|Distance shrinking between Australia and MLB
|Australian-born minor leaguers Luke Hughes, Trent Oeltjen and Allan De San Miguel loosened up in the Twins batting cage after their 30-hour trip to Fort Myers, Fla. for spring training
By Chuck King
FORT MYERS, Fla. – Minor leaguers know the baseball season is long. For Australian-born minor leaguers, simply getting to spring training can feel as though it takes a lifetime.
Aussies often need a few days for their bodies to adjust after the 30 hours of travel to spring training in Florida.
“That first week is a big kick in the face, but you have to get trough it,” said pitcher Paul Mildren, a member of Florida’s 40-man roster. “Coming from Australia, it hits pretty hard with the jetlag and all then running around.”
Minnesota farmhands Luke Hughes, Trent Oeltjen and Allan De San Miguel spent the past two days together making the journey to their Florida spring training site in Fort Myers. They are fighting the jetlag.
They arrived at the complex a day early hoping to acclimate to their new surroundings. After a few hours of sleep and a quick dip in the hotel pool, the trio tried to loosen their weary bodies by taking a few hacks in the batting cage.
“It’s good to get in and get a good workout – get the blood flowing,” said Luke Hughes, who expects to start the season with the Fort Myers Miracle of the Single-A Florida State League.
The Twins are at the forefront of signing Australian baseball players. Hughes estimates Minnesota has as many as 15 of his cohorts from Down Under in its organization.
Though the number of Australians playing baseball in America continues to grow, the trio of Twins says it’s still a relatively small fraternity. Most players who come to America from Australia know each other through leagues in their home country.
Veteran Australian-born minor leaguers help the younger Aussies adjust to living in the United States.
“It’s helped out a lot having the Aussies,” said Trent Oeltjen, who was selected to Major League Baseball’s Futures Game in 2006. “I came up when Grant Balfour and Brad Thomas were in Double-A and I was in rookie ball. They showed me the way and now I show the younger guys.”
Oeltjen has been all over the world. He spent much of the winter in Venezuela playing baseball. Perth-area natives D’Antonio and De San Miguel spent their winters near home, which may actually serve as a sort of Aussie advantage. Surfers have nothing on the endless summer experienced by Australian baseball players who make it to the United States.
While many visitors to the Fort Myers complex were soaking in the sun – the announced temperature back in Minnesota was two degrees – the Aussies were happy for the relatively-cool 80-degree weather. The summer heat they just left sweltered near 100 degrees.
“It’s a chance to keep a little bit sharper,” said Trent D’Antonio who was enjoying the relatively cool temperatures in Jupiter, about a three-hour drive from Fort Myers. “You have a little bit of an edge over the guys that are here because you’ve been seeing pitches over the [Australian] summer. Those guys in some of the states, they’ve been snowed in. They don’t even get to hit.”
Of course those cold early days of some baseball seasons can be a shock to those unaccustomed to springtime American weather.
De San Miguel and Oeltjen experienced winter storms in Beloit and New Britain early in the 2006 season.
“That’s the coldest weather I’ve ever been in, going through April and May,” De San Miguel said. “The first two games I was there it snowed. I was like, Oh shit, I’ve never seen that before.”
Twenty years after Craig Shipley became the first Australian-born modern-era Major League Baseball player, the minor leagues are experiencing an Aussie population explosion.
Nearly 100 Australians are currently playing minor league baseball in the United States.
“We’re getting stronger,” said D’Antonio, who hit .245 with 12 home runs for Florida’s Single-A affiliate in Greensboro last season. We’re getting more recognition because the guys that are doing well over here in front of us, so a lot of the younger guys are getting a chance.”
Check out my blog for more on Australian-born minor league players and fans.