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Inaugural JABA Series offers new impetus for the ABL

Roar Guru
7th December, 2014
2

Baseball fans in Brisbane and Sydney have been treated to a series of special exhibition games this past week, as baseball in Australia attempts to widen its appeal to the East Asian community, both locally and internationally.

The JABA (Japanese Amateur Baseball Association) Series pitted the two leading teams in the ABL (the Brisbane Bandits and the Sydney Blue Sox) against an All-Star team from the Japanese industrial leagues.

What are the industrial leagues I hear you cry?

There is no real equivalent (that I’m aware of) around the world. The best description I’ve heard is to imagine a cricket competition contested by Australian companies; such as Woolworths, Santos, ANZ etc. whose players are hired based purely on their cricket abilities in order for the companies to help promote their brand and to boost employee moral by competing in a nationwide league.

This is the industrial leagues, and to highlight the quality of the players in the competition, there is a regular flow of talent from these teams into the hugely popular and high quality Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) league – rated by the MLB as AAAA, or just below the standard of the major leagues in America.

The difficulty of the challenge ahead became evident to Bandits fans in Game 1, when the first five Bandits’ innings resulted in no hits and no runs from opening pitcher Moriyasu Reo. Reo struck out seven of the opening 15 batters for the All-Stars in an exceptional individual performance, and by the time he departed the game in the bottom of the fifth, the Bandits were already 3-0 down.

It took until the bottom of the seventh before the Bandits were able to register a hit, when Mitch Nilssen scored off a Matt Roxburgh single. This score breathed life into the Bandits side, and gave them confidence to get back into the game.

The Bandits trailed 5-1 going into the bottom of the ninth as the All-Stars bought on Fukami Takahiro to close out the game. Takahiro started shakily however, allowing an RBI run to Nilsson – his second of the game – off an Andy Campbell single, and leaving catcher Ryan Battaglia on base with no outs.

The All-Stars instantly went into damage limitation mode and Takahiro was replaced by Obata Akihiro who made an immediate impact, expertly fielding a ground ball to force a double play, accounting for both Roxburgh and Campbell.

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But the Bandits weren’t done there. A double from Brandon Goetzman scored Battalia, and then Goetzman scored off a ground rule double for Canadian import Maxx Tissenbaum, unusually playing at first base instead of catcher in Tuesday’s encounter.

The Bandits were just one run away from tying up the game, and when short stop Logan Wade was hit by a pitch, the Bandits had the winning run on first base. Tommy Coyle took strike with the fans on their feet, anticipating a momentous comeback win, but Akihiro held his nerve, getting Coyle out on a fly ball to left field to end the game.

The JABA All-Star team was always going to present a formidable challenge to the ABL leaders, and although they sealed the series 2-0 by winning Game 2 on Wednesday (7-5), the Bandits were far from outclassed.

The midseason timing of the series allowed Coach David Nilssen to experiment a little with his line-up, and had the Bandits played their first choice combinations, maybe the result could have been different.

But despite loosing this exhibition series on the diamond, the Bandits may have secured some key victories off the field.

As confirmed to me by the Bandits Commercial Manager, Kate Dobie, this series is part of a concerted effort to engage the East Asian community into Australian baseball during the MLB and NPB off-seasons.

The ABL hope to “galvanise Japanese, Korean, and Taiwanese populations in all of the ABL markets but also encourage viewership and engagement abroad via live game streams and social media.”

And this is an astute move. The ABL is played in the off-season for these countries, and as such, there is an opportunity to provide baseball content to these fans 365 days a year. The increasing numbers of import players from East Asia could create more interest in these countries.

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This strategy is vitally important for the ABL moving forward. With established leagues and baseball playing nations virtually on Australia’s doorstep in East Asia, the potential for development and growth in those areas will be a key part of the MLB’s strategy to expand the game globally.

From my viewpoint, a decent portion of the AFA Stadium crowd on Tuesday night were from the Asian community, part of a crowd of over 1500 people who attended the games across the series. This was a figure the Bandits professed to being fairly happy with for a series played on midweek evenings, seeing as between 1200-1300 regularly attend weekend matches.

And these series are unlikely to be an isolated, one off event.

As Kate Dobie told me, “Our hope is to develop this relationship further and have more opportunities to see exhibition teams from Japan and other nations playing here in Brisbane.”

And that’s not all, with the All-Star Game on December 17th in Melbourne, and the visit of Sydney-born, MLB cult hero relief pitcher for the Tampa Bay Rays, Grant Balfour to various games around the country in December, there is plenty for baseball fans to get excited about in the second half of the season.

And if Australian baseball can engage the Asian community and add them to the already committed fans already attending matches, perhaps this could be the kick-start the league needs to truly establish itself in the Australian sporting landscape.