Aussie teams continue to take on the world
UPDATE (19 June 2019): AUSTRALIAN ROSTER NAMED FOR UNDER 12 WORLD CUP (CLICK HERE)
7 June 2019
Never a dull moment in Australian baseball! That is for sure.
While it has been a hectic first half year, activity will be ramped up even further during coming months, as a number of our club and national representative teams travel overseas to fly the flag for Australian baseball – from Little League tournaments through to under-aged World Cups and a Premier 12 campaign of crucial importance to our Olympics prospects.
Among those entrusted with betterment and proper national administration of the sport, Team Australia General Manager Glenn Williams took some time out of his busy schedule to provide insights on a range of matters relating to Australia’s baseball goals and priorities.
In the past several months alone we have been treated to changes in ABL club ownership, to potential further expansion of the national league, to the prospect of a professional women’s competition and to the formation of strategies to assist in our Olympics baseball bid.
We remain aware of more senior players plying their trade in professional baseball in United States, Asia and in Europe – the latter of which has become an increasingly attractive workplace for many.
We have been treated to the increasing exposure of our young players to national and international competition, including the burgeoning numbers forging successful careers at college level – where many have performed so exceptionally well of late.
All of that, and more, while the lifeblood of the sport – grassroots baseball – continues to stoically toil away in generating playing and social opportunities for the many thousands of people engaged in baseball around the country.
Included among that throng are the many, very many individuals giving so generously of their time and expertise as volunteers or as supportive parents around clubs, involved in charters and of course in the Senior League, Junior League and Little League Championships that will conclude in the next few days.
The winning team from each of those championships will be travelling to United States over the next ten weeks to play in their particular World Series – a unique opportunity and an experience that will certainly be memorable, and perhaps pivotal in some personal lives.
While the focus of the Little League pathway remains firmly on participation rather than the elite performance that is sought at senior national levels, there are clear benefits to be derived from involvement in the programme.
"The Little League pathway continues to draw a keen interest from local charter programs across the country,” Team Australia General Manager Glenn Williams told Australian Baseball Alumni this week. “It's great to see kids participating in an event and having the chance to play with their local charters. There are some great charter programs emerging that are really leveraging the interest in the pathway and using it to develop kids and provide opportunities for them to play baseball.”
“Passionate, hard-working volunteers and coaches giving kids a chance to participate is a great thing for our sport.”
"Being fortunate enough to go overseas after winning is a bonus, but that opportunity is limited to one team in each age group yearly,” he observed. “All of the work done by volunteers and the coaches leading into the state and national events can have long-lasting, positive impacts on young baseball players and it's great to see some charters across the country really working hard to place the long-term development of the athletes as a priority while giving kids a chance to play."
Trips to the Senior League, Junior League and Little League World Series will be held from late July through to the end of August. They will be among a series of important baseball events in the second half of 2019 that will include the Under 12 World Cup (Tainan, Taipei, from 26 July to 4 August) and the Under 18 World Cup (Gijang City, Korea, from 30 August to 8 September).
Scheduled in Group C of the top twelve ranked baseball nations, the Premier 12 (Seoul, from 2 to 17 November), will provide Australia with its first opportunity to secure a berth in the 2020 Olympic Games.
Identification of players for each of those prestigious international events will create specific demands for Baseball Australia selection staff.
“It is always a challenge to select the team for the Under 12 World Cup,” Glenn Williams said. “It's an event that is a great experience for young baseball players and it is unique to our sport where kids can represent their country at a World Cup at eleven and twelve years of age. We try and focus on the experience of the athletes, keeping in mind that performance at these events is more highly prioritised at the older age groups – 18 and Under upwards.” Under 12 World Cup SQUAD.
“We work closely with state-based personnel and in turn the Little League charter programs to gather as much information on athletes as possible. Players are evaluated at the state championships, then again at the national championships - and we select the final team from there.”
“Timing is helpful for us on this event, as there isn't a clash with Little League,” he continued.
“There could be scenarios where an athlete who is on the successful Little League team doubles up and plays for Australia at the Under 12 World Cup. In those cases it will come down to choice for the athlete and their families. If they choose to do both, then we support it. If they choose to compete and represent their charter in Williamsport only, then we will support that also.”
“At that age group it is fundamentally about kids enjoying the experience.”
“The Under 18 team is more focused towards performance - and therefore we dig a lot deeper and work towards having the best available athletes to compete for their country,” Glenn Williams said. “With Senior League being towards the top end of the participation pathway, there are often athletes who are competing in that event who transition down the performance pathway. We work closely with state personnel who see these players often and we work through both objective and subjective information to get the best available squad compiled.”
Glenn Williams expects the lead-up to the Under 18 World Cup to be solid and productive, with a top-ten ranked nation in the world coming to Australia for their own pre-tournament camp.
“We will bring our squad together and have a selection camp that involves games against that nation,” he said. “It will be a great opportunity for our kids to play international standard baseball on home soil.”
“We will take the best available athletes for this team. That has often involved young professionals and collegiate athletes. Pending availability those athletes will be strongly considered for selection. It is one area that has driven our work in the college baseball space,” he said. “Building relationships to not only help our athletes get into college opportunities, but to have solid relationships with schools that allow those athletes to compete for Australia at World Cups.”
“We know it is never a guarantee, but a conversation and an awareness of the opportunity always helps in these situations. It has hurt us previously when athletes have been denied the opportunity to represent Australia because those helping get them into college programmes may have neglected to mention the possibility of representing Australia.”
Australian baseball followers will be well cognisant of funding constraints that appear to afflict our version of the sport at all levels, from club baseball and junior programmes right through to high-performance level. The slashing of government sports funding to baseball some years ago is well-documented – and it has necessitated fund-raising strategies such as those launched by Baseball Australia over the past fortnight.
While the funding even of our senior national programmes creates a serious challenge, so too is the support able to be provided to any athlete or team selected to represent Australia at any level – more notably at under-aged levels, where families are required to make a substantial contribution with the potential to cause hardship in some cases.
“The reality of our sport is that we aren't in a position financially to fully fund under-aged national teams,” Glenn Williams said. “There has always been a cost to represent Australia at under-aged World Cups. We contribute to the costs of these events and we assist in minimising the costs – however, there is still a cost to athletes competing. We work hard to ensure that the experience for the athletes is a great one and that it provides good value for their investment, but we simply aren't in a position to fully fund these teams.”
Funding is a vexed issue in a relatively minor sport like baseball, which may increasingly need to look at more creative and inventive measures to maintain and build upon existing programmes – and to create new initiatives in response to community expectations.
"It is always challenging keeping up with the demands of a sport that is aiming to grow,” Glenn Williams said. “There are opportunities there, though, and we continue to work hard to see how those opportunities can help the athletes coming through.”
“At the core of it all is the kids playing the game. We need to keep looking at ways we can provide better athlete experiences and better value for money for the parents who are currently paying for those experiences."
While there will be an understandably high level of interest generated around under-aged baseball events in which Australia will be involved over coming months, the Premier 12 tournament offers our national squad both an opportunity and a challenge to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and by so doing to continue building momentum that the sport has been mustering in recent times.
Qualification through the Premier 12 in November – basically by finishing ahead of Korea and Chinese Taipei - would provide a major boost to Australia’s national team programmes.
“We are prepared for the subsequent qualification events if the Premier12 doesn't go as planned, although qualification in November would be a big advantage,” Glenn Williams stressed. “The reinvestment of funds into an Olympic preparation, as well as the extra time to prepare for an Olympic Games, will be major advantages for the teams qualifying in November this year.”
“Olympic qualification - based on a six-team event - is something that isn't an easy task. And the effect of qualifying or not will unfold over the next twelve months or so. Baseball is in the unique position of being in Tokyo, not being in Paris and then very likely will be on the Los Angeles 2028 schedule.”
“The thought of a potential Team Australia squad competing in Tokyo in July 2020 is exciting,” Glenn Williams said. “We are not shying away from the difficulty of the task ahead, but there is a determination in the group we have to be well prepared and to be ready to compete when their chance comes.”
“We will continue to work with AIS (Australian Institute of Sport) on levels of support they can provide in terms of programming and there will be a major focus, post Tokyo, on Los Angeles,” he said. “Time will tell how that pans out as support is generally provided for sports on a four-year Olympic cycle. Realistically ours will be an eight-year cycle leading into Los Angeles.”
“Ultimately our plans on success at major events won't alter. Finding the support to enact those plans is a challenge, but it is a challenge that every sport faces.”
While Australian baseball continues to enhance its stature on the international stage – evidenced by our steady progression through the rankings over recent years – Glenn Williams recognises the enormous potential worth of developments back home and the outward-looking approach that so many of our players are now exhibiting as they seek to forge a career in the sport.
“It's always hard to judge the success of any new initiatives that have long-term strategy in mind,” he said. “However, the reach the ABL had last year and the fact that a group of passionate independent owners took over the teams was a huge step forward. Hopefully it sets a platform for everyone who is working in that area to build a successful and sustainable national league over time.”
“There are always setbacks and some things that aren't necessarily fitting into what the ideal model looks like, but often these things take time to evolve.”
“Similarly, with an increasing number of young players heading overseas, we won't see the immediate results of the hard work and investment that has been made by those that have helped them along their journey – including themselves - but it is exciting to think that there is a large cohort of young players plying their trade in the U.S. college system and in professional baseball.”
“We had two Aussies - Liam Spence and Jy Deeble - win the JUCO World Series and we will have a dozen or more kids competing at Division One schools this coming U.S. fall,” he said.
“Having young players competing into their early to mid-twenties at these levels is something that I am sure will have a positive impact on our national team performance.”
Australian Baseball Alumni congratulates the players, the families of the players and the coaches of Australian squads who will be attending World Series tournaments in United States. In wishing them all the very best, we acknowledge the effort, the commitment and the intrinsic success of all others involved in helping our young people to play baseball through promoting and strengthening the Little League pathway.
We thank Glenn Williams for his generous support in assisting with the preparation of this story. We wish Team Australia management, coaches and staff all the very best in their preparations for the Under 12 World Cup, Under 18 World Cup and selection of a Premier 12 squad that we know will represent the baseball community – and our country – with distinction.