels. For seniors there are something like 37 clubs, with around sixty teams in five divisions ranging from National Baseball League (currently seven teams) down to single A, which is predominantly social and recreational.
“The standard of play is pretty good,” McHarg said. “The National Baseball League could be compared to Division Two of Victorian Summer League and its interstate counterparts. Teams in the NBL are very competitive and have imports. There are a number of Aussies who have played in the league – including three with London Mets last season. One of them is Sam Morris, who is well known in Melbourne club baseball and who I coached in the Victorian team.”
“The NBL has a relatively short season of eighteen games plus playoffs, but teams also have the opportunity to play in Europe against other European club teams.”
It is believed that the first game of “Bass-Ball” in Britain was played as far back as 1749, with organised competitions since around 1890. Great Britain was second – to United States - in the World Cup of 1938. But while the sport has done pretty well in European countries, it seems to have struggled to make inroads in Britain since the second war – both in terms of participation and elite performance.
There could be various factors that might account for this.
“Baseball here faces similar issues to baseball in Australia,” said Cam McHarg. “The bigger sports have huge pulling power. Kids here that are good at soccer can be signed to a club as young as nine years old. And the drawing power of soccer and cricket is huge, with some of the best facilities I have seen for any sport around the world.”
“As far as facilities go, we have Farnham Park which was opened a couple of years ago and is the UK version of Altona,” he said. “It has a main diamond and two smaller diamonds that can be used for baseball or softball. They are also in the process of building another full-sized diamond. All the play-offs and international games are played here. It is a great playing surface and they are making the facilities better all the time.”
“The NBL club grounds are all different. Some teams will have a clubhouse and changing facilities, some will not. I haven’t been to all of the fields yet, but most of the time the grounds are prepared by the players. Some have temporary fencing. They make do with what they can just to play a game of baseball.”
“UK baseball does not get a huge amount of funding,” McHarg said. “Olympic sports get the most funding, so when we play as a GB team most of the players – including seniors – have to pay to play.”
Cam McHarg has been appointed as Outfield and First Base Coach for the Great Britain national side that will play in the Under 18 European Championship in Gijon, Spain, from 11-17 July. The Head Coach of the squad is Will Lintern, charged with the responsibility of having the squad ready for a strong showing against nine other nations contesting the series.
“Will is a very experienced guy who has been Head Coach of the Under 18 team for the past six years,” McHarg said. “He has done a great job getting the team qualified for the Euros.”
“Our squad this year has kids from Great Britain, USA and even Australia. We have a team practice here at Farnham on 2 July before we fly out on 6 July. We have some practice games scheduled against other countries so the team can spend some time playing together for the first time.”
“There is no women’s league here in the UK, but we do have a female pitcher - Laura Hirai - on our team. She is one of the best competitors I have seen on the field,” he said.
“The kids self-fund their trip, so it is a similar scenario to the National Championships back in Australia.”
“We are heading to the Euros confident of a good showing, although we expect tough competition,” McHarg said. “Germany is one of the sides to look out for – with a new Head Coach in Tom Gillespie, who played and coached here and is a scout for Pittsburgh Pirates. Italy is a very well-drilled side, Spain will be tough and the Czech team has a great programme that will make them very strong.”
Although not listed in the top twenty of IBAF rankings, Great Britain could still go to the 2017 World Baseball Classic if it wins its qualifier this September. Even then, it will be virtually impossible to qualify for the 2019 Premier 12 or the 2020 Olympics (which will include just six teams).
Notwithstanding the challenges facing the sport at elite level, Cam McHarg is optimistic about the future of baseball in Great Britain.
“I think the future is looking very bright,” he said, “especially with some quality baseball coaches led by Liam Carroll in the national programme. The first piece of the puzzle implemented by Liam is the culture, in which we as coaches need to teach the players the “GB Way”. Players now have a pathway to follow; they can go through the system and know that the message is clear.”
“The Euros from an Under 18 perspective is vitally important. It gets our kids out of their comfort zone and will show them the performance that is required on a consistent basis.”
“My impression is that Great Britain is in a similar position to what has been facing Australian national teams,” he said. “Like back home, we just haven’t played enough. The more we play, the better we get, the more rankings points we get and the more likely we are to qualify for major events like the Classic, the Premier 12 and the Olympics.”
While his focus is very much on helping enable the Great Britain Under 18 side to perform at its optimum for the European Championship, Cam McHarg remains acutely interested in what is happening with Australian baseball, which is undergoing an exciting phase under the new Charter system and with our under-aged, men’s and women’s elite programmes being more regularly exposed to tough international competition.
“I was lucky enough to attend the American Coaches Association conference in Nashville in January this year,” McHarg said. “I spoke to Glenn Williams there and I like what Baseball Australia is trying to do in regard to pathways for younger players. If the ABL doesn’t go ahead in its existing form – as is rumoured - I would love to see the Claxton Shield come back and maybe be played around the same time as the juniors to create a festival-type type baseball event.”
“I feel fortunate to have had such a long and enjoyable involvement in Australian baseball,” he said. “To be able to help out in another country where there is so much enthusiasm and so much scope for development of the sport is a privilege.”
Australian Baseball Alumni thanks Cam McHarg for his assistance in the preparation of this story. We wish him all the very best in his assistant coaching role with the Great Britain Under 18 team as it takes on the brightest young talent in European baseball.
Great baseball minds swapping notes
Great Britain Under 18 squad
Farnham Park, Slough