The offseason is always rough. One of the best things about baseball season is how routine the games are - no matter what happens during the day, there’s almost always a game to follow and digest. When a routine that long suddenly gets cut short, it’s jarring. We shift to discoursing over trades and signings, watching highlight reels of the past season, or even going deep into YouTube to watch games from bygone eras (as an aside, here’s the 1979 All-Star Game - held at the Kingdome!). Even when your team had a bad season the year before, their absence looms large. As the saying goes, bad baseball is still better than no baseball.
But what if I told you that there was real live baseball being played this time of year? In an actual professional league with a rapidly growing fanbase and players from all over the world? And nearly every game is completely free to view via livestream? It sounds too good to be true, but the Australian Baseball League is all too real. Formed in 2010, the league consists of six teams: the Adelaide Bite, the Brisbane Bandits, the Canberra Cavalry, the Melbourne Aces, the Perth Heat, and the Sydney Blue Sox. There has also been discussion about expanding to eight teams in the near future.
The season’s schedule is a little unorthodox. Each week of the season is considered a “round,” and the teams are matched up for a three- or four-game series over the weekend. Doubleheaders are commonplace, usually on Saturdays, with one or both games shortened to seven innings. As I’m typing this, the league’s All-Star game is going on in Melbourne, featuring the best Australian players and the best foreign players going head-to-head.
The talent level can be a little tough to get a read on. There are several former big league players in the ABL - Donald Lutz, Travis Blackley, Luke Hughes, and Delmon Young (!) to name a few. A handful of minor leaguers from various MLB teams head down each year as a sort of winter league, and the league also imports a lot of players from China, Korea, and Japan. In all, the ABL’s talent would likely compare nicely with a High-A league. The differences in age can be staggering, though - in a Bandits/Bite game last week, seventeen-year-old Curtis Mead got the start at second base for Adelaide, facing a former Major Leaguer in Blackley. On the flip side, Tai-San Chang, a long-time star in the Chinese Professional Baseball League, is playing one last season of baseball at age 41 with the Bite. There isn’t any professional league quite like this one, and it’s fascinating to watch.
While import players are a huge factor in the growing popularity of the ABL, the primary focus is still on the Australian talent. The league enforces a limit on how many imports can be in the lineup at any one time - the Canberra Cavalry were forced to forfeit a game in 2014 for violating this rule. Mariner farmhand Jordan Cowan, who played for the Bite in 2015 and 2016, didn’t mind, saying, “It’s good for the baseball over there and for the league to have the players who represent Australia play as much as possible! They’re the reason we’re able to come over and play.” In Jordan’s case, the Bite didn’t have many foreign players, so his playing time wasn’t impacted by the rule. It’s an interesting wrinkle, though, and is likely the cause of a few headscratcher lineups from time to time.
There’s one big hindrance in following the ABL from the States, and that’s time zones. Australian Eastern Daylight Time (AEDT) is nineteen hours ahead of PST, meaning if you want to watch a Brisbane Bandits game live, be prepared to stay up until past midnight just to see the first pitch. Each live stream has a comments section, and while they’re often quiet save for a wayward message every now and then, it is there that proves this league is truly global. Watching a Bandits/Bite game last week, I chatted with baseball fans from Australia, Russia, the UK, and Germany. I also learned that Brisbane’s pitcher that night, Ryan Bollinger, is quite the well-traveled man - he even made his way to German professional ball in 2017!
While baseball will likely always play second fiddle to soccer in Australia, the ABL is a blast of a league with a dedicated fanbase and a commitment to growth. If you’re a night owl like myself, it is one of the best remedies for missing the Mariners, and I couldn’t recommend tuning in enough. You can check out live streams, past games, and highlights on the official ABL YouTube channel. The next regular season game will be on December 28th, with Sydney hosting Melbourne at 12:30AM PST.