PHOENIX - In 1986, Craig Shipley became the first Australian in 85 years to play Major League Baseball, paving the way for future Aussies to follow in his footsteps.
Now as an assistant to the general manager with the Diamondbacks, Shipley hopes that the team’s 2014 Opening Series with the Los Angeles Dodgers in Sydney, Australia on March 22-23 will pave the way for enhanced interest in a sport that is not as prominent in his home country as he would like it to be.
“It’s a pretty long way down the list,” said Shipley, a Sydney native who played 13 Major League seasons as an infielder and has worked in the D-Backs’ front office since 2012. “I think Australia is unique in that there are so many sports that are relevant and have a lot of fan interest and history.
“Not that baseball doesn’t have a lot of history in Australia; it’s been played there a long time. But when you look at the sporting landscape in Australia – you have cricket, Australian rules football, rugby league, rugby union, soccer, field hockey, swimming, tennis. There’s a lot of competition for athletes in Australia – probably as much or more than in any country in the world because of the number of what you would call major sports.”
Despite the relative obscurity of the sport in his home country, Shipley followed his dream to play professional baseball, first by playing for Australia’s junior national team, then receiving a scholarship to play collegiately for The University of Alabama before joining the Dodgers in ‘86.
The move to the U.S. was an exciting but tough transition for Shipley. “One of the difficult things was that nobody before me (from Australia since 1901) had played in the big leagues, so you didn’t really have anybody to look to,” he said.
But when Shipley made his MLB debut, it opened the door for additional baseball-loving Aussies to come play stateside, as 26 native Australians have played in the majors since then, including nine active players such as former D-Backs’ outfielder Trent Oeltjen.
Shipley is also advancing baseball Down Under as a board member with Baseball Australia, the governing body for amateur baseball in the country.
“I really have a passion to help baseball in Australia, especially on the amateur side,” he said. “I love being around the young kids and trying to do what I can to move the game forward.”
But with so much fan interest in other sports, baseball in Australia still faces an uphill climb. The recent re-launch of the Australian Baseball League, a revival of an earlier professional league that folded in 2000, is a good start.
“It’s been back just four years now, and having a national league is obviously a big component,” he said. “But everybody’s competing for the same dollars and the same media attention, so it’s difficult.”
That’s why the upcoming series between the D-Backs and Dodgers is such a massive opportunity. For starters, both games will be played at the Sydney Cricket Ground, one of Australia’s premier stadiums. Shipley attended cricket and rugby matches at the SCG growing up, and even got the chance to play there as a teenager.
“I actually played a rugby union game there my last year of high school. We played at a statewide elimination tournament, and the final four got to play at the SCG,” he said.
“That was obviously a huge thrill to play at the SCG, because it’s kind of like growing up here and playing in a Major League stadium, which is a rarity. That was a big deal.”
And in terms of marketing, Shipley said fellow D-Backs executives such as Derrick Hall, Graham Rossini and Josh Rawitch have done an excellent job in promoting the series, and D-Backs’ star first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and pitcher Patrick Corbin took a trip with Shipley to Australia late last year to meet fans and generate buzz.
“The Diamondbacks have been amazing,” he said. “I went down in the fall with Goldy and Corbin in November, and they were incredible. They had a huge impact on everybody they met. So, I know from the Diamondbacks side, everybody in the organization is doing all they can to make this a success.
“From the Baseball Australia side, we’re trying to capitalize on the series and hopefully have some type of lasting legacy. If that legacy is increasing participation and awareness of the game, that would be a good start.”