By JOSEPH STENDER
Ten years ago, it would be easier to find a young Australian athlete on the cricket pitch rather than a baseball field. But that may change as more people see the team from Perth, Australia, compete with the world's best at the 2013 Little League Baseball World Series.
Australia players and coaches tip their caps for the fans after their 12-0 loss to Mexico on Thursday.
And despite an opening-game loss to Mexico, those around the first-ever Australian team at the World Series understand that it's a growing process that may take some time.
When it comes to sports in Australia, most would rather play cricket, Australian-rules football, soccer or rugby, but baseball is slowly
gaining popularity. Little League didn't even become a true youth option until recently, explained Dave Hayes, district administrator.
"(Baseball has) always been around," Hayes said. "It's always been relatively popular to people in Australia. But for some reason there's always been a disconnect between kids playing T-ball and then moving on and having a baseball career."
One major obstacle for baseball in Australia is the fact that children can play T-ball until they're 13 years old. And by the time they've stopped playing T-ball, their cricket career begins, which runs during baseball season.
"Cricket's probably the second- or third-most popular junior sport in the country. At the end of the day, it runs really the same time as (baseball)," said Steve Fish, a player-development manager in Australia.
But having a background in cricket isn't a bad thing.
"It's a bat-and-ball sport," Hayes explained. "It's all about making contact. And it's still about hitting, throwing and running. It's still the same concept. I think it's a skill that kids in Australia have the ability hit a ball, throw a ball and catch a ball. It's not alien to an Australian kid because that's what cricket is. So for them to transfer the skill from T-ball to baseball, is not an easy transition, but it's not something kids are scared of doing."
Since the sport still is new to most Australian youth, players and families have had to make adjustments in priorities. Fish explained that unlike countries where young athletes will focus solely on baseball, Australians dabble in a number of sports.
For the team from Perth, players are missing out on playing those other sports to be in South Williamsport.
And if being the first team from your country to participate in the World Series adds any extra pressure, the players aren't feeling it.
"There's no extra pressure. I don't think the kids are feeling any extra pressure. I think they're enjoying the moment. For these kids, it's been 12 months in the making because when they get home from here, it will be spring training. So they'll have no break at all. It's exciting to be here and the fact that they're finally here. But I don't think there's any extra pressure," Hayes said.
Fish said the team is deep with good hand speed and fundamentals. He expects them to be focused throughout the tournament.
"They're ready. They're pumped and they're ready to go. I was down there with them at batting practice, I don't think they could be anymore excited right now," Fish said before Thursday's game. "They may not know exactly what they're going to be up against but they're going to go out and we'll see a bunch of smiles out on these kids faces whether they win or lose and they're going to have a blast. We have some kids that can play."
The players who took the field at Volunteer Stadium Thursday evening are the most experienced youth baseball team that ever has hailed from Australia, Fish said, as they've played more ball because they've advanced so far.
Players may not be letting the pressure of representing their country for the first time get to them, but they're not taking the responsibility lightly, either.
"I think they appreciate the enormity of what they've achieved," Hayes said. "To be the first Australian team at the Little League World Series is not something they would go, 'We're going to be on a plane to America, we'll just sit back and play video games.' They want to come out here and show the world that they can compete on the world stage and they don't want to embarrass themselves so they put in the hard work."
And if Australia is to continue growing the game among its youth, this year's team will play an integral role in laying the foundation.
"We're in a situation now where our numbers continue to grow. Our talent pool is getting better and better. We're spending more time with those (9- and 10-year-olds).These are pretty exciting times. And I talk about what we have here but it's fun to see what we have with our 8- and 9-year-olds that are coming through," Fish said.
Both men expect the sport to gain wide-spread popularity in Australia once others see the team in action. Hayes said the impact the team will have on the country will be "huge."
"Just selling the dream has made an enormous impact for us. ... It's easy to sell a dream to a point. You can sell a dream that no one ever reaches and then people stop believing that it's possible," Hayes explained. "So the fact that these guys have proved that you can have that dream and can work for 12 months and then fulfill that dream at the end of 12 months will make other people believe that it is actually possible."