AMLB HISTORY - BEYOND THE ABL

What follows is Flintoff & Dunn's continuation of the written history of
AUSTRALIAN MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL - BEYOND THE ABL

To read about Australian Major League Baseball "THE FIRST 10 YEARS"... clickhere!

The Sub-Sections in this historic story are:

From individual instalments printed in 'Flintoff & Dunn' BOOKS:

2014/15 AUSTRALIAN BASEBALL LEAGUE - Review will be posted after Product sales for 2015 are completed

2013/14 AUSTRALIAN BASEBALL LEAGUE - DOMINANT PERTH HEAT WREST BACK THE ABL CHAMPIONSHIP IN 2014!

2012/13 AUSTRALIAN BASEBALL LEAGUE - CANBERRA PREVAILS FOR IT'S FIRST AUSTRALIAN BASEBALL CHAMPIONSHIP!

2011/2012 AUSTRALIAN BASEBALL LEAGUE - PERTH HEAT WIN BACK-TO-BACK IN 2012 AUSTRALIAN BASEBALL LEAGUE

2010/2011 AUSTRALIAN BASEBALL LEAGUE - PERTH HEAT ARE NEW 2011 AUSTRALIAN BASEBALL LEAGUE CHAMPIONS!

2009/2010 CLAXTON SHIELD - VICTORIA EMERGES TO WIN 22ND CLAXTON SHIELD - LAST OF THIS FORMAT?

2008/2009 CLAXTON SHIELD - WA WINS BACK-TO-BACK FOR DIAMOND ANNIVERSARY

2007/2008 CLAXTON SHIELD - WA WINS SHIELD IN "WORST TO FIRST" TRIUMPH

From web site reports compiled below:

2006/2007 SEASON - Victoria Comes Up Aces... in Friendly WA!
2005/2006 SEASON - Rams Worst to First; Not Blacktown Again!
2004/2005 SEASON - Patriots Repeat... at Blacktown Yet Again!
2003/2004 SEASON - Claxton Shield at Blacktown Again!

2002/2003 SEASON - Claxton Shield Goes to Blacktown!
2001/2002 SEASON - IBLA Gone & Claxton Shield Back!

2000/01 SEASON - IBLA Year 2, The Gold Coast League!
1999/2000 SEASON - David Nilsson’s NEW IBLA!

2006/2007 SEASON - VICTORIA COMES UP ACES FOR 17th SHIELD IN FABULOUSLY FRIENDLY WA!

For those who have become used to our endless criticism of seeing the Claxton Shield anchored at Blacktown for the past FOUR years, it probably will not surprise you in the slightest to hear that ‘Flintoff & Dunn’ is absolutely delighted to have the opportunity to cover the 2007 event in Perth, Western Australia.

We will leave aside any residual prejudice that we may have for the contempt shown to Australian baseball fans arising from having our most famous and traditional baseball event anchored in one State because, quite frankly, it has become tiresome and largely unproductive! If we have played any small part in making sure that this event was FINALLY moved from Blacktown to anywhere else, then we will feel that our lowly compensated efforts have not all been entirely in vain!

Let’s roll swiftly into the positives… and what a tremendously positive thing it was for us to be on hand to welcome the event at BASEBALL PARK, Thornlie, Perth, WA. What greeted us immediately was a fresh new location and an impressive young stadium to go along with an abundance of enthusiasm and hospitality from the baseball locals in Perth .

The weather in Perth was hot, and getting hotter, but what else would you expect from Perth?... It’s an integral part of life in the west and it represents a key factor to support playing the Claxton Shield in different parts of the country. It reminds us that our game of baseball is played under all types of conditions around the vast continent of Australia . Those of us who live on the east coast would do well to understand that, if WA applied the same “maximum temperature rules” that exist for baseball in Melbourne, there would be very few games played in Perth… no further explanation required!

Inevitably, there were those attending the event who did not find everything to their liking at the Claxton Shield in Perth but, take it from me, this says more about the people that might be complaining than it does about the way the event was managed or hosted! Events Manager, Shane Tonkin (who also happens to be one of the GREAT pitchers of the recent AMLB era), was absolutely outstanding! This guy NEVER stopped working to make this event a success, while maintaining a unique sense of humour under quite a degree of pressure. He can be very proud that his effort produced a genuine success!

Blacktown was getting quite “slick” at hosting these events I’m told (because we refused to attend the last three) but we would be kidding ourselves to believe that Baseball WA would not also similarly improve if they were to host the event for FOUR consecutive years… this is an insult to all concerned! And, although I distinctly remember enjoying the baseball at Blacktown in its early years, they would find it nearly impossible to compete with the natural friendliness and hospitality that we found in Perth ! I didn’t expect too much fondness for Victorians, but everything was “good natured” and, let’s make no bones about it, the people I met set new standards for good old Australian mateship… they were FABULOUS!! Nothing was too difficult for the volunteer staff at Baseball Park who really were integral to making the event and its atmosphere so pleasant for everyone attending.

The weather for the games was hot and, as I said, getting hotter, and if you were unable to find shade (like those players on the field in defence) the temperatures under the full dose of Perth sunshine were somewhat challenging! This is “ Melbourne speak” for bloody hot and absolutely sweltering if you don’t like the sun beating down like some guy up there was focussing a magnifying glass upon us!! However, the playing and training conditions at the venue were VERY GOOD. The overall facilities and just about everything else for players and spectators was excellent. Let me put this as simply as possible, I had quite a bit of contact with the Victorian team and management but I never heard so much as a whisper about sub-standard conditions.

History probably not will be able to record the 94% rating that we gave this Claxton Shield event in Perth, but it is a very good assessment of all the things that we might expect from such an event… these guys rated an ‘A+’ with us on their first attempt for a lot of years! Take a bow Baseball WA !!

There was just one thing about WA Baseball that “irritated” us for the second straight year with the West Australian team wanting to play under the banner of Perth Heat. This, of course, is a throw back to the fondly remembered Australian Baseball League where most of those teams, some eight years hence, still command better recognition than any other team names in Australian baseball.  

We understand that the Perth Heat name is also somehow linked to WA’s long-time major sponsor Barbagello who insist that the name is used to enhance the marketing of the game. It is also understood that the “WA Heelers” name that the team used for a few years was not well received by WA’s baseball community… who knows why? In any case ‘Flintoff & Dunn’ agree that it is by no means the most important issue in Australian Baseball, but we simply can’t accept that it is a proper representation of a STATE team in what is historically a STATE competition. The ABL was a very different style of competition with a number of major differences from the Claxton Shield and we think that the names from that era should be enshrined at least until the new National League appears. We will stick to calling the team Western Australia, or simply WA!

One somewhat subtle difference with this 2007 Claxton Shield was a change of selection philosophy for the Australian Provincial team. In a relatively short time, the Australian Provincials have carved themselves a very important and well-respected niche in the Claxton Shield competition. In keeping with all the “Provincial” teams around the country, this team was originally designed to give little known or emerging players from non-capital centres and/or winter baseball competitions the opportunity to showcase their talents at this most elite level. Any observers of our productions would have heard about our consistent praise of the ‘AP’ teams over their short history. They have not quite managed to make a semi-final, as most would expect, but they have been anything but easy-beats. They have, more often than not, supplied plenty competition for the “heavyweights” and they have upset quite a few applecarts along the way!

This year the team, some say on the respected advice of previous manager Trevor Schumm, decided upon a subtle but clearly defined change in selection philosophy. This policy somewhat ignores the location of the players selected, but it certainly leans towards providing valuable experience for young professionals who are in the early stages of their pro careers, or who have been signed awaiting their professional debuts. Players in this category who might miss selection with their home State team are at the forefront of selection for the Australian Provincials. These players would be mixed with a carefully infused scattering of more seasoned players who are chosen to help provide experience and leadership for the young fellows in the heat of battle! As you will read later, the NEW Australian Provincials certainly upheld the rich traditions of ‘AP’ in Claxton Shield competition by coming within a sniff of a first ever semi-final position.

Maybe introduced as a deliberate change to usher in their new selection policies, the Australian Provincial team ditched their traditional dark-green shirts with “Provincial” scripted on the chest and they replaced this with what looked liked a national team shirt of dark blue-green with “AUSTRALIA” branded across the chest. Personally, we think that this really does look too much like a national team strip and we’d prefer them to revert to something more like their original uniforms… but maybe this is only our opinion? Once again, it is hardly the most important thing on the Australian baseball agenda.

Another format change introduced for this carnival in Perth was the insertion of an additional playoff game and an extra day inserted in the schedule for a “Preliminary Final”. In past years we have had 1v4 and 2v3 semi-finals with the winners of those games contesting the final next day. Under the new system in Perth they reverted to an old “final four” system that would be familiar to VFL football fans of the past. Under this system we had a major semi-final for 1v2 and a minor (elimination) semi-final for 3v4. The winner of 3v4 would then play the loser of 1v2 in the Preliminary Final for the right to meet the winner of 1v2 who progressed directly into the Grand Final.

This system certainly provides more incentive and reward for teams to finish in one of the top two positions after the round-robin games. It also provides a pretty big advantage for the team that progresses directly from the major semi-final into the final… it’s not so much the day off, that some coaches hate, but the much reduced strain on the bullpen compared with opponents that have to endure a “must win” Preliminary Final after the semi-finals. ‘Flintoff & Dunn’ consider that the big incentive for teams to battle for higher positions in the round-robin is a positive improvement.

I know that the memory of past tournaments can sometimes fade, but I really can’t remember quite as many games that supplied upset results… some quite major and completely unexpected. It probably started on opening night when the upstart new Provincials upstaged the WA hosts in a terrific game that was not exactly what the hosts were expecting. Then, after a couple of hard-luck losses on the road, the Provincials rose again to rattle the plans of the highly rated Victorian Aces at Thornlie.

This is as good a time as any to make mention of the “satellite games” played at out-of-town centres of Rockingham and Mandurah. While I respect that there may have been local scheduling reasons, it was a trifle disappointing for us that these games were programmed for 2:00pm local time and that these conflicted with the 3:00pm start of the afternoon games at Thornlie. I would have liked the opportunity to watch even part of these games just for the experience, but I have been told that they were reasonably successful. One respected chap who watched both games assured me that they were exactly as billed… “typical local baseball grounds, but the locals put in a heap of work to make them as good as possible”. I have nothing really against these “satellite games” if they help promote baseball to the broader community in the host state, but I would question the timing. I would also question whether there was a, probably unintentional, hint of disrespect for the Provincials who had to travel for BOTH games, whereas WA (fair enough), Victoria and NSW did not play anywhere else other than at Thornlie?

Returning to discussions about upsets, few expected Queensland to massacre the undefeated SA as badly as they did on Day 4 or, as sad as it was, for the young WA team to endure a hard-luck winless tournament. South Australia bounced back from their “shocker” against the Rams to reverse the favour in the upset minor-semi when they put a premature end to Queensland’s title defence. Just to prove that this was not a flash in the pan, the South Aussies then went within a sniff of playing in the Grand Final until “THE BOUNCE” conspired to lift NSW into the final. You’ll have to read my game report in Section 2 to get a picture of this FREAK intervention of the “baseball gods”!

Like many Claxton Shield carnivals down through the ages, this 2006 event in Perth made a couple more entries into the annuls of GIGANTIC pitching performances. There is no better place to start than with SA’s Golden Arm Award winner Dushan Ruzic who was literally a one-man wrecking crew. He started by striking out ELEVEN WA batters in 7.0 innings on Day 2, then he returned to haunt Queensland in the minor semi-final with a three-hit complete game shutout… it was another one of those more memorable pitching efforts from a guy who had only shown glimpses of this form previously at AMLB level. It is hard to top his 2-0, 0.00ERA record from 16.0 innings, with 17 strikeouts and an opponents’ batting average of .098… WOW!!

Not far behind him for pitching heroics was Victoria’s “horse” Greg Wiltshire who chewed up a second most 14.2 innings with two monster starts for the Aces that ended with a 1-0, 1.84ERA record in the searing heat of the biggest battles for his team. Of course this included the Grand Final that earned him the Championship MVP Award to add to his Championship Medal… he was HUGE in the clutch!

NSW 37yo rookie David Rosser put up a remarkable performance with the next most 14.0 innings and, although he somehow failed to collect a win, he couldn’t do much more than his 0-0, 1.29ERA record that earned him the Rookie of the Year Award.

Next in line for innings pitched was another good candidate for the Rookie Award in SA’s 33yo surprise packet Taj Merrill who finished with 0-0, 3.46ERA from 13.0 innings that does not fully explain how good he was. The only other pitchers to pitch double-digit innings were QLD’s John Veitch (1-1, 2.19ERA) from 12.1 innings, and Provincials Brendan Wilson (2-0, 3.97ERA) from 11.1 innings… these fellows were also tremendous for their teams.

A quick glance at all the pitchers who denied their opposition an earned run for 0.00ERA’s revealed a list of pitchers who came up big for their teams (aside from Ruzic) as follows: NSW Vaughan Harris (1-0, 9.2ip), WA’s Travis Murphy (8.0ip), QLD’s Chris Mowday (1-0, 7.1ip), VIC Matthew Blackmore (4gms 2-0, 6.1ip), VIC Lee Hogan (3gms 5.1ip), AP’s Steven Kent (4.2ip 1 save) and QLD’s Drew Naylor (4.0ip). Other pitchers who stood out as key performers for their teams were Victoria ’s Adam Blackley (1-0, 1.35ERA), NSW Matt Williams (1-1, 1.42ERA) and NSW Craig Anderson (0-0, 1.86ERA 9.2ip).

Victorian Aces’ colossal catcher Mathew Kent added a huge highlight to his unfinished Claxton Shield career that has already been terrific with his stupendous MVP - Helms Award. At times he virtually carried the Aces to the National Championship with his marvellous catching and his blazing bat. I don’t think too many would argue with his Helms Award, but I don’t reckon that the likeable Matt Kent would have minded if SA’s evergreen Marc Tainty had grabbed the Batting Champions Award that was also heading off to Kent’s bulging trophy cabinet! Kent batted a huge .379 from 29 at bats and we assume that his tournament high .690 slugging percentage secured him the trophy… perhaps fair enough?

Ahead of Kent on the batting average list were Tainty with .417 (24AB), WA’s Daniel Floyd .400 (15AB) and NSW ace Glenn Williams .379 (29AB). The other prolific average men with more than 20 at bats were, hardly surprisingly, a list of tournament stars comprising NSW Gavin Fingleson (.370), VIC Ben Utting (.364), VIC Paul Weichard (.357), QLD’s Andrew Utting (.348), SA’s Ben Wigmore (.333), AP’s Michael Collins (.333) and NSW mighty veteran Brendan Kingman (.321).

It was not easy to hit home runs at Baseball Park, but MVP Mathew Kent’s .690 slugging percentage was built around two home runs and three doubles. Then, if you scan far enough down the batting average list (to .250) you will find the remarkable performance of AP’s powerhouse young catcher Patrick Maat who hit a tournament high THREE home runs from his 16 at bats for a monster .813 SLG%. The only other players to slug better than .500 from at least 20 at bats were VIC Paul Weichard (.536), AP’s Michael Collins (.524), NSW Gavin Fingleson (.519), VIC Brad Harman (.517), VIC Ben Utting (.500), SA’s Tom Brice (.500) and NSW Brendan Kingman (.500)… does that guy ever give up!?

SA stalwart Marc Tainty added to his .417 average with six walks for his fabulous .516 on base percentage, while Gavin Fingleson added seven walks to his .370 for his .500 OB%. The other player who starred among the on base men was, no surprise, Glenn Williams with six walks combining with his .379 for his valuable .486 OB%.

Most players would be delighted with a .333 average from 21 at bats, but perhaps not SA’s hitting machine ‘Bashing Ben’ Wigmore… however, ‘Wiggy’ did enjoy driving in a tournament high 8 RBI’s and three of them came from his MONSTER home run blast against Victoria that is still orbiting the earth! One thing that may have limited Wigmore’s production to human proportions was the fact that he was hit by a pitched ball no less than FOUR times for an unwanted tournament high! The other major run producers in Perth were NSW Gavin Fingleson, VIC Ben Utting and AP’s exciting Mitchell Denning who knocked in six “ribbies” each.

Victorian second baseman Paul Rutgers had only one error from 50 total chances to win the vote for the Gold Glove Award but this was by no means a clear cut thing… perhaps he won a few extra “bonus points” for having the dramatic game winning hit in the Grand Final game? We are certainly not suggesting that he was undeserving of the award it’s just that it is not a simple thing to adjudicate.

At the end of a wonderful tournament the Victorian Aces emerged as deserving winners of their record extending 17th Claxton Shield Championship and their first since they grabbed the national championship at home in Melbourne during 2002. It was a tribute to manager David White and his determined coaching panel of Dan McConnon, Peter Giles and Nathan Holmes that the Victorians were able to rise above finishing second at three of the past four Claxton Shield events. White must take enormous credit for backing his own judgement, especially with team selection, having tasted hard-luck losses himself in the past two Grand Final games.

Victoria put their faith in mostly mature and proven players and, aside from two uncharacteristic poor performances against NSW and AP, they proved to be a very, very solid outfit. They overturned their opening game loss to NSW by beating them in two tight playoff games in the major semi-final and again in the dramatic Grand Final to prove their clear worthiness of the title.

NSW were extremely fortunate to make the Grand Final game after “THE BOUNCE” robbed South Australia of a big upset in the Preliminary Final. However, the Patriots can also rightfully claim to have dominated the round-robin section of the tournament with the only unblemished 5-0 record. Their fearsome offence would always give the light-blues a big chance in any game but they were just shaded by the Victorian pitching in those two important finals games.

I don’t want to detract anything from the courageous performance of South Australia, especially after “THE BOUNCE” surely deprived them of playing off for the Claxton Shield, but they produced a bit of a mixture of performances in Perth. They were mauled by both Queensland and Victoria in the round-robin while they also needed 11 innings to squeeze past the unfortunate Provincials at Mandurah. They did rely heavily on the Golden Arm of pitching giant Dushan Ruzic, with a little help from seasoned rookie Taj Merrill on the mound, while SA stalwarts Marc Tainty and Ben Wigmore carried a heavy load to produce offensive output for their team.

Defending champions Queensland will be scratching their heads back home wondering what went wrong for them at Claxton 2007 after emerging undefeated from Claxton 2006. The Rams always appeared nicely placed to defend their title in Perth , even though they were man-handled by Victoria, until the last night of the round-robin. Queensland missed a golden opportunity on the last night to grab a top-two position when they didn’t produce much against a NSW team who had nothing hanging on the result. Suddenly they found themselves faced with an elimination minor semi-final and, worse still, the pitching buzz-saw of the moment Dushan Ruzic!

Sure, there we a couple of things that didn’t help the Queenslanders here, like the unavailability of stalwart star Trent Durrington and the late series injury to their superstar Brett Roneberg whose absence coincided with the Rams’ decline. As I said, the Queenslanders will be back home enquiring if anyone got the licence number of the bus that hit them… it may have been a South Australian licence plate with something that looked like DR 2007 on it… which way did it go?!

The Australian Provincial team were, redundant to say I know, GREAT value yet again. The new look team that I outlined earlier were, if anything, at least as competitive and maybe more interesting than their more hardened predecessors. The ‘YAPS’ as I nicknamed them (Young Aussie Professionals), could not disguise the obvious fact that they took great delight in showcasing their talents on the big stage and, in many cases, letting their State selectors know that they may have made mistakes in overlooking them!

‘AP’ opened the carnival with an upset win over the nearly as young WA team, and then they completely embarrassed the eventual champions Victoria. In between they were just shaded 2-3 by Queensland at Rockingham and skinned 5-6 by SA over 11-innings at Mandurah. Had they won either of those two games they would have, not only KO’d eventual champions Victoria from the playoffs, but they may have also secured a top-two finish with their first ever semi-final berth… think about that for a moment! Not to mention the unknown quantity of having to play two travel games on successive days! The NEW Australian Provincials heralded themselves in the same way as their pioneers have… as VITAL components of the modern Claxton Shield landscape… super job again fellas!!

We must spare a thought for the home team WA who did a splendid job of hosting the tournament but they were not rewarded with much joy on the diamond. In fact, it was an absolute “party pooper” that the too young WA roster could not find a way to get over the line in any of their games for what will, on paper, appear to be an embarrassing 0-5 wipeout. The WA team were a little too inexperienced to excite ‘Flintoff & Dunn’ about their chances of winning the tournament, but they were by no means outclassed and their winless result was a bit of a travesty.

In most of their games their starting pitching gave them every chance to win, but their offence never really got anything together. It’s not that the WA team is bereft of quality hitters, it’s just that there was not a rally in sight for them at Thornlie. While we have take no pleasure from emphasising their obvious offensive struggles, consider this: Only Dan Floyd (with a terrific .400) batted better than .250, WA had only two players batting above .200 and their team average was .155… short event I know, but that really hurts folks! We can only imagine how much different the tournament may have been if WA (or Perth Heat) had fired!?

Signing off for Claxton Shield 2007… Many, many thanks to Shane Tonkin and the people of Perth for making it such an enjoyable event for travellers like me… Congratulations Victorian Aces! We leave you with the solemn hope that we can enjoy somewhere different again for Claxton Shield 2008? Unless we are pleasantly surprised and overwhelmed by the establishment of our long-awaited new National League, this is the big test for those who we employ to progress the game of baseball in Australia .

We want to see another different Australian baseball capital given the opportunity to do what Perth has done so superbly in 2007. It really should be hosted by Adelaide or Brisbane in 2008. Melbourne can wait after hosting the event in 2002 and Perth, much as we loved it, would not be our next preference only because they have just hosted it. Sydney (read Blacktown) would be a horrible retrograde step that we don’t want to contemplate after having the event disgracefully allowed to remain there for FOUR painfully long years from 2003 to 2006! A message for Baseball Australia… PLEASE don’t give ‘Flintoff & Dunn’ the unwanted ammunition to waste more of our precious time writing negative things about the game we love… PLEASE find the necessary vision, drive and energy to host the event somewhere else where it hasn’t been for a while, even if Blacktown might provide the most “comfortable” solution!

Abandon this ridiculous notion of making States or cities “bid” for hosting the event and use whatever money that would have been otherwise wasted bidding to support the “rotationally allocated” State with improving their facilities and marketing the event. This cannot be too difficult, but we certainly can’t accept decisions that are based on lack of energy or motivation. Let’s avoid the “too hard basket” as we have now proven possible by taking the event to Perth … it was a much needed breath of fresh air!

By Peter Flintoff

2005/2006 SEASON - RAMS “WORST TO FIRST”… NOT BLACKTOWN AGAIN!

Much as we would prefer not to, we find ourselves once again forced to start our review of the 2005/06 Claxton Shield by climbing straight back on our least favourite “hobby horse”… the fact that Australian baseball’s flagship event, the Claxton Shield, was held at Sydney’s Blacktown Olympic Park for the FOURTH successive season. And, don’t even try to sell us the ridiculous notion that this situation was in any way alleviated by playing token games at Narabundah (ACT), French Park (Illawarra), Gilchrist Oval (MacArthur), Baulkham Hills (Northmead) and Aquatic Reserve (Manly)… these fixtures were little more than a “novelty item” and, while they may have hoped to attract some local interest, attendances were poor and fans from other states were still deprived! The following paragraph is a direct repeat from our 2004 and 2005 reviews and we will continue to repeat their relevance as long as this unacceptable situation is allowed to exist.

We don't want to spend pages of text discussing the pros and cons of playing at Blacktown, but it is imperative for the development of baseball in Australia that the event should be shared by ALL major state centres, even if this means that Baseball Australia may have to provide some financial and logistical assistance to do so. To simply anchor the Claxton Shield at Blacktown because it is cheaper or easier is not only a retrograde step for the promotion and development of the sport, but also an indicator that our administrators lack the imagination to do something about it! Unfortunately, it is indicative of the same sort of malaise that we find ourselves in when trying to re-establish the vitally necessary National League competition. Too many things in Australian baseball seem to be added to the overflowing "too hard basket"! 

We don’t disagree that BOP is a very fine venue and probably the best baseball facility in Australia at present. It is certainly appreciated by the players in terms of the playing conditions but to use this as any type of reason or excuse for anchoring the Claxton Shield there is completely missing the point and ignoring the big picture of baseball’s future in the very tough Australian sporting market!

This year we had the inevitable magnification of this quite pitiful situation when the New South Wales team barely scraped into third place via the questionable “head to head” method of ranking teams with identical win/loss records. Despite this fact and their losing record at Claxton Shield 2006 the NSW team were “REWARDED” with what amounted to a home semi-final in their familiar nightcap timeslot. We could go on and on about this situation, but even we at ‘Flintoff & Dunn’ get sick of mentioning it. In a nutshell, the sooner we don’t have to discuss this situation the happier everyone in Australian baseball will be!

No doubt the story of this carnival was the rise of the Queensland Rams who endured the ignominy of finishing in last place behind even the Provincial team in 2005, yet they were able to re-group with an improved roster to sweep all before them at Blacktown in January 2006. Regardless of any luck they may have had along the way, it is a remarkable and meritorious feat for anyone to emerge from a Claxton Shield carnival undefeated and they richly deserved to take home their 4th National Championship, not counting the ABL Championships won by Queensland teams.

Similar to the 2004 Claxton Shield before the Athens Olympics, this competition would be something of a “selection trial” for players hoping to force their way into the Australian team for the historic and inaugural World Baseball Classic of 2006. However, while there was plenty promised about how important it would be for players to participate in the 2006 Claxton Shield there were only a couple who genuinely forced their way into the final AROOS roster via their performances at Blacktown while there were plenty of others who were still selected even though they didn’t find it necessary to turn up for Claxton Shield 2006.

Also, while there were plenty of our current and future young professionals on show, we were to be a little disappointed that only one of our recent major league players was able to put in an appearance… no prizes for guessing that it was the ever-loyal TRENT DURRINGTON who always seems to find the time and energy to support the only really significant national baseball event on Australian soil. We think that this makes him a very special person in Australian baseball and he has our utmost respect. In fairness though we must recognise that it is not always the player’s fault or preference that they can’t play at the Claxton Shield as they are often directed by their employers and some were in injury rehabilitation this year… a fact of life!

Once again those precious few Australian baseball addicts who witnessed games at Blacktown in 2006 were universal in their praise for the quality of the players and the competitiveness of the teams, even though I’m not sure that we should expect anything less. We don’t need anyone to remind us that Australian baseball is a GREAT product and, while it is a minority sport, we do produce some very fine players.

It may be a rash generalisation but, in the reverse of the 2005 tournament, hitters seemed to make a big comeback at Claxton Shield 2006, while not too many pitchers really dominated or enjoyed the tournament. Once again ‘Flintoff & Dunn’ would raise a small question mark about whether some of the quality pitchers absent from the 2005 carnival may have made life just a little easier for the hitters here in 2006… we can never be absolutely sure!?

So, to start with offence, the “Top of the Pops” was clearly Queensland’s Helms Award winner Brad Dutton who hammered out a quite incredible .536 average and .821 slugging percentage which, one of Australia’s top coaches was said to have simplified to “nobody can get him out”… he really was THAT good! But, Dutton was not alone with the heavy bat at Claxton 2006 with Provincials’ pro Tom Vincent compiling a great .455 average while Victorian Daniel Berg and Queenslander Ben Foster both ended up with .444 averages.

To emphasise the batting domination at Claxton 2006, five more players batted .400 or better, while a total of 18 players left Blacktown with averages of at least .333. Six players had on base percentages of at least .500! As we have dubbed him, ‘Bashing Ben’ Wigmore may have lowered his amazing career average slightly at Blacktown this year, but he certainly made his presence felt with a tournament high three home runs… just ask the shell-shocked Victorians who saw all three vanish from the park in the SAME GAME!! Wigmore owned the best slugging percentage with .857, followed by Brad Dutton .821 and Michael Collins .700. Five other players owned terrific slugging percentages above the .600 plateau.

It was more difficult to assess the pitching stars at Claxton 2006, apart from Queensland ’s Golden Arm award winner Matt Gahan who was simply OUTSTANDING. In one of the finest individual performances ever to be seen in Claxton Shield history, the previously underrated Gahan pitched in four games for a stunning 3-0, 0.60ERA record with tournament highs for innings pitched (15.0) and strikeouts (13). Just to put the icing on this delicious cake, he pitched the winning shutout start in the semi-final and again in relief in the grand final!

Next off the rank was probably Victoria ’s 2005 Golden Arm award winner Simon Beresford who took on the might of NSW twice for two splendid no-decisions in winning games for his team. After a solid start on opening night Beresford was required to fly back to Melbourne , and only when the Aces made the finals did he return to Blacktown to shackle the Patriots again in an exciting semi-final. The numbers do not do Simon justice on this occasion, but he has been a magnificent performer at Australian national level.

Also slipping under the radar was SA’s stalwart John Challinor who only pitched one start because his team missed the finals, but we should not overlook his tremendous 8.0 inning win over eventual finalists Victoria. Also worthy of mention among the starters at Blacktown were Wayne Lundgren (NSW), Scott Mitchinson (WA), Cameron Hardy (AP), Russell Spear (VIC) and Craig Anderson (NSW). Victoria ’s Greg Wiltshire carried a tired arm to Blacktown in 2006 but he still managed to strike out 10 in his 8.2 innings of courageous work.

The bullpens may not have appeared quite as intimidating as last year, but three relievers really stood out. Victorian utility/ first baseman Peter Moylan closed four games for the Aces for two saves and without allowing an earned run. However, he was upstaged in the grand final by Queensland colossus Phil Stockman who was nearly unhittable… he hade three relief appearances for his 0.00ERA. Likewise for little known South Australian Tyler Green who also emerged with a 0.00ERA from his three appointments on the mound.

Among the other regular relievers Tristan Crawford was very good for Queensland and so was Victorian youngster Donavon Hendricks who appeared in four games but he ran into a “speed-hump” in the grand final to somewhat tarnish a very good tournament. There is nowhere to hide when pitching late in big games!

Queensland left Blacktown 2006 with most of the spoils, but we spare a thought for David White’s revitalised Victorian Aces who reached the final for the third time in four years only to come up on the short end of a dramatic game. Their loss this year after leading by five runs in the seventh inning of the final is the stuff of baseball nightmares, but only they and Queensland owned a winning record at Claxton Shield 2006. WA made the finals again as a great tribute to their consistent and resilient strength, while the mighty NSW were not quite as intimidating this year and, we guess, they had to fall from their lofty pedestal some time!

The Australian Provincials, who we have praised so many times, did it again with two terrific victories this year and they were closer than ever to reaching the finals stage… they were great once again. South Australia will not be happy with finishing on the bottom rung, but don’t complain to the Victorians who are still bruised from the day that John Challinor and Ben Wigmore bashed them up at Gilchrist Oval… OUCH!
By
Peter Flintoff

2004/2005 SEASON - PATRIOTS REPEAT… AT BLACKTOWN YET AGAIN!

Much as we would prefer not to, we find ourselves once again forced to start our review of the 2004/05 Claxton Shield by climbing straight back on our least favourite “hobby horse”… the fact that Australian baseball’s flagship event, the Claxton Shield, was held at Sydney’s Blacktown Olympic Park for the THIRD successive season. And, if anyone is looking for imminent relief from this appalling situation, then we’re afraid that you, like us, will continue to be bitterly disappointed for the foreseeable future! The following paragraph is a direct repeat from our 2004 review and we will continue to repeat its relevance as long as this unacceptable situation is allowed to exist.

We don't want to spend pages of text discussing the pros and cons of playing at Blacktown, but it is imperative for the development of baseball in Australia that the event should be shared by ALL major state centres, even if this means that Baseball Australia may have to provide some financial and logistical assistance to do so. To simply anchor the Claxton Shield at Blacktown because it is cheaper or easier is not only a retrograde step for the promotion and development of the sport, but also an indicator that our administrators lack the imagination to do something about it! Unfortunately, it is indicative of the same sort of malaise that we find ourselves in when trying to re-establish the vitally necessary National League competition. Too many things in Australian baseball seem to be added to the overflowing "too hard basket"! 

We don’t disagree that BOP is a very fine venue and clearly the best baseball facility in Australia at present. It is certainly appreciated by the players in terms of the playing conditions but to use this as any type of reason or excuse for anchoring the Claxton Shield there is completely missing the point and ignoring the big picture of baseball’s future in the very tough Australian sporting market!

Not quite leaving this backdrop behind, our next duty is to congratulate the New South Wales Patriots for their back-to-back Claxton Shield triumphs and their 12th National Championship. We will expect few prizes for predicting their victory ahead of the event, based not only on their continued home field advantage, but also the pure quality and credentials of the squad assembled. Like most of the State teams, New South Wales did not have all of their top-line players available for Claxton Shield 2005, but what they did have available simply could not be matched on paper by rival states.

So, having said this, it is hardly the fault of the Patriots, or the players involved, that their achievements during this unfortunate period in Australian baseball history must always be recorded with an “asterisk” to denote the fact that their Shield victories have been achieved while the competition provided an uneven playing field. It is obviously a point of conjecture as to whether the results would have been any different had the tournaments been held elsewhere (as the spirit of the competition insists) but the uncertainty ensures a permanent question mark about what has been achieved… one that is probably undeserved.

Finally leaving the negatives aside to concentrate on the competition it must be recorded that the 2004/05 Claxton Shield produced a tremendously high standard of baseball by any international measure and, according to those who should know, the quality of the pitching in particular ensured a class of competition that may never have been seen previously on Australian soil. Some believe that it even “went up a notch” from the outstanding 2004 Claxton Shield when most of our leading players were vying for Olympic Games selection. While we would never disagree with the view of those coaches who acclaimed the pitching in 2005, ‘Flintoff & Dunn’ would pose a small question as to whether the quality of the hitters competing in 2005 may have slightly flattered the pitching when compared with the roll-up of big bats for the 2004 Shield?

Certainly the 2005 Claxton Shield was a competition that was dominated by outstanding pitching feats and some of the best starting pitching heroics seen for many, many years… it easily overshadowed anything that happened offensively as few players really stood out with the bats this year. Who better to start with as our example of pitching heroics than Simon Beresford, the 22yo Victorian professional who was so unfortunate to miss selection in the Australian Olympic Games team for 2004. Young Beresford not only took the mantle of the ace on the Aces staff but he produced one of the truly outstanding performances in Claxton Shield history. He opened the carnival with a one-run winning start over the fancied South Australians, but then capped his tournament with an awesome complete game, two-hit, shutout victory over Western Australia in the semi-final. Despite some other superb performances it made him an easy choice for the 2005 Golden Arm Award for pitcher of the tournament.

Others to provide quite outstanding starting performances during the carnival were John Challinor (SA), Wayne Ough (QLD), Ben Williams (NSW), Greg Wiltshire (VIC) and Adam Bonaddio (VIC) who each earned tremendous victories for their team. Maybe most amazing of those was the nine-innings complete one-run game supplied by Victorian rookie Adam Bonaddio against the Australian Provincial team! Others who would have received rave reviews in other years for their terrific starts were Daryn Cassidy, Shane Tonkin, Cameron Hardy and Cameron Forbes while we would also like to reserve special mention for emerging youngsters Luke Acret and Rikki Paewai.

And, it was not only the starting pitchers who made life difficult for the hitters at Blacktown in 2005, as there were also plenty of nasty relievers loitering in the various bullpens waiting for their chance to take the mound. While we do not intend to overlook many good performers in other teams, a glance at some of the arms used as a “welcoming committee” by the New South Wales Patriots would give a pretty strong indication as to why they secured the title again in 2005. Olympic hero Chris Oxspring did his best to repeat his Golden Arm performance from 2004 while bullpen mates Rowland-Smith, Anderson, Darby, Thompson, Lewis and Bennett were none too friendly. The WA Heelers gang of Eissens, Tonkin , Brendan and Thomas were also typically formidable when the games were there to be won!

Young Victorian Bradley Harman was voted MVP and winner of the coveted Helms Award, not so much for his .267 batting average, but for his splendid and often spectacular play at short stop for the Aces that also scooped him the Golden Glove Award. Another young Victorian professional infielder Paul Rutgers won the Batting Championship with his tremendously consistent .393 tournament average.

Although just under the minimum 20 at bats, young Queenslander David Sutherland (19AB) was again an emerging star with the bat with his gaudy .474 average. He was joined in the .400 Club by Australian Provincial “surprise packets” Mark Saunderson .471 (17AB) and Michael Collins .444 (18AB). Others worthy of mention above the 20 at bat mark were SA’s Dan Wilson (.381) along with rookies Tim Auty from NSW and Ryan Booth from Victoria who both batted .348 as most promising players for the future.

There was not a lot of power on display against the high quality pitching at Claxton Shield 2005 with only Saunderson (.647), Sutherland (.526), Glenn Williams (.520) and Collins (.500) reaching the .500 mark for slugging percentage. Only Victorian catcher Mathew Kent slugged multiple home runs with his two. 

In the wash-up, New South Wales took the Claxton Shield after recovering from a somewhat sluggish start to their 2005 campaign and, while they may have appeared vulnerable early in the carnival, there were few of the astute judges who would dare to write them off. If pitching is chiefly responsible for winning most big baseball games, then NSW could point to their pitching riches as the primary reason for their sustained success during this era in their history… no need to mention the venue again here is there?

The Victorian Aces under a new selection and coaching panel led by pitching great David White restored much of their lost pride from their cellar finish in 2004 when their new look team emerged to tackle the might of the Patriots in the 2005 Grand Final game. The fact that they came up short in a hotly contested game was nothing for them to be negative about. The Victorian ship was well and truly afloat once again!

WA Heelers, as they often seem to do, jumped out of the blocks strongly and they topped the table after the preliminary rounds. It would be grossly unfair to judge the success of their tournament on the fact that they ran headlong into the Simon Beresford pitching buzz-saw in their 0-1 semi-final loss to Victoria . Likewise for South Australia who were worthy semi-finalists but they could not find enough to beat NSW in their semi-final. Both WA and SA continue to unearth some outstanding young Australian baseball talent.

The Australian Provincial team once again established their right to compete among the “big boys” on Australia ’s biggest national baseball stage. As they have done on each occasion since joining the Claxton Shield competition, ’AP’ provided all of the competition the State teams could handle on most occasions and they certainly achieved their primary objective of providing an early opportunity for some promising young Australian players. The Queensland Rams may have finished in the basement, but they were also hardest hit by the absence of leading players. In spite of this, they were rarely embarrassed and we would not expect them to stay out of the semi-final action for any extended period of time.

2003/2004 SEASON - CLAXTON SHIELD AT BLACKTOWN AGAIN!

For the second successive season Australia's showcase Claxton Shield competition returned to NSW Blacktown Olympic Park, and herein lies a major point of controversy for 'Flintoff & Dunn'. While we have heard all kinds of reasons ranging from "it is the only suitable venue" to "we are aligning it with Junior state championships where we provide three-year tenures", none of these, in our view, can be accepted as a suitable outcome for the flagship event on the Australian baseball calendar. We have no argument about the suitability of BOP, or maybe even its current status as our finest baseball facility, but it is unworthy of Baseball Australia to suggest that no other venue in the country could be suitable to host the Claxton Shield, or to ignore the opportunity for fans around the country to attend it on a strictly rotation basis. 

We don't want to spend pages of text discussing the pros and cons of playing at Blacktown, but it is imperative for the development of baseball in Australia that the event should be shared by ALL major state centres, even if this means that Baseball Australia may have to provide some financial and logistical assistance to do so. To simply anchor the Claxton Shield at Blacktown because it is cheaper or easier is not only a retrograde step for the promotion and development of the sport, but also an indicator that our administrators lack the imagination to do something about it! Unfortunately, it is indicative of the same sort of malaise that we find ourselves in when trying to re-establish the vitally necessary National League competition. Too many things in Australian baseball seem to be added to the overflowing "too hard basket"! 

It would not be too late for this situation to be rectified for 2004/05, but don't expect it move from Blacktown again as scheduled... what a shame! But, however bad this situation may be, it is even more important that plans are formulated to ensure the future rotation of the event beyond 2005, that is if a proper National League cannot be re-established!

OK, so leaving aside the pure argument about the venue, let's jump straight to another of the unfortunate by-products of the decision and that is the undeniable advantage that the home Claxton Shield provides for the NSW team... an advantage that they hardly need right at the moment. It has always been accepted that the host State would be advantaged by the luxury of home conditions, but this was acceptable as long as the right to host the carnival was equally shared among the rival states. Just like the AFL are finding out with their "salary cap concessions" and other vagaries, it does tarnish the integrity of the competition when you create a "unlevel playing field". 

It was somewhat of a surprise when Queensland upset the previously dominant NSW team in the semi-final last year, but it never seemed likely that the NSW Patriots would stumble again in 2004. Although they were not undefeated, they simply steamrolled to their 11th Claxton Shield victory, their first Claxton Shield since 1988... that is if you don't count the Sydney Blues' ABL Championship in 1996. Nobody could suggest that NSW did not deserve to win the National Championship as they were represented by one of the most experienced and highly credentialed teams in living memory. Even without the services of recent major league pitchers Grant Balfour and John Stephens, who were late withdrawals, rival teams were entitled to be in awe of the professional talent available to the Patriots, on paper at least! Herein lies perhaps the most significant advantage in hosting the Claxton Shield in modern times... not just the familiarity with the home venue, but the opportunity to entice your best professional players to compete in their "off season". NSW have certainly benefited from the availability of star players over the past two competitions and this is most unfortunate for States that haven't!

Not to take another snide shot at the "repeat venue" but the 2004 Claxton Shield could well be remembered as the year of the COMEBACK. With the lure of selection for the 2004 Athens Olympic games underpinning the tournament, several of Australia's top players made long-awaited returns to the Australian baseball 'big league'. Little doubt that the appearance of some of our more high-profile players was a major boost to the competition and the general interest of baseball fans. 

At the top of the billing was Australia's greatest ever player David Nilsson who surprised many when he decided to end a lengthy "hibernation" from competitive baseball at the age of 34. While many may have been sceptical about what impact he might have at this stage of his career, Nilsson simply reminded everyone in sport that it is foolhardy to doubt a champion. However, even his most loyal supporters would have been stunned and delighted with the awesome performance 'Big Dave' summoned for Blacktown in January, 2004. We don't want to clutter this report with statistics, but Nilsson's speak for themselves... 4 home runs and 12 RBI's from just 11 at bats for a batting average of .455 and a slugging percentage of 1.545... give us a break! Not satisfied with this, he also supplied an unusual "party trick" by taking a turn as a starting pitcher in a meaningless game and, to complete the folklore, he pitched two effective shutout innings!

Not far behind Nilsson was another of Australia's younger professional stars from Queensland in Brett Roneberg. Although he had reached 'AAA' with the Florida Marlins, we had not seen much of Brett on Australian diamonds for a few years apart from his cameo at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. In typical fashion, Roneberg was a standout performer on the Australian baseball stage, batting .474 but also providing a tremendous all-round offensive and defensive performance that made him a deserving winner of the prestigious Helms Award, before the age of 25.

With apologies to several emerging young professionals and other quality players who returned for Claxton 2004, a list of some of the major stars who made a re-appearance at Blacktown also includes Phil Brassington, David McWatters, Ben Utting, Shayne Bennett, Tom Becker, John Challinor, Jason Hewitt, John Moore and Chris Oxspring. For his fine performance as the winning pitcher in the final for NSW, former Queenslander Chris Oxspring was voted Pitcher of the Year. One other player who deserves special mention is SA's stalwart catcher Ben Wigmore who owns a .449 batting average from the past four Claxton Shield carnivals and who was a deserving winner of the Batting Champion award in 2004 with .500. WA's Luke Hughes was awarded the Gold Glove.

As a brief overview of the tournament, NSW won because of their overall depth and experience, especially in their bullpen. Queensland rode a potent offence into the final with a chance to defend their 2003 Championship but may have just run out of pitching at the pointy end? South Australia improved dramatically on recent seasons and some emerging young hitters complimented a most experienced pitching arsenal. WA, as usual, were highly competitive and they continue to produce some hot prospects for the future. The Australian Provincials once again clearly justified their participation in the event with some gallant performances and they upset the hapless Victorians for the second straight season. 

This brings us, painfully, to our beloved home state of Victoria... we haven't been able to substantiate the fact, but we have not been able to find anyone who could remember baseball's most successful state EVER FINISHING LAST in Claxton Shield competition. Certainly the team were competitive in the early games of the tournament, but they finished in embarrassing circumstances with too many youngsters and wafer thin pitching options. What ever got into the minds of the Victorian selectors who, inexplicably, sent away a team that were obviously deficient in key areas is anyone's guess? With complete disregard for experienced, in-form local players who were playing at the highest level in Melbourne, it seemed that the pre-requisite for selection in the Aces team was a recent professional contract and a birth certificate later than 1980!

Memo to Baseball Victoria (and any other state that might be thinking similarly)... the Claxton Shield is an event with a rich history and, in the absence of a national league, it remains the most prestigious State competition in the land. It behoves every team to send their very best available players to represent baseball in the proudest possible manner and to produce the finest possible standard of competition. Professional contract or not, there are many local league stars who may deserve to represent their state AT THIS STAGE OF THEIR CAREER ahead of inexperienced and often immature 'Rookie League' pros. It is an insult to those who miss selection when they have earned the opportunity, regardless of their professional status. In Victoria's case, while not directly blaming those players who no doubt tried their very best, the last placed finish was an embarrassment that must have serious repercussions in the hallowed halls of Baseball Victoria.

2002/2003 SEASON - CLAXTON SHIELD GOES TO BLACKTOWN!

With national league discussions apparently continuing and progressing, but still very much in the “background”, the summer of 2002/03 would bring another familiar Claxton Shield carnival much like the previous one in Melbourne, this time scheduled for Blacktown Olympic Park, in Sydney.

Maybe most pertinent about the event on this occasion was the chance to showcase the premier level of Australian baseball at the game’s most impressive new venue. Blacktown Olympic Park, as the name suggests, was constructed primarily for baseball and softball as the secondary baseball stadium for the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, sharing fixtures with the even more impressive Homebush Baseball Stadium. Sadly for the immediate future of baseball, the Homebush stadium had since been taken over as a showgrounds and for occasional rugby league matches as it was simply “too good” for any product baseball could provide at this time!

Blacktown Olympic Park was barely ready for Intercontinental Cup games in late 1999 and still not quite “completed” for the 2000 Olympic games, but the venue had since undergone considerable re-development and “fine tuning” of the facilities. So much so that, during 2002, Blacktown Olympic Park received formal recognition as “the home of NSW baseball” and the venue would look forward very much to the opportunity to market itself via Australia’s famous baseball Claxton Shield carnival, held in late January 2003.

As established with the successful implementation in the 2002 competition, the Australian Provincial team joined the five major Australian states to provide a six-team tournament. This time the plucky Australian Provincials managed to break the ice with a slice of baseball history when they won their first ever game, stunning the defending Champions Victoria Aces who had started slowly in the tournament. After each team had played each other the Western Heelers and hosting NSW Patriots were clear leaders on the table, while Victoria and Queensland squeezed into the playoffs with identical win-loss records as SA who unluckily missed out after “head to head” results were considered.

Baseball has always been capable of producing surprises and, although the 2002 Claxton went very much according to expectation based on the results, the opposite could be said of this 2003 tournament at Blacktown. An awakening Victoria thrashed the previously dominant WA 7-1 in one semi-final, while devastated hosts NSW were bundled out in an incredible 2-0 shutout by Queensland in the other semi. With most of its experienced talent enticed to play the big event on home soil, New South Wales had every reason to be confident about winning the famous Shield and it took some local excitement away from the grand final when they fell short.

The 2003 Claxton Shield final would be contested by an underrated Queensland under the management of “that man” David Nilsson and a strong finishing Victoria who had the opportunity to win back-to-back Claxton Shields. It must be said that both teams were fortunate to be there after some mediocre efforts during the early stages of the tournament and they paid a price for this in the end. Fact is, both teams had expended so much energy simply to clinch a playoff position, then to win their semi-finals, that they were both almost completely out of “ammunition” especially in the form of rested pitching arms.

With this as a backdrop to the championship final, it is a credit to both teams that they produced such a memorable and keenly contested conclusion to the championship. Queensland jumped to an early lead taking advantage of the Aces inexperienced starting pitcher and some uncharacteristic errors, then withstood a mighty comeback from the Vics to run out worthy 5-4 winners in an exciting cliff-hanging final. While there were other highlights, the battle between emerging pitching stars Travis Blackley of Victoria and PJ Bevis of Queensland towards the end of the Grand Final game was absorbing. In the end it was Bevis who had the last word as Championship MVP, backing-up after closing the semi-final to maintain Queensland’s lead. The Queensland Rams were entitled to celebrate their 4th Claxton Shield triumph.

NSW first baseman and occasional pitcher Craig Lewis scooped the individual awards for the tournament as Batting Champion boasting a stunning .565/8/3 tournament and owning a monster 1.043 slugging percentage! It was also enough to secure him the Helms Award as MVP of the tournament. We’re not sure what the judges were thinking, but they also gave Lewis the Gold Glove for his tidy work at first base… they might have also voted him State Premier!! Queensland’s John Veitch was a mild surprise for the Pitching Award with his 1-0, 3.12ERA record for the tournament, with 2002 winner Shane Tonkin unlucky not to win it again and a few others who could stake very good claims.

As expected the Blacktown venue “stood up” for the big event and, while we did not hear any rave reviews, the fact that there was no negative comment about the venue or the management of the tournament must be accepted as a positive thing in these critical times. There can be no doubt that the players enjoyed playing at a first class baseball facility and while no formal records were published it was reported that there were “a few good crowds for the more popular games”… in other words what we would expect for Sydney sporting events.

The rich history of the Claxton Shield added another chapter from Blacktown in 2003.

2001/2002 SEASON – IBLA GONE & CLAXTON SHIELD BACK!

With any talk of new national league baseball in Australia quite clearly consigned to the more remote “back burners” (although on the future agenda) at the ABF, there was still a strangely warm feeling of comfort and security among baseball fans that Australian baseball as a whole was back in the right hands! Gone were the uncertainties of the IBLA’s fluctuating directions and the dwindling faith in the “messiah” Dave Nilsson.

But, if anyone expected the dawn of an exciting new era in Australian ‘big league’ baseball, they would pretty soon realise that the Australian Baseball Federation had not changed much in the brief two year interruption that was the IBLA, or indeed since 1998 when the ABL was formed. It was still a very conservative beast with many agendas and issues to preside over; it was not especially focussed on national league or elite baseball agendas… unfortunately!

With some “tongue in cheek” we can report that the ABF simply reached into its bag of ideas and extracted an old tried and proven favourite, a Claxton Shield carnival, as an interim solution to providing an elite, national league level of competition. It surely didn’t take too much imagination to come up with the formula that had been so successful (or traditional) for Australian baseball for so many years… it was a simple step back in time to revive a concept that they were familiar with managing. I guess we could not be too critical of this, it’s just that it made us more aware of how “fanciful” were our hopes of a quick return to those heady days of the Australian Baseball League!

As a bonus for Melbourne fans it was soon announced that the Claxton Shield for the 2001/02 summer would be conducted exclusively in Melbourne over the familiar “week and a bit” period at the end of January 2002, with all games to be played at Melbourne Ballpark (Altona), apart from one showcase afternoon game at Waverley’s Napier Park.

One thing that the return of a traditional Claxton Shield carnival under the ABF banner did achieve was to ensure the support of the State Associations and the return of the vast majority of top players who would make themselves available for this type of event. Regardless of any other criticisms, these factors in themselves were an undoubted positive step forward from the IBLA days.

One new concept that was introduced by the ABF for this tournament was the effective “balancing” of the competition by adding a sixth team to the five major Australian State teams. Building upon a successful concept from the IBLA’s first year with the formation of a NSW Country team, the ABF went a step further with the addition of the Australian Provincial team. Provincial teams were not a new concept in Australian baseball as a long-standing opportunity for baseballers who were not selected for State teams to play at a high level. Selection is limited to players from outside the major capital cities and/or players who compete in winter leagues.

While it was recognised that the Australian Provincial team would struggle to match the talent of the State teams, we must commend the foresight of the decision in terms of the ongoing structure of Australian baseball. Time would prove that whatever the Provincials may have lacked in terms of talent and experience, they could partly make up for with determination and enthusiasm. It really did not matter how many games they won because they did provide good opposition and they added a certain new and beneficial “flavour” to the competition. Most importantly, the Provincial team provided another opportunity for emerging young Australian baseballers to showcase their talents and to gain very valuable experience.

Adopting the traditional Claxton Shield structure each of the six teams were to play each other team once, with the top four finishing teams to comprise the semi-finals. Single semi-finals games of 1v4 and 2v3 would be followed with a single Grand Final between the winners and a playoff for third between the losing teams. Wisely, the Claxton Shield would carry over the IBLA’s decision to mandate the use of wooden bats for future competition.

Anyone who had the privilege of witnessing the 2002 Claxton Shield competition could not help but be impressed, once again, with the overall standard of Australian baseball. With our usual mix of established stars, some others with US professional experience and a bunch of emerging youngsters the standard of play was world class. As all too often happens with Australian ‘big league’ baseball it was a great pity that it was not witnessed by many more fans… more on this later!

The preliminary games concluded with the home team Victoria Aces undefeated atop the table, to be joined by WA, Queensland and SA in the playoffs. NSW would be most disappointed to miss the playoffs, while the winless Australian Provincials could be mighty proud of their efforts to scare the hell out of most teams they played with some very spirited play. They gave plenty of cheek with the bats and, but for the want of some more pitching experience, they would have been an even bigger handful for the State teams. Certainly their efforts went a long way to establishing the concept of the Provincials as a long-term Claxton Shield competitor.

Leading teams Victoria and WA emerged from the semi-finals to play a tremendous Grand Final, finally won by Victoria in the last innings when Victoria’s Championship MVP infielder Brett Tamburrino crushed the game winning RBI over centrefield for a tight 6-5 win. Victoria clinched its record 16th Claxton Shield victory. NSW star infielder Rodney Van Buizen won the Helms Award with his magnificent .579 average, although from just 19 at bats, along with his tremendous defence. Queensland’s veteran slugger Paul Gonzalez was the Batting Champion with .476/8/2. The undoubted pitching star of the tournament was experienced WA hurler Shane Tonkin who did everything but become the championship hero for the Heelers with his 1-0, 0.96ERA record with one save and one complete game victory! Australian Provincial short stop Mark Dries won the Gold Glove Award, while Victoria’s Phil Allen was an easy choice for the Manager’s Award.

So, in the end, we rejoiced the return of the “good old” Claxton Shield… it would not ever replace our hunger for a broader national league competition, but it would be a very decent outlet in the meantime. Most felt immediately that its traditions should be retained forever in some form or other as we pondered the long-term future of the game in Australia.

Amid all the positives, there was one glaring problem that we could not ignore as a very serious impediment to any form of big league baseball in Australia, and Melbourne in particular. Despite the fabulous standard of the competition, once again, media interest was minimal and the games were poorly attended… facts we cannot escape. Sure, several of the games were on mid-week days during normal working hours, or at night, but even the prestigious weekend finals did not stir sufficient interest. It most certainly was not the sporting product on offer to blame!

Of course we would have to defer some judgement due to the continued unfortunate circumstances in Melbourne where the baseball venue has an undeniable history for repelling spectators. We will cope with being accused of “harping on the subject” but the issue of Melbourne Ballpark at Altona in Melbourne’s far west as a GRAVEYARD for baseball in the sport loving state of Victoria is one that won’t go away! Only true devotees of the game will attend there and even many of them not as regularly as they would otherwise!!

This fact was highlighted in the most obvious of ways during the 2002 Claxton Shield with the “showcase” game between Victoria and the Provincials at the Waverley Baseball Club’s Napier Park. Scheduled for the “difficult” 4:30pm start on a working Wednesday afternoon, a “festive” crowd of some 1,200-plus flocked to see the top level of baseball in Australia… a turn-up worthy of the event. Although it has a “very nice” facility for a major suburban club, Waverley as a venue alone would not lure spectator support nor would the unfavourable timing of the game!! The message to Baseball Victoria and the ABF, if they are interested, is crystal clear… if we get a decent facility at a more sensible (south-east) location in Melbourne, people WILL ATTEND baseball in very good numbers… NEVER at Altona!!

2000/2001 SEASON - IBLA Year 2, The Gold Coast League!

With another year behind them, it was time for David Nilsson’s IBLA team to unveil their cherished new International Baseball League of Australia for the 2000/01 summer. Australian baseball fans would be titillated with the prospect of Australian teams to be pitted against top international players from both the USA (minor leagues) and Asia, along with the promise of a continued Claxton Shield carnival.

However, once again, it didn’t take too long for the excitement to be dampened by the harsh commercial realities. The first crushing news for baseball fans around the country would come with the announcement that the entire league would be based on the Gold Coast, while we were all left to assume that travelling costs could not be sustained. In any event, the IBLA league itself would also lack some real “credibility” with the formation of only four teams comprising IBLA Australia, IBLA Internationals, MLB All-Stars, and a Taiwan national team. Sure, it would be great competition for the players, but it would hardly inspire much attention or interest for national league baseball fans. Even the “competitive nature” of the league itself would be questionable with several (Australian) players representing two or three of the teams (other than Taiwan) at different times during the season.

Most critical in limiting its universal appeal was the understandable inability of many top Australian players to meet the time commitment of competing in such a league, especially if the player was not based in Queensland. Additionally, as the season wore on, several good players became unavailable with injuries and for other reasons, to be replaced by “mediocre” local players. In truth, while the baseball itself may have been a good standard at times, there was very little about the competition to interest people outside Queensland, and it attracted very poor local spectator support in the Sunshine State. Honestly, how many of the limited local baseball community did they expect to attend an oversupply of games at the same venue contested between the same four teams?… or did they really care how many attended?

While this may have been one of Nilsson’s primary intentions, the 2000/01 IBLA was really little more than a great “summer instructional league” for those players who were able to take part. Certainly for some of the emerging Australian players it was a great experience and some healthy off-season competition for our international visitors. The players would have appreciated the rare opportunity for regular play, including mid-week games, as a valuable simulation of US minor league conditions and it was reported that the coaching, training and instruction was extremely professional.

However, the new IBLA league did NOTHING to quell the appetite of Australian baseball fans around the country for national league baseball. Typically, the IBLA could not even attract any significant media interest and only the most attentive Australian baseball fans would have realised that the league was in existence via its web site.

As a further savage blow to the baseball starved Australian community it wasn’t too far into the IBLA season when plans for the Claxton Shield, to be held during the league’s Christmas break, were shelved. It was understood that the carnival would be held in Sydney starting ridiculously close to Christmas and it would not surprise anyone to learn that there was a reported lack of player interest in attending… little wonder that the 2001 Claxton Shield competition never eventuated. It was another body-blow to the credibility of the IBLA as the flagship of Australian national league baseball as it floundered for fan support.

Next on the agenda for fan disappointment was the announcement that what promised to be one of the most significant baseball fixtures in modern Australian history would also be cancelled. For most of the summer the IBLA had trumpeted that it had organised a “showcase” All-Star game to be played under the closed roof of Melbourne’s glitzy new Colonial Stadium in late January. While details were somewhat sketchy, it was indicated that an “Australian team” of some description would be pitted against a special “All-Star” combination, said to include some celebrity guest players… one mentioned was major league superstar Roberto Alomar. Like so many of the great baseball ideas of the era, there didn’t seem to be much genuine substance behind all of the smoke and mirrors!

And so, to the ignorance of most baseball fans, the IBLA’s “private” Gold Coast league ground on to the end of its maximum 42 game season with some of the teams playing only 36 games with no intention of making-up for any that were abandoned. For the record, the Internationals team finished clear competition leaders and, after a brief playoff series, went on to record a narrow 2-1 victory over the IBLA Australia team in a single game Championship Final. The crescendo to the IBLA season didn’t seem to create as much as a ‘blip’ on any baseball radar screen… not even the IBLA themselves seemed particularly interested! They had achieved their primary aim of conducting a valuable training environment for the participants, any intention of producing an interesting competition were very much secondary!

US minor league star slugger Andrew Zapp scooped the IBLA major honours as League MVP and Batting Champion with his .373 average and .608 slugging percentage. Emerging Victorian star Jarrod Hodges actually owned a superior average (.375) but his 96 at bats were not quite enough to qualify him for the title. Experienced Taiwan pitcher Chao-Hao Tseng was the undoubted pitching star with a 5-2, 1.06ERA record while he completed all six of his starts! Luke Prokopec (a future major leaguer) emerged as an Australian pitching star (1-0, 0.39ERA) along with some other young prospects who would be US signings in the very near future… the IBLA had been great for them. Taiwan’s Chih-Sheng Lin won the Gold Glove Award.

One thing that the IBLA did provide after a one season hiatus was the return of US import players that we could follow with interest and, much like the previous ABL imports, a few of these did not take long to make their way to the US major leagues.

Sure, it’s easy to be critical of the IBLA, but few of us in baseball could possibly imagine how such a league could continue to sustain itself without the personal funding of David Nilsson. It may have had some support from MLB in the US, but there were no other revenue streams and not much prospect of any being established with the league in this form. Consequently it did not surprise anyone when David Nilsson pretty soon after withdrew his interest from the helm of Australian national league baseball and he handed back the tattered reins to the ABF.

As a footnote to the IBLA and David Nilsson’s tenure as the owner of Australia’s national league we must say that this brief period in Australian baseball history will probably be remembered as a dismal failure. This is certainly true in terms of its efforts to rekindle or improve “national league” baseball in Australia, however, we will not be critical of Nilsson’s honourable intentions or the fact that, in good old Aussie vernacular, “he had a go”! In terms of his stature in Australian baseball David Nilsson will always be a very significant figure in our history, it’s just that we would rather be relying on him to produce a clutch hit as a player, than to rely upon his long-term commitment to any off-field ventures. Great baseballer though he is (or was) he showed himself to be a man who could be persuaded by exciting new ideas, but he was largely unable to maintain the determination or enthusiasm to follow them through!

Even before our thoughts turned to the 2001/02 summer the Australian Baseball Federation were quick to inform everyone that the revival of national league baseball was not on the immediate agenda. The ABF would take its time before contemplating the viability of options for future national league baseball, determined not to make the same mistakes that had been made in the past and to build upon the lessons learned along the way. One commendable and clear policy for the future of national league baseball in Australia was that we would not establish a new league until we could be sure of its long-term viability… we simply could not afford another failure as this may produce a setback we could not recover from!

1999/2000 SEASON - David Nilsson’s NEW IBLA

Following the sad demise of the Australian Baseball League after the conclusion of the 1998/99 season it was time to herald what promised to be an new era in Australian national and international baseball with the formation of the International Baseball League of Australia. History was to prove that, like too many promises in Australian baseball, the outcome did not match the enthusiasm about the potential!

Still a big time major league player with the Milwaukee Brewers with a healthy new contract in his back pocket, Australia’s greatest ever player David Nilsson was to be the saviour of national league baseball in this country with a bold new league fashioned on his own ideas for the future. It was reported that Nilsson purchased the “ownership” of the new league for approximately $1,000,000 (Australian dollars) then, with his long-time Queensland “sidekick” Glenn Partridge at the helm, they set about implementing their plans for Australia's baseball future.

Although it could not entirely be blamed on Nilsson or Partridge it always seemed that their plans for the immediate 1999/2000 summer would be premature as there had hardly been enough time to establish anything since the old ABL had been pronounced deceased. Sure, it didn’t take long for a nice new IBLA web site to hit the World Wide Web, with plenty of optimism for a great new league, but many in baseball circles were entitled to wonder how much substance was behind the promotion. While we could not be certain about this, it would always be pondered how much “hands on” attention that Nilsson himself was giving to his new venture in Australia while he concentrated on more important matters in the USA?

It had always been their stated intention to re-establish baseball’s traditional interstate rivalry with the return of Claxton Shield hostilities, along with the formation of a new national league involving some team(s) from our local Asian region. In the end, they had to concede that the new league would have to wait with insufficient time to prepare for the upcoming summer while what was intended to be the Claxton Shield carnival would be slightly transformed into league play under the IBLA banner.

The IBLA version of the Claxton Shield would be an initial shock to traditionalists and an inadequate replacement for the ABL to others, but in the end most Australian baseball fans would be forced to admit that it was an excellent concept for a national competition and perhaps even a glimpse into the national league future for Australian baseball… time would tell?

In order to produce “league play” the five traditional baseball states of Australia being New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia would be joined by a new team representing Country New South Wales for a balanced six-team competition. Then, in order to minimise travelling costs, the league would be split into two “conferences” with the southern states (Vic, SA & WA) playing home and away series against each other and likewise for the northern teams (NSW, NSWC & Qld).

Unfortunately, one real problem with the formation of this new “state based” league was the early reluctance of the State Associations to support their teams in the IBLA, perhaps partly due to the hasty organisation of the competition. Once again we cannot be absolutely certain about the details of the various negotiations, but it is understood that the only individually financed team in the competition were the Victoria Aces under the management of former Melbourne Reds owner Geoff Pearce. It was reported that the management group of the former Sydney Storm were prepared to take control of the New South Wales team but they withdrew when confronted with some of the IBLA’s radical new rules for competition. In the end we are led to believe that the competition, or David Nilsson himself, had to take on the unwanted burden of actually owning and financing five of the six competing teams?!

The type of “radical new rules” we refer to were to include Nilsson’s ultra-strict new code for on-field player behaviour like the direction that team managers would automatically be ejected from games at any time that one of his players was ejected for an on-field indiscretion. There were quite a number of new rules that were proposed, but not all of them came to fruition, because when the baseball action started the game looked much like it has throughout its history. Most notable, and universally popular, was Nilsson’s insistence that only wooden bats could be used and that venues must be of a suitable configuration and size for baseball.

What the “new look” Claxton Shield did do (as vitally important to Australian baseball fans) was to bring the best quality Australian baseball to each of Australia’s main capital cities with “home and away” series against each other team in the conference. It was designed for each team to play a home three-game series against the other teams in the conference as an 18-game season culminating with Best-of-3 conference semi-finals, then a Best-of-3 inter-league grand final. With each team suffering one abandoned fixture all teams ultimately played 17 games each before the playoffs.

WA upset the home standing Victoria 2-1 in the Southern semi-final in Melbourne, while Queensland toppled the surprise packet Country NSW 2-0 in the Northern semi-final played at the Gold Coast. In the end it was WA’s Western Heelers that would be crowned inaugural IBLA Champions and 2000 Claxton Shield winners after beating Queensland Rams 2-1 in a hard-fought grand final also played at the Gold Coast. WA’s Championship MVP and our own Hall-of-Famer Clayton Byrne was a “one man wrecking crew” in both finals series.

NSW Country’s emerging star and future major leaguer Chris Snelling was the inaugural league MVP while teammate Gavin Fingleson was the 2000 Batting Champion with his .386 average although this came from only 44 at bats, while Victorian catcher Scott Dawes batted .355 from 62 at bats… make your own choice? Although pitchers could not compile too many innings in the abbreviated league format, Queensland’s Brett Baker was voted Pitcher of the Year with his 1-1, 0.47ERA record with one save, while WA star Shane Tonkin was Reliever of the Year with his 0-1, 0.87ERA record with 4 saves. NSW infielder Rodney Van Buizen won the Gold Glove Award, while WA youngster Daniel Floyd was voted Rookie of the Year. For the surprisingly competitive efforts of the NSW Country team Shane Barclay was named Manager of the Year.

One thing that the 2000 Claxton Shield competition may have contributed to the long-term history of the famous competition was the introduction of team nicknames for the traditional state teams. Victoria had become the Aces (due to the sponsorship of the Aces Sporting Club) while WA used the name Western Heelers. NSW were the Patriots, Queensland the Rams and South Australia was named SA Bite. Ensuing years would reveal that only SA’s Bite did not “stick” as an ongoing nickname that seemed permanently linked to each state team.

Following the pall of disappointment still lingering from the demise of the ABL, the first season of the IBLA would always suffer by negative comparison. However, in hindsight, history should not judge the 1999/2000 season too harshly as it did provide a great standard of Australian baseball competition for fans all around the country, although not in the quantity many of us would have liked. Future years would teach us that we should have been grateful for small mercies!

By Peter Flintoff
For more information about the writer, click here.

To read about Australian Major League Baseball "THE FIRST 10 YEARS"... clickhere!