WARNING: THIS IS A LONG POST.
As a new league, the ABL has very closely associated themselves with the MLB (USA). They’re jointly owned by the ABF and MLB so they kinda have to. The MLB has provided support in a million different ways providing finances, employment and internship assistance, initial organisation and, the thing I have an issue with, players.
Australians haven’t done so well in the MLB, despite what the ABL keeps trying to say. There have been only 28 Australian-born players in the MLB since the league was founded in 1869 and none of them have reached the heights that the US stars have. Most people have heard of Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Johnny Damon and Albert Pujols – especially if you’re into baseball – but not many people have heard of Grant Balfour, Rich Thompson or Luke Hughes. Call it culture, but Aussies don’t shine like they should. And they rarely play for a major league team for over a year and most of them get stuck in the minors. But hey, if they play at all – that’s pretty great. Not many people, American or not, can say they’ve played in the most competitive baseball league in the world. (Note: this seems to be specific to baseball, as Aussies have done very well in the NBA and NFL… they’re not really the hockey type)
That’s not to say these guys aren’t great players. Glenn Williams played with the Minnesota Twins in 2005 and had a careerbatting average of .425 (a decent average if .300 – .400 and the league average is currently ) and yet, no one talks about him. Dave Nilsson played for Milwaukee Brewers for seven years and had a 470 RBI and 150 home runs. That’s pretty noteworthy, if you ask me. So they’re good players – I’m not trying to insult their skills.
The problem lies within the relationship. The MLB has essentially been using Australia like they use any other country – they take the best players so they can put them in the best competition (go ahead and fight me if you think there is a better baseball competition in the world – it will be a short fight) and they have a long history for doing so with countries like Japan, the Dominican Republic and many other countries. That’s great for the MLB and great(ish) for the best Aussie players. But those benefits rang true before there was a professional Australian league. What happens now that the ABL has been established? How does the relationship between the MLB and the ABL affect both leagues? Who wins this arrangement? Let’s tally up the points…
Starting with the main issue: money. The MLB has pumped some money into the ABL but hasn’t really seen a return yet (leaving the players out of it). Still, they keep helping out. League benefit: ABL (ABL-1, MLB-0)
Even though the MLB hasn’t seen profits yet… doesn’t mean they’re not getting good publicity. If you check out the ABL homepage, or the homepage of any team, for that matter, MLB news dominates it – not ABL news. That’s not a bad deal. League benefit: MLB (ABL-1, MLB-1
Because baseball is a summer sport and American and Australian summers are at different times of the year, this has some perks. Players from each league can play with the other league in the off-season (ahhhh, spring training). This is especially good for the ABL because it means better players, less costs associated with training (beneficial to both leagues) and, ideally, getting a big name down to Australia every so often to hype up the fans. This can only happen because of the close relationship between the leagues. Not a lot of teams would want their stars playing in other countries during their time off but this arrangement is really convenient for everyone. League Benefit: Both (ABL-2, MLB-2)
And by building up players who then go to the MLB, the ABL is gaining in popularity. More people hear about where the players come from and want to know more. If there’s one thing Aussies love, it’s their compatriots playing for a big league in another country – they pay very close attention. This can help build up the ABL (we’ll have to wait and see) and trading good players gets them some money… and we all know that sports need money. League benefit: ABL (ABL-3, MLB-2)
But sending their best players to the MLB, well, the ABL is losing their best players to another league. There’s no other way of saying that.The sad part about the ABL is that so many players, Australian and American, are treating it like a minor league team. They see it as a pit stop on the way to the MLB which means when the MLB comes calling, they drop everything and go. And if you ask me, that’s no way to build a league. Not only that… but they view it as a place they can end up – a “safety net” if you will – if they don’t make it in/to the MLB. For example, Brandon Barnes is an American who couldn’t really make it in the US. So he came to Australia and played for the Blue Sox for a year… and now he’s called up to the Houston Astros. Great for Brandon. Not so great for the Blue Sox who just lost a good player. League benefit: MLB (ABL-3, MLB,3)
Big names come down here to help out as well – former players, coaches, and staff come down to Australia, courtesy of the MLB and help out with the Academy or even get on the team staff here. They’re talented people who just don’t want to deal with the MLB anymore. Fine by me! League benefit: ABL (ABL-4, MLB-3)
So looks like I was wrong… ish. It does look like the ABL benefit from the relationship. And it looks like a mutually beneficial relationship, too. But I still maintain that all this player drama isn’t good.
These players, who use the ABL as a means to an end have got to stop. Not only will the ABL suffer because they are constantly losing players and need to search for new ones, but it’s also detrimental to fans. I would be pissed to see my favourite and best players running away to another country every season. And if the dregs just end up in Australia and treating the ABL as a consolation prize… well, that’s not good for fan morale, either. And the ABL wants this game to be popular. At least, I assume they do.
So what do you think? Does the good outweigh he bad? How can the ABL keep its players and grow as a league without stepping on the toes of its most important relationship: the MLB?
Note: I’ll have to evaluate the relationship between the ABF and ABL sometime soon… more on that later.