Bombers cap season by equalling league record 

Kingsley Collins

8 March 2015

 

Recently named as Baseball Australia Club of the Year, Essendon Baseball Club has added another entry to its burgeoning list of honours by winning its fourth successive Division One title in Victorian Summer League baseball – to equal a record that has stood for twenty years.

 

Possessed of enormous club depth – and boasting a number of players with professional experience – the Bombers did not, though, have it all their own way against a tough Blackburn Orioles outfit led from the front by national and international representative Adam Bright.

 

Emulating the four-peat set by powerhouse Waverley in the early nineties, Essendon Baseball Club continues to set the benchmark for Victorian Summer League baseball and – on recent form – it will be well-fancied by many to maintain its dominance into the years to come.  

 

“Blackburn is always a quality opponent and we are just so proud of our players,” an elated Essendon Assistant Coach Richard King told Australian Baseball Alumni after his side had posted its second win of a three-game Grand Final series decided at Melbourne Ballpark this weekend.

 

“We have had some titanic battles with them over the past several years. This was another one. Fortunately for us, we were able to get the breaks – and the key hit - when it mattered.”  

 

The Essendon club has enjoyed a long and very distinguished history since 1893, based periodically at several different locations in the inner north suburban area of Melbourne. For the past twenty years playing out of Boeing Reserve it – like any grassroots club – has experienced its share of ups and downs as personnel have come and gone and playing fortunes have fluctuated accordingly.

 

Winning its first A Grade premiership in 1918, the club played in various divisions of Victorian winter baseball – with reasonable success - before becoming a regular Division One club when the league went summer in the late seventies. However, it was not until 1988/89 season that the Bombers won their first Summer League Division One Championship - followed by another in 1995/96 before a run of outs despite going close at the highest level until the 2011/12 season produced the first of the four Division One pennants.

 

While the road to any baseball championship is fraught with challenges, Essendon again appeared to do it relatively comfortably in the 2014/15 regular season. Finishing atop its conference, the club dispensed with a valiant Geelong Baycats in the best of three Semi-Finals series – snatching a 2-0 win in the first and a thrilling 7-5 result in the second of two intense games played.

 

Again meeting Blackburn in the Grand Final, the Bombers pegged back an early three-run deficit in Game One and were relentless in offence – racking up fourteen hits to eight en route to a 9-5 victory. In Game Two at Melbourne Ballpark, it was a somewhat different story against Orioles starter Adam Bright, who quelled the Essendon defence as his side recovered from a deficit for a 6-4 result that forced the series into Sunday.

 

With both clubs carrying injured players, the Game Three decider was a pulsating battle of attrition that saw Essendon drive the go-ahead run across the plate in the tenth innings for a 4-3 result after a fantastic contest between outstanding Victorian clubs.

 

Effusive in his admiration for the Orioles – who have endured a couple of heart-breaking losses at this level in recent years – Essendon Manager Peter Giles afterwards described Blackburn as “a great opponent, and a great club that is magnificently led by Adam Bright and a super administration.”

 

“Blackburn will be understandably be very disappointed,” Giles said, “though their club – both clubs – should be very proud of how the game was showcased during the Grand Final series.”

 

“Baseball was the real winner here.”  

While premiership spoils have been shared between numerous Victorian clubs since the advent of summer baseball, only a few have strung together consecutive years of Division One success. Of those clubs, Waverley Wildcats won four on the trot into the early nineties and another three consecutively between 2008 and 2011, while Upwey Ferntree Gully enjoyed a golden era that included three flags under Matthew Sheldon-Collins between 2000 and 2002.

 

In being nominated as a finalist for Baseball Australia Club of the Year, Essendon was cited as “a diverse, vibrant and active club, underpinned by a strong volunteer and supporter base. The club has a strong focus on creating a fun, family friendly and welcoming environment and is one of the strongest and most proactive baseball clubs in Victoria.”

 

Aside from its Division One successes of recent years, Essendon has snared the prestigious Baseball Victoria Club Championship for six of the past seven seasons and it enjoys continued success at all senior and junior levels. Fielding five senior sides, two women’s teams and with a flourishing junior programme, the club has been at the vanguard of Masters baseball for the past twenty years, when a number of its members were instrumental in helping create the iconic Golddiggers organisation that now plays fully under the Essendon banner.

 

The club has consistently been recognised for its community engagement and its sporting excellence by local council, community groups and the Victorian Government, which last year short-listed Essendon for consideration as one of the top five sporting clubs in Victoria. This is a quite remarkable achievement for a club that during the late nineties and and early 2000s was battling hard to reconsolidate as a Division One power.

 

Life Member and former Australian Baseball League pitcher Richard King believes that a club resurgence had its genesis some years earlier than that, although the results were not immediately noticeable.

 

“I think the catalyst for our ongoing success can actually be traced back to the mid 90s,” King said. “The club won the 1995/96 Division One premiership but for a mix of reasons was relegated the following year. Stunned by that, a loyal band of players and administrators ensured a quick return to Division One and they set about ensuring that the relegation experience wasn’t repeated.”

 

“Administrators including Don Cornish, Rod McKelvie, Gary O’Brien, Robert McDonald, Russell Edwards, Graham and Pam Tarrant, Gail and Frank Tamburrino, the Liersch family and Heather Dixon – among many others - laid the foundations for a stronger club through better relationships with the City of Moonee Valley and corporate supporters, a stronger focus on volunteers and a commitment to focus on ‘home grown’ players with a club-first attitude that continues to this day,” he said.

 

Richard King points to the involvement of a core of quality Division One players in Brett Tamburrino, Ross Drinkwater, John Edwards, Jarrod Liersch, Jason and Tristen McDonald, Casey and Paul Jones, Steve and Andrew Lehmann, Tony Cornish, Troy O’Connor and Brett Caulfield – who were among those who contributed to the potent sense of family that defines club culture today.

 

Allied with that, the club been blessed with some outstanding coaches able to emulate the achievements of acolytes from earlier eras such as Ross Straw and Michael Gregory – including, in more recent times, the likes of Garry Bitmead, Russell Spear and Peter Giles.

 

“Those three men are the best I’ve been privileged to witness as coaches in the last twenty years,” Richard King said. “All have their strengths and all have enjoyed their share of success while experiencing some hard times.”

 

“To my mind Garry Bitmead has been and continues to be the most influential coach that this club has ever had. He has helped shape the lives of more young men and women at EBC than any one person could ever set out to do. Bitty takes a strong, passionate, disciplined approach with meticulous planning. No stone is left unturned in his quest to make each individual the best player they can be.”

 

“He is an icon of EBC,” King said.

 

“Russell Spear knows baseball. He understand its vagaries and its ups and downs. People want to play for him because all he wants to do is play ball. He too is a passionate person, wearing his heart on his sleeve every time he goes to the ballpark. One of the best players ever to pull on an EBC jersey, Spearzy led the team from the front and said “come along for the ride”!”

 

“He was desperately unlucky to have not coached a championship side when he was at the helm some years ago. I have no doubt - if he chooses to do so - that he could be the ‘super coach’ in EBC’s future.”

Describing him as “the best coach I have ever been associated with, in any sport”, King makes special mention of Peter Giles (above), who has led the Division One team to its remarkable run of four successive Summer League pennants. While “Farmer” has not yet flagged his intentions, there are plenty who would dearly love him to remain in charge at Boeing Reserve for years to come.

 

“He (Giles) is a wonderful humanist who understands the importance of family, work and other priorities outside of baseball,” King said. “He is equally adept at dealing with the youngest members in our squad as he is with the oldest. Equally, his communication is as effective with the loudest guys in our group as it is with the quietest - with the most talented and with those who still have a way to go. He is an exceptional planner who I have no doubt would be as successful coaching an AFL team as he is a baseball team.”

 

“Quite simply, Gilesy is the best in the business and we’ve been blessed by having him take our exceptionally talented group to the next level.”

 

And a talented group indeed it is - one that stacks up admirably against those of other eras, including the star-studded group inspired and mentored by Michael Gregory over a quarter of a century ago.  

 

“Michael was our coach when we won the 1988/89 Premiership – a drought breaker for the Club as we hadn’t had Division One success since 1966,” King said. “He brought the very best out of his group of players and he made us believe we were capable of beating anyone – even the much-vaunted Waverley team that we ended up beating twice to win the Grand Final that season. He was the coach who made me think like a Division One pitcher and he provided me with the opportunity to play a part in a very special time in EBC history.”

 

Essendon Baseball Club has produced and nurtured an impressive array of young athletes over the past twenty years, many of whom have gone on to college careers or in other instances who play or who have played professional baseball. Many of them have returned to the club after time away, happy to re-engage at their own expense with a club that significantly does not offer monetary incentives to any of those wishing to partake of some “EBC love”.

 

Aside from a number of players who have taken a college education pathway, the senior playing list for this season included current and former playing professionals in former Major Leaguer Shane Lindsay and Minor League professionals in Josh Davies, Jared Cruz, Aaron Sayers, Russell Spear, Ross Hipke and Brett Tamburrino.

 

“There is a genuine desire by all involved at EBC for the people in the club to do well,” King explained. “Whether it’s a 35 year old rookie who turns up wearing shorts and runners having seen the game on TV and wanting to give it a go, or a Major Leaguer like Shane Lindsay or an Olympic Silver Medallist like Brett Tamburrino it doesn’t matter – everyone at EBC wants to enjoy the game we love on and off the field.”

 

“The Essendon Baseball Club family is there to help people in times of adversity and to knock them down a peg or three if they are getting too big for their boots. We laugh about the fact that we sledge each other more than we sledge the opposition by a factor of about one hundred. If we weren’t such great mates we’d probably hate each other!”

 

“EBC Love means a lot to our Club,” King said. “It’s a simple catch cry that has evolved through the hard work, dedication and respect of many who have come before us. It’s unique and it’s valued. It’s why we continue to strive for success and it is why those who support our club continue to make enormous personal sacrifices to ensure that success.”

 

In terms of adversity, the Essendon Baseball Club could have been faced with nothing more upsetting and daunting than the senseless murder of young man Chris Lane in the United States in August of 2013. It shook the organisation dramatically, as it shocked the broader baseball community both here and in United States.

 

“Losing Chris was - and still is - the hardest thing that our club has ever faced in my time here,” Richard King said. “His dad Peter is an immensely popular figure at the club and to see him and Chris’ mum, Donna, have to go through and have to continue facing the pain that resulted from Chris’ passing still brings tears to my eyes.”

 

“In my opinion, there is nothing that can ever be thought of as a positive spin-off from what happened to Chris,” he said.  “Yes, what happened did bring our tight-knit group even closer together, but it’s a small gain for such a tragic outcome.”

 

In tangible response to the truly shocking and senseless death of a young man with so much to live for, Major League Baseball has generously offered to help fund the building of a Little League field adjacent to the Essendon home ground at Boeing Reserve. It is believed – and hoped – that the field may be completed for the start of the 2015/16 summer season.

 

“In many ways that will help remind future generations of young boys and girls of how important Christopher was to our family,” King said. “We miss him every day we play - and on many days when we are not even at the ballpark. He was one of a kind and we feel privileged to have been part of his life.”

Success, they say, tends to breed success. Where people feel empowered within their own roles and they feel confidence in the people around them, they are more likely to produce their very best. That is true of the players in any team sport, and it is certainly also true of administrators and volunteers.

 

Essendon for some time now has benefited from the wholehearted efforts of some remarkable volunteer off-field personnel. Though there is understandable reluctance to single out individuals, Richard King has had the opportunity at first-hand to witness the contributions made by a wide range of committed people at his club.

 

“The recent announcement that EBC had won the 2015 Baseball Australia Club of the Year is testament to the hard work and dedication of literally hundreds of volunteers – especially across the past two decades. All of those people have played integral roles in making the club what it is today,” he said.

 

“The award itself is the culmination of a long-term plan hatched by the late Don Cornish – and long term Club President - in the late 1980s. His twelve years at the helm of the Club are best reflected in the fact that we have had a ground to play on. Without him, EBC might be missing in action!”

 

“His partner in crime and still an amazing influence around the club is Gary O’Brien,” King said. “Goblin has himself faced some incredible challenges, but has always had a club first mentality. He continues to assist the coaching staff, including letting Gilesy know what he’s done wrong - even after a winning grand final!”

 

“Julie Jones is the backbone of our club. Secretary for sixteen consecutive years, Julie keeps us all on the straight and narrow. Travelling from Bendigo (ninety minutes from Melbourne) multiple times each week, Julie and her long-suffering husband William have made an incredible contribution to what we are today. In addition, the Jones family has provided the club with two playing stalwarts (Paul and Casey) with another generation to follow in the not-too-distant future.”

 

“Frank Tamburrino, Leigh McIntyre and Rick Sexton are major contributors to what you see on game day as far as playing facilities are concerned,” King said. “Their work is greatly appreciated by every player who sets foot on the Boeing Reserve diamonds – and it’s fair to say that practice sessions and game days would be a lot less enjoyable without them.”

 

In Sydney to accept the Baseball Australia Club of the Year Award last week, Essendon President Tony Cornish came in for special mention by his old mate and team mate.

 

“Tony continues the strategy that his father Don set in place,” King said. “In fact, he’s improved every aspect of the club’s operations and he has plans that will take the club to new heights, making it a sustainable family entity for many years to come. Tony is a driven individual who lives and breathes EBC. He drags the rest of us along kicking and screaming but almost always gets his way. A club could ask for no greater President than Tony Cornish (and Mrs Cornish is OK too)!”

Four Division One pennants on the trot is indeed a remarkable achievement, one that is unlikely to be replicated by any club – in Victoria or interstate – for many years. But while playing success is a worthwhile and honourable end in itself, there is much more that amateur clubs need to work on to remain relevant and viable. Clubs need to have goals – medium and longer-term – and they need to devise effective strategies to engage kids, their families and the broader community.

 

Richard King has a fair sense of the challenges that are faced and the directions that his beloved club will need to take.

 

“Essendon Baseball Club faces an interesting period in the next few years,” he said. “The increasing popularity of the sport combined with the success of the club over recent years mean that more and more players are attracted to EBC. Our biggest challenge is probably one of resources – volunteers, fields, equipment, clubrooms and the like.”

 

“One of the key strategies that the club has worked really hard on is establishing and growing its relationship with the local council. The City of Moonee Valley has been incredibly supportive and it has firm plans to help take a load off the physical resources required for us to continue to grow. This includes new clubrooms and a new irrigation system - as well as continuing all of the existing support that it has provided so generously over many years.”

 

“MLB support for the Chris Lane Little League Field will assist the Club in taking the next step,” he said. “This is a really exciting development that has been supported by the City of Moonee Valley and is included in the master plan for Boeing Reserve.”

 

“All growth, however, requires additional volunteer support,” King stressed. “I’m sure we’ve all seen brilliant, dedicated sporting volunteers fall by the wayside under the sheer volume of work required by their club. To me that’s a critical facet of planning for the future and I’m sure the EBC committee is all too aware of the pitfalls if we don’t get it right.”

 

With the Essendon Baseball Club having developed a strong winter presence in recent times, grounds and facilities will be utilised for twelve months of the year – although the emphasis of winter will be on player development above all else.

 

As Baseball Australia Club of the Year, Essendon is obviously doing a whole lot of things right. Along the journey to this point, club officials like Richard King have had the opportunity to look at the functioning of other baseball organisations and to assess the progress of baseball generally. King has some personal thoughts on the current state of club baseball, on what can and should be done to help raise the profile and overall standard of the sport.

 

“The regional fixture that was played this year between EBC and Geelong at Bendigo was a resounding success,” King said. “It should definitely be replicated and grown over a few years to the point where an entire Division One round is played in rural and regional Victoria (as does Premier League Cricket). Baseball Victoria should be congratulated on this initiative and supported in any endeavours to take the game to the country. Areas like Bendigo and Ballarat have been crucial for the success of EBC over many years and I’d like to think that every club could foster the same relationships we’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy.”

 

“I’d also like to see a much closer alliance between grassroots clubs and the Melbourne Aces,” he said. “To the best of my knowledge, Essendon’s coaching staff have never been asked directly by the Aces who is playing well at club level and who deserves a chance to play ABL. What we have seen instead is career .400 hitters added to the Aces roster - when they are in a career slump - and hot pitchers being drafted by interstate teams because the local ABL team wouldn’t know who they are.

 

“That frustrates the hell out of me.”

 

“I can only hope that the recent appointment of Justin Huber as Aces General Manager will help address this issue and break down what appears to be a lack of trust between clubs and the peak Victorian team.”

 

“For the time being, though, we will celebrate another Division One championship long and hard,” he said. “The Essendon Baseball Club, the players, their families and our supporters have fully deserved what they have achieved over recent years, especially against quality ball clubs in Blackburn, Geelong and Melbourne – who have all made the Division One running in the past few years.”

 

“After that – after all of the euphoria, the back-slapping and the eulogies are done – it will be back to business as the club looks towards becoming even stronger and more viable into the future.”

 

 

Australian Baseball Alumni congratulations Essendon Baseball Club on being named as Baseball Australia Club of the Year. We thank club officials for their assistance and we salute the club on its achievement of winning four Division One Summer League titles on the trot.

 

In so doing, we acknowledge that there are many, very many grassroots baseball clubs across the land who are achieving good things, often great things, through the dedication, skills and the ingenuity of members committed to the cause.

 

We invite any club interested in sharing its story with the Australian Baseball Alumni community to contact us (kcollins@iprimus.com.au or movfin@excite.com).  We would love to hear from you.