This past week was both the best of times and the worst of times for baseball in Australia.
For the first time, Australia was represented in the Little League Baseball World Series (LLBWS) in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. A team from Perth became the first entry from Down Under by winning a regional that consisted entirely of Australian teams. Little League Baseball, Inc. decided to realign its eight international regions this past year, awarding Australia its own entry instead of being placed in the difficult Asia-Pacific region and needing to defeat the likes of Taiwan or South Korea to advance.
But that achievement was tragically tempered by the senseless killing of Australian ballplayer Chris Lane, who was murdered in cold blood by a marauding gang of teenagers last Friday in a rural town in Oklahoma.
Lane was one of the many graduates of Major League Baseball's Australian Academy Program (MLBAAP), which was established in 2001 to grow the game Down Under.
While Aussies haven't exactly flooded MLB rosters yet, baseball's growth can be best seen at the Little League level, where Australia is now its fourth-largest nation in terms of participation, behind the U.S., Canada and Mexico. That was the chief reason why Australia was granted an automatic entry to the LLBWS starting this year.
Ron Flatter, a national news anchor for Fox News Radio, who lived in Melbourne from 2004 to 2007 while working for Radio Sport National, saw baseball's growth in Australia first-hand and offered this perspective.
"The biggest thing that helped Australian baseball lately was Major League Baseball money," Flatter told The Diplomat. "MLB bought in as an invested partner when the Australian Baseball League was reborn. That provided both the legitimacy of context as well as a financial security that otherwise would not have been possible for a country with 15 times fewer people but the same amount of land as the U.S.”
He continued, "The other big factor in baseball's growth to a sustainable level in Australia was the expansion of television. Like (in the U.S.) the cable universe has expanded exponentially. With it has come the need to program 24/7 sports stations. North American baseball scratches some of that itch."
On some level it was ironic that ESPN, which signed up Australian Rules Football as the only live programming in its nascent years, now delivers both Major League and Little League action to viewers Down Under. While the boys from Perth Metro Central Little League lost all three games in Williamsport last week, they acquitted themselves quite well on and off the field.
Whether these Little Leaguers will continue with the sport, however, will be key to Australian baseball's development. While a handful of Australians have played in the Major Leagues, including the Oakland Athletics’ Grant Balfour, who became the first Aussie to play in the All-Star Game this season, homegrown role models are still quite scarce.
"Baseball is still very much a fringe sport in Australia, where their codes of football – Aussie rules and rugby league – are as big a king as the NFL is (in America)," Flatter said. "Cricket occupies the southern summer the way baseball does here. Horse racing is big during the spring. Sports like swimming and track get popular during big events like the Olympics.”
He added, "A sport like basketball grew as a fad in Australia in the Michael Jordan 1980s and 1990s but faded. It finds itself battling soccer for a sustained following at the second level. Baseball for now is hoping just to get to that same level."
But sadly, Australia’s baseball future won't include Chris Lane, who was attending East Central University in Oklahoma to continue his quest to become a big league catcher. While visiting his girlfriend in Duncan, Lane was shot in the back while jogging on the side of a country road. Two of the teenagers in the car during the drive-by shooting were charged with first-degree murder and a third was charged as an accomplice during Tuesday's arraignment.
While the senseless killing undoubtedly will open renewed debates on guns and race relations in America, for now it's a time of mourning for the baseball community in Australia. On Tuesday, all MLBAAP activities began with a moment of silence for the passing of one of their own.
Samuel Chi is the Editor of RealClearSports and RealClearWorld. His column on world sport appears every Thursday in The Diplomat.