The start of Australian baseball's summer season is still several weeks away, yet here they come from the surrounding suburbs, wearing caps, clutching tiny leather mitts, excited and apprehensive about trying something new. It's the Winston Hills Warriors Baseball Club's "Come and Try Teeball" day, in which 5-, 6- and 7-year-old children first receive their bat-safety instructions from coaches eager both to share their love for the game and start the next generation of Warriors on their way.
The Warriors are just one of 12 clubs that participate in competitions run by the Hills Junior Baseball Association, which caters to a large area of North Western Sydney suburbia. It is estimated that as many as 300 children will sign up to play their first season of T-ball in the various under-8 competitions this season, each of them becoming a small new part of Australia's rich baseball history.
The game has been played in Australia since the mid-1800s, when it is believed to have been introduced by American prospectors chasing gold in the Victorian rush. The young nation's umbilical ties to England led to cricket becoming the dominant summer contest between bat and ball, but baseball initially found a home in the country's mild winters. Over the years, many of Australia's greatest cricketers used baseball as an offseason means to maintain hand-eye coordination and hone their hitting and fielding skills.
The game continues to grow in Australia, with the development of young players well catered to in the child-friendly variants of the game. From T-ball, the children progress to a version in which the coaches pitch to them from a kneeling position before they eventually take on the difficult task of pitching to each other on diamonds that increase in size as they progress. Most start out looking to have a bit of fun, make new friends or follow in their older siblings' footsteps. Some move on to other sports. But in others the seed is planted, a true love of the game grows and they work even harder to develop their skills. The best are identified and selected for representative teams, and if they are good enough when they reach age 11, they might find themselves in the Hills Little League team.
The Hills are back in Williamsport, Pennsylvania for the Little League World Series after winning the Australian Region Championship for a second straight year. Many of these well-drilled, expertly coached 11- and 12-year-olds, having made their way through the age levels at various Hills clubs, share a common dream: the dream of having a career in Major League Baseball.
Stephen Courtney is one of three players returning to Williamsport, having been part of the Hills team last year. His father, Andrew, is the Warriors' junior coordinator and spoke to ESPN of his hopes for his son.
"Of course, we'd like Stephen to play Major League Baseball, but we're well aware of how tough that is and all the things that stand between him and that dream," Courtney said. "Stephen will go to college in the States, whether it is on a baseball scholarship or not. His mother is from Texas, so he's a dual citizen, and it has always been our goal to put the boys through a college education in America.
"Going to college gives him a better chance of making the major leagues; there's a high failure rate for those who don't go through the college system, but college is also about the life experience he'll gain and the degree he'll come out with. Whether he'll be good enough to make the dream come true, we don't know; but it's all about just enjoying himself at this stage."
That dream is based in a reality proven by those who have done it before. Australia has had 33 players start at least one Major League Baseball game, from Joe Quinn, who debuted for St. Louis Maroons in 1884, to the better-known names of David Nilsson, Graeme Lloyd, Craig Shipley, Grant Balfour and Trent Oeltjen.
Balfour and Oeltjen were both products of the Hills' representative system. Oeltjen was once one of those children who first pulled on a uniform and swung at a tee for the Warriors. He worked his way into the Hills junior teams, then onto state and national representation and ultimately to the Big Show. Signed initially by Minnesota Twins, he went on to play 99 major league games for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks.
"I started playing baseball when I was 5 or 6, pretty much as soon as my hand would fit in a glove, and Winston Hills was my first club," Oeltjen told ESPN. "I then played reps through the Hills and came through the ranks, pretty much like these guys have. I've been lucky enough to watch the last couple of years of Little League World Series, obviously supporting the Hills, who are very close to my heart, because it is the same route that I took and the exact same team.
"I think it's awesome for the kids; it's a great experience playing in front of so many fans, with ESPN televising it across the world. They are paraded on floats while they are there; they are like little celebrities, signing autographs. It's really cool for them to inspire more Aussie kids to get involved in baseball."
Oeltjen now runs NxtGen Baseball, which aims to identify and train the next generation of Major League Baseball players. He works with children from across the world who have the same dream he once had as a child in Winston Hills.
Handing out information leaflets at the "Come and Try Teeball" event, Andrew Courtney said the Warriors have seen an increase in sign-up numbers across the board, which he attributes to the Hills Little League's success and the publicity it has brought baseball in the region.
"Every year, the T-ballers come, but we're also seeing older children, with no experience, coming along and signing up because they've seen the Hills team on television and they want to try the game," Courtney said.
Behind him, the next 5-year-old at the plate swings at the tee. The ball dribbles off down the third-base line and the child takes off toward second base while coaches and parents yell and point toward first. Are these the first errant steps of a future Major League player? There is no harm in dreaming.