From Australia with glove
The Freeport International Baseball Invitational is like an alternate universe for the North Shore Star Baseball Club from Sydney, Australia.
For the players from the Land Down Under, the customs of their homeland have been turned upside down — with baseball being the sport on top.
In Australia, baseball sits on the bench, backing up sports such as cricket, rugby and soccer.
“This is a great experience,” North Shore pitcher/outfielder Jacob Pennell said. “This is where baseball was made. In Australia, it's not big at all. A small population knows the game. Coming here, everybody knows it.”
North Shore is the first representative from Australia to play in the annual Invitational, which is in its 13th year. The other participants from overseas — the Netherlands and Japan — have been here before.
The Invitational started at six fields in the Alle-Kiski Valley on Monday and runs through Saturday.
The Australians will get a good taste of America's pastime, playing nine regular games in five days. Some of them also will take part in the All-American vs. All-International contest — the Invitational's finale — on Saturday night.
Because there are no playoffs or team titles, the Invitational goes by the motto “For the Love of the Game.” Probably no team in this year's Invitational embodies that philosophy more than North Shore.
Each of the players is paying about $5,000 for the trip, which also includes stops at a Pirates game, the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., and two Giants games in San Francisco.
“I couldn't wait,” said third baseman/outfielder Justin McCarren, 17. “This is awesome.”
The International Baseball Federation estimates about 60,000 of the 20 million Australians play baseball. The season goes from September through March.
The IBAF also states there are more than 4.5 million playing the sport in the United States, which has a population topping 300 million.
Some of the Aussies are approaching the Invitational with relative seriousness.
Alessio Angelucci, 18, a pitcher/outfielder, hopes to earn a scholarship to play college baseball in the United States. There is no intercollegiate or pro baseball in his home country.
At a players' showcase Monday, Angelucci, a right-handed pitcher, was timed at 90 miles per hour and attracted the attention of a scout from Carnegie Mellon University. On Tuesday, in his first game in the Invitational, Angelucci belted a home run that traveled about 335 feet.
“I would like to play college baseball and go to the minors and even majors if I can,” Angelucci said.
Australians playing Major League Baseball include Milwaukee's Grant Balfour, Atlanta's Peter Moylan and Seattle's Ryan Rowland-Smith.
From 1989-2002, Australia had a pro baseball league, but financial problems caused its demise. However, it has been widely rumored MLB and the Australian Baseball Federation plan to re-establish a national league within the next year. Angelucci will believe it when he sees it.
“They keep saying every year they're going to make a new one,” Angelucci said. “Apparently, Major League Baseball will fund a league and put all the Australian players in it.”
North Shore manager Darren King said the primary selling point of the tournament was his team was promised nine games no matter if it won or lost. In many other tournaments, teams can be eliminated quickly if they lose.
“It's about getting out there and playing,” King said. “We were guaranteed enough game time to justify the trip. And our players are meeting kids from all over.”
Getting to Freeport wasn't easy. Sydney, where it is mid-winter right now, is 15,497 miles from Pittsburgh.
The North Shore team traveled 36 hours and made three stops — Fiji, Los Angeles and Chicago — before arriving in Pittsburgh.
The players and coaches weren't able to lay down in a bed for more than 48 hours.
An interesting side note is North Shore didn't bring baseballs to the Invitational because of the fear of explosives on flights and the fact they could be used to hide dangerous materials.
Families in the Freeport area are housing the Australian players this week.
“At first, the kids were apprehensive about staying with hosts,” King said.
“But they've been overawed by the good families. Without their help and the help of people like (Invitational president) Chuck Sarver, we wouldn't be here.”
Paul Kogut can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.