National Championships: the future of Aussie baseball on display
4 January 2016
The 2016 National Championships will be held in mid-January, with the Under 18 and Under 16 youth tournaments scheduled for Blacktown Sportspark, while the Women’s Nationals and Women’s Youth Championships will be held at Narrabundah in Canberra.
For the players involved, the championships – which invariably produce intense rivalry between state teams - provide the opportunity to variously impress scouts, Australian Baseball League clubs and national selectors.
Among the legion of interested observers at the championships will be Baseball Australia High Performance Manager and former Major Leaguer Glenn Williams, who offered insightful input on the importance of the championships in the overall context of Australian baseball.
While there are plenty of positives occurring in Australian baseball, it is generally accepted that the sport faces ongoing challenges related in large degree to a lack of certainty over funding. With baseball being dropped from the Olympics programme after 2008 - and with Australia failing to qualify for the inaugural Premier 12 - high performance funding has effectively been halved for the 2015/16 year, with no guarantees for the future.
In a classic Catch 22 situation, Australian baseball can only expect to garner increased funding if it enjoys greater success on the world stage. To earn that success – or even to come close – teams need to be resourced in their domestic preparations and they need to be able to travel to international tournaments recognised for IBAF world rankings.
In the current climate, players, coaches and officials selected to represent their country can expect – by and large – that they will have to cover all or most of their own costs while taking time away from work or from their business. For under-aged players that translates into financial pressure being placed on the parents and families of those selected in national representative teams.
Notwithstanding the financial impost placed on families of players selected for the National Championships, Glenn Williams is a huge supporter of the tournaments, which are a key element of Baseball Australia’s pathways programme – especially with the prospect of exciting times to come for the sport over the next five years.
“The nationals are a big step up for a lot of the players in the Under 16 and Under 18 Championships – especially some of the younger group,” he told Australian Baseball Alumni this week. “The emergence of Little League in Australia has been a major contributor to providing prior tournament experience for players, but when you start to narrow the field for the nationals, the competition ramps up even further.”
“For a lot of the players it will be the first time they would have played in front of scouts and have represented their states. It is a great experience – and the culmination of a journey.”
“It has been a very long campaign for the players, the parents and the staff,” Glenn Williams said. “A lot of effort goes into running the event and just as much into preparing each team that competes in it. Everyone is excited about the games and the chance to travel and live as a team. The months of hard work culminate in ten exciting days of baseball.”
“It’s a credit to the people who do the work behind the scenes and the staff who volunteer their time to give the kids a great experience – and of course to the parents who fork out the money for their kids to have a great baseball experience. For the players it is a chance to showcase the hard work they have put in over the last few months.”
Image: Baseball Australia
Both the Under 16 and Under 18 National Youth Championships will be held at Blacktown International Sportspark, beginning on Sunday 10 January and running through until Monday 18 January. Both age groups have drawn the same eight teams – Canberra, New South Wales, New South Wales Country, Queensland, South Australia, Victoria Blue, Victoria White and Western Australia.
Victoria Blue will be aiming to replicate its 2015 title in the Under 16 event - which has produced different winners over the past five years – while the Under 18 championship has been dominated in recent times by New South Wales, with five of the past six titles. It is an extraordinary record that Glenn Williams believes can be attributed to a combination of factors.
“Number one would be the sheer playing numbers in New South Wales that make the depth of the two teams pretty good,” he said. “That also creates competition for places within the team and for playing time throughout the tournament.”
“The staffs that have been in place - led by Shaun Smith, Brian Murphy and Doug Rouse - have done an excellent job in preparing the players. I am sure the added work with the Blue Sox in pre-season and at various times throughout the year also helps tremendously.”
“Players getting opportunities in first grade with their clubs and playing against older guys has helped significantly. With the Blue Sox going with a lot of local players in the ABL that opens up places for these kids to get better by playing in good club competition.”
“Finally, the work that the majority of the players do throughout the off-season,” he said. “A lot of the players are involved with the high performance programs throughout the off-season and they put a huge effort into being able to improve. They have a real desire to become national champions and although the lure of a potential pro contract or college opportunity might beckon, they really want to win. I saw it first hand in my tenure there, they didn’t always have the best team on paper, but they did everything they could to try and win.”
“Having said that, every championship is a new challenge. I have no doubt that all states – all coaching staffs and all players – will be coming to Blacktown with great preparation under their belts and with the same goal. To compete, to play their best baseball and to win every game!”
Taking in the action for the tournament will be a contingent of professional scouts, some of whom have been tracking particular players with projectible talent that could potentially take them all the way to Major League baseball.
“It’s an exciting time for the scouts as well,” Glenn Williams said. “Nowhere else in the world do the very best players in the country compete in the same venue over two different age groups. It makes for a lot of travel between fields but it is the first real chance to see players who had caught a scout’s eye at the MLBAAP or the last Nationals and be able to evaluate their improvement and determine if they have gotten closer to being a potential big leaguer.”
“There are a few players returning from Under 18 national team duties for their second year of Under 18 NYCs. They’ll be on the radar of everyone to see if they’ve continued to improve.”
Image: Baseball Australia
While a relatively small number of professional signings from the National Youth Championships would be no surprise, the immediate focus of all players will be on doing their very best as individual players and for their teams. Even for the large majority of players who are not scouted, there remain exciting opportunities for our emerging young baseballers - especially with potential selection in national teams and the college option.
“The landscape has changed over the last few years with professional signing rules and MLB,” Glenn Williams explained. “The opportunities aren’t as frequent as they were four to five years ago. The key thing for these players to remember is that there are many roads to the major leagues – if that is what they aspire to.”
“Their focus should be on becoming a big leaguer someday.”
“In the United States it is almost the norm to go through the college route,” he said. “It’s encouraging to see many Australian players now seeing college as a viable option as opposed to being an afterthought if they don’t get signed.”
“Ultimately the player needs to realise that to develop to their best ability they need to play. They need repetitions at a level where they are stretched in order to improve. Weighing up where those opportunities will be most frequent should be the key to all of their decisions.”
“Either option – professional or college - is not going to be easy, although the key is ensuring they are continually working towards becoming a major leaguer,” Williams said. “Everyone develops at a different rate. Some can get off the plane and compete in pro ball at eighteen, and some need more time. College is a great alternative to develop more as a player and become more battle-hardened and prepared for the rigours of professional baseball.”
As a person who has been there, and done that, Glenn Williams is eminently well qualified to assess a dynamic, shifting baseball environment right across the globe.
“The reach of MLB clubs is something that has continually changed,” he said. “When I first signed, there were a few Australians playing pro ball, and there were Latin American players from the Dominican, Venezuela and Puerto Rico - along with Americans and Canadians. Twenty odd years later the reach of baseball has extended much further into Europe, Asia, Cuba, Africa and the Pacific. There are players being signed from all over the world now and the international market is extremely competitive.”
“Major League Baseball has enlisted signing bonus caps on their clubs. Each club has a limit they can spend on International free agents. So with more players available and a cap on spending, the competition for players to sign has become far more intense. Clubs are very particular with where they spend their money and they are less inclined to take a risk on players.”
“This doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities there. It just means the opportunities are difficult to come by.”
Whether any player from the National Youth Championship signs a contract or not, there will be other opportunities that present themselves, especially for Australian representation. The current Under 18s will be mature players in a few years, the Under 16s not far behind, a reality that we should keep in mind with the World Baseball Classic and the Premier 12 established international events and with baseball expected to be re-admitted for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
Glenn Williams is distinctly upbeat about the possibilities for players and for Australian baseball development. The National Youth Championships are integral to the whole process.
“The over-riding objective that Baseball Australia’s high performance department works towards is success at international competition,” he said. “Our world ranking is the determinant on gaining places within tournaments such as the Premier 12 and 2020 Olympics. Ranking has a direct impact on our government funding levels - and on our corporate opportunities. The way to increase those world rankings is to perform well in all international tournaments we take part in. The performance of the players at the Under 15 World Cup this year will contribute to our ranking, so the opportunities for some players to be a part of the 2020 campaign - although indirectly - starts this coming year.”
“Our aim is to build this long term. It will take time to develop, although there are some really good things in place. With Olympic reinstatement and our quest to qualify and medal in 2020, we have a chance to significantly improve our resource allocation in the higher performance space. The tournaments along the way – like WBC, Premier 12, 23U World Cup, 18U World Cup, 15U World Cup – all provide opportunities for our teams to compete on the international stage and for us to continue our development as a baseball nation.”
“There is much hard work to be done, but these are exciting times,” Glenn Williams said. “When you factor in the opportunities for players within professional baseball in the United States and all over the world – along with our continued efforts to support players working through the college pathway - the opportunities for players in this tournament and those to come are abundant.”
“As much as 2020 is the major part of our intermediate plans in the high performance area, the objective is a long term one. It’s about going to every International event with the expectation of winning a medal. It is about having a constant flow of quality players on our depth charts for national team selection and it is about a desire to play in the Australian uniform.”
Glenn Williams has words of encouragement for families, friends and supporters to make the trek to Blacktown – if they are able – to encourage the best of our emerging young talent that will be competing at the National Youth Championship.
“These players are the future of our game,” he said. “There will be players in this tournament who strap on the Australian uniform in years to come and some may even turn out to be big leaguers. For instance, Dan McGrath, Lewis Thorpe and Zac Shepherd all sit on professional clubs’ top prospect lists in the United States.”
“It wasn’t long ago that they were representing their state at the National Youth Championships.”
To augment a massive start to the baseball year, the 2016 Women’s National Championship and the Women’s Youth Nationals (hosted by Baseball Canberra and Canberra Cavalry) will be conducted at Narrabundah Ballpark, starting on 10 January. The women’s event will run through until 17 January, while the youth series will be completed on 15 January.
The Women’s National Championship has drawn teams from Canberra, Queensland, Western Australia, Victoria and New South Wales – which has won the past two championships and four overall since 2000. Dominant in the early years of competition, Victoria has amassed ten titles since 2000 and Western Australia two.
Also a five-team competition, the Women’s Youth Nationals comprise team entries from New South Wales, New South Wales Country, Queensland, Victoria and South Australia. Having won all four series since 2012, New South Wales is again expected be the yardstick – although other states may have plenty to say about that.
Both events will inevitably produce spirited competition and for the women’s tournament there is the added incentive for individual players of staking a claim for national honours with the Women’s World Cup scheduled to be played in South Korea in early September this year.
Baseball Australia is in the process of evaluating the condition and the future of women’s baseball with the dual purposes of increasing participation numbers, retaining numbers and strengthening the base for continued success at elite level.
“We are currently looking into the state of the women’s game and identifying how we can make adjustments to ensure that it thrives,” Glenn Williams said. “Like other areas of the game, there are some real positives happening, there are some really passionate and enthusiastic volunteers involved and there is a wealth of experience.”
“The key is tapping into that and giving everyone a voice.”
“The Women’s World Cup team has been a brilliant performer but in speaking with those on the inside, they want to get better. Although the funding issue presents constraints and challenges – as it does with the youth nationals - our structures and opportunities for players here in Australia are unique to anywhere else in the world, so making sure we leverage that is key in all of this.”
“We will definitely be sending a team away to the 2016 Women’s World Cup,” he said. “We are in the process of formalising a plan for staffing, for preparation of the team and how we can improve on the bronze and silver medals in recent years. We know we have the players to be able to compete with the best teams in the world. Devising strategies and working on the areas we need to will hopefully get this team and future women’s teams a world championship.”
Image: Baseball Australia
The future of any sport of course lies largely in its capacity to engage young people. Although just five teams have entered in both the women’s and the women's youth nationals, Glenn Williams is cognisant of the fine work being done for women’s baseball in some areas and he is confident of good times to come.
“Engagement of young people is difficult in the first place,” he said. “The even more difficult part is retaining them. This is something that will be tackled by the Women’s Advisory Panel at length. I am sure they will be working towards a holistic view of the game, compiling member feedback and making recommendations to grow the women’s game in Australia.”
“While my role concerns me more specifically with the World Cup performance of our women’s team, I know that having a thriving grassroots and club base is absolutely essential for the overall health and success of women’s baseball.”
Image: Baseball Australia