Australian Liam Hendriks doing his part to boost baseball Down Under

ByJim Caple ESPN logo
Friday, September 30, 2016

Watching major league baseball games could be a bit of a challenge for Liam Hendriks when he was in school. After all, he grew up in Perth, Australia, where the time zone is 12 hours ahead of North America's Eastern time zone. So he would wake up by 7 a.m., turn on the TV and watch as many innings of a major league night game as possible before it was time to go to school.

"My parents would leave to go to work, and I would be sitting there watching and then wind up running late for the school bus," he said. "It was a 10-minute walk to get to the bus, and I would usually leave with five minutes to go, so I would have to run to the bus. And if I missed the bus, I would have to run to school."

Young Australian baseball fans have been able to watch Hendriks on their screens in recent seasons, though that might have meant being very, very late for the school bus in 2016 since he pitches for the Oakland Athletics, who usually play in the Pacific time zone.

There have been 30 Australian-born major leaguers, beginning with Joe Quinn from 1884-1901. He would be the only Aussie in the majors for another 85 years until Craig Shipley played for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1986 to start a growth in the sport Down Under. Dave Nilsson reached the majors as a catcher in 1992 and went on to become an All-Star, as did Grant Balfour, who debuted in 2001 and also pitched in a World Series.

At the start of this season, Hendriks was the only Aussie in the majors, but three more were called up later: Detroit Tigers rookie pitcher Warwick Saupold, Minnesota Twins rookie third baseman James Beresford and veteran reliever Peter Moylan, who made it back to the big leagues with the Kansas City Royals.

"We go through peaks and valleys with guys coming over here," Hendriks said. "We'll go through the stage when a lot of kids are coming over here a lot more, and then we'll go through the stage where not so much. Lately, we've had a lot of kids going to college over here [in the U.S.] rather than go into pro ball. Some guys who might have been fringe players, they can head to college and maybe mature a little bit and hone their skills a little bit under American tutelage, which generally is a bit better than some of the Australian coaches down there.

"Hopefully these [three] guys getting in the big leagues this year definitely will spur a wave. We'll see how long that takes to kick in, but generally we have 40 guys in the minors at any one time. The number is usually 30-plus kids trying to get their chance, and hopefully clubs will recognize how much they persevered to get over here and how much they sacrificed as well for that opportunity."

Hendriks, 27, got his start in baseball as a child, when his parents gave him the choice between playing the very popular cricket or the less popular T-ball. "They said, T-ball is like half an hour every Saturday and cricket is like six hours every Saturday. You can choose whatever you want but ..."

He chose the quicker game and wound up loving baseball. As he grew older, he would play at a baseball school in South Fremantle, though it was not a short commute. After his school day ended at 3:30 in the afternoon, he would take a series of buses and trains that could take two hours to reach the baseball school. He would practice for an hour and a half and then head home. He also would occasionally pitch on fields that had a dirt mound on the actual diamond but a plastic mound on which relievers warmed up.

"I think it builds character," Hendriks said of starting a baseball career in Australia. "I think a lot of guys when they get over here, you know what they've gone through, what they've grinded through to get here."

Hendriks signed with the Twins in 2007 and reached the majors with them in 2011, though he lost his first nine decisions as a starter. He has worked exclusively out of the bullpen the past two seasons (he was with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2015). Heading into Friday's game, he had a 3.79 ERA in 51 appearances for the A's this season, more than a run below his career mark of 4.91.

"He's an aggressive guy that just wants to pitch, and he's moved himself up to spot where it's a prominent role for us," Oakland manager Bob Melvin said. "Aggressiveness is his thing. I don't want to stereotype, but it seems like a lot of the Australian players are aggressive guys."

Melvin has managed a fair number of Aussies, including four in 2012, when pitchers Grant Balfour, Travis Blackley and Rich Thompson and third baseman Luke Hughes all were with the A's. "Well, we wear green and gold uniforms, so you would expect them to want to come here," Melvin said, referring to Australia's national colors.

Hendriks says the Australian Baseball League, which started in 2010 and receives some funding from MLB, is helping the sport grow there. Former big leaguers such as Nilsson and Graeme Lloyd provide valuable coaching while active, and former minor leaguers provide good competition on the field (the ABL season runs from November to February).

"We've been lucky that we have had a lot of guys who've had professional baseball experience over here," Hendriks said. "Anytime you get a chance to work with a guy like Graeme, it can take you from being a fringe guy to all of a sudden you're learning a new pitch or a new technique and way to attack hitters that gives you an edge that some scouts are looking for and the opportunity to maybe come over here."

There are also more scouts in Australia these days. As Aussie former big leaguer Ryan Rowland-Smith said before the 2014 MLB opener that was played in Sydney: "When I signed 13 years ago, there were a handful of teams that were serious about sending scouts over and trying to sign you. Now every team sends someone over there."

Hendriks says baseball is in the top 10 of Australia's favorite sports and "maybe pushing the top five."

"With the World Baseball Classic coming up, that will help and raise the popularity, like swimming and gymnastics in the Olympics," he said. "Hopefully, we can win a couple games and advance to the second round and put on a good show for the guys back home."

And one they will be able to watch without being too late for school or work.