Sunday, May 4, 2003

Aussie takes American game for a kick and a jog

Reds pitcher hails from Australia, which is more into its version of football than baseball

By John Erardi
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Reds pitcher Danny Graves is eager to have Australian native - and fellow Reds pitcher - Luke Prokopec finish his shoulder rehabilitation, make some minor-league starts and join the Reds full time.

"I'd like to kick around that Australian Rules football with him," Graves said. "Anything to break up the monotony of all the running we pitchers have to do between starts."

Last December, Prokopec, 25, was plucked by the Reds from the Los Angeles Dodgers via the Rule 5 draft.

Prokopec is one of only 16 Aussies to play in the major leagues - and the third to play for the Reds. Mark Hutton pitched for Cincinnati in 1998. Second baseman Joe Quinn was the first Red from Australia and the first Aussie to play in the majors, said Sydney-based Joe Clark, author of the book, The History of Australian Baseball: Time and Game. Quinn played 74 games for Cincinnati in 1900 and batted .274. He died in 1940.

Just another day

Luke Prokopec, a pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds, kicks an Australian football during a workout at the Great American Ball Park Wednesday.
(Gary Landers photo)
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Prokopec's daily workout begins with a baseball-tossing session with Reds assistant trainer Lonnie Soloff, who then adjourns to the trainer's room, leaving Prokopec on his own.

The only other signs of life within Great American Ball Park are diners on the patio of the Machine Room restaurant and Reds groundskeeper Doug Gallant mowing the outfield grass.

Prokopec begins the time-honored pitchers' regimen of "running 20 poles" - running foul line to foul line in the outfield, 10 times each way.

Only one thing separates Prokopec from the loneliness of a long-distance runner: Australian Rules Football.

Prokopec lightens his load - just as he always does - by dribbling and punting the watermelon-shaped ball, then chasing it.

He lowers his head and takes off in a trot. As he jogs, he bounces the ball in front of him ... then gives it a boot.

The ball is a cross between an American football and a soccer ball. It is possible to dribble it by hand - if one is adept at making it hit the ground at just the right angle (Prokopec is). It can be punted end over end or spiraled like American football punters can do (and so can Prokopec).

It's baseball conditioning, Australian style.

"Before I went to spring training with the Toronto Blue Jays two years ago, I worked out with the football team back home in Renmark," Prokopec said. "Australian Rules Football is a great game for conditioning, because there's so much running and passing."

Graves will be happy to know he'll be getting only a taste of it.

"The football training in Australia really emphasizes heart rates," Prokopec explained. "They check your heart rate every mile and it has to be below 135 beats per minute. At the end of two weeks, you're running twice as hard, but you're still working at 135 beats. We'd run 6 miles during the heart-rate thing and then stretch out a bit and run 2 miles out to the middle of this salt pan on a big flood plain, and they'd have this course set up with a tractor-trailer tire and a rope that you strapped over your shoulder. After 70 yards of that, you'd have to have your heart rate up to 180 beats a minute, and for every beat under 180 you'd have to do 15 push-ups.

"Then, you run this 700-yard course up and down a hill ... and as soon as the very last guy finished, we got together shoulder to shoulder and ran all the way back. ... Spring training was a cup of tea that year."

There isn't a sport Prokopec hasn't played on some level.

In 1994 - the year he signed with the Dodgers as a 16-year-old undrafted free agent - Prokopec was named "Junior Sports Star of the Year" in his home region.

With a precociously strong arm and batting stroke, he was first noticed at age 12 by a Toronto Blue Jays scout.

Prokopec grew up in "South Australia" - one of six states on the continent - which long has been a hotbed for baseball in a country that adores cricket. His father, Ken, is a former cricket star turned baseball player, who today is a physical education instructor. And at 50, Ken still pitches and bats for the local nine.

"I started playing baseball in Adelaide when I was 11," Ken said. "I'd play cricket in the summer and baseball in the winter. In the (1970s), when baseball was switched to a summer sport, I had to choose between cricket and baseball, and I chose baseball."

Ken had a lot to do with the development of baseball in Renmark, a rural area in South Australia.

But because cricket is so ingrained in Australia's culture, it remains more popular than baseball, Luke said.

But Australian Rules Football is still the most popular game.

"I think that the fact that Australia is a country of only 19 million people - less than the population of Texas - and that baseball is still at the bottom of the sports food chain there, it speaks well for our dedication to it that we have 70-some guys playing in the American minor leagues," Prokopec said.

In Australia, baseball and softball are community sports with teams that are sometimes co-ed and sometimes include youngsters and adults playing together.

Famed for its outdoor life, Australia may be the most sports-crazy continent on the globe. Even U.S. big-leaguers who toured there in 1888-89 said the Aussies' ball diamonds far surpassed anything in America.

Although baseball is derived in part from cricket, Luke shares the same philosophy about cricket and baseball as his dad.

"Cricket is a crazy game that goes all day," Luke said. "I'm not into that. Pitching and hitting in baseball agrees with me more. There's just a whole lot more going on."

Australian baseball history

Baseball was introduced to Australia by American gold miners in 1853 in Ballarat, Victoria, located between Melbourne and Adelaide, the nearest big city to where Reds pitcher Luke Prokopec grew up in Renmark.

Baseball grew in popularity in Australia after a world tour by American sporting goods manufacturer A.G. Spalding stopped there for three weeks in December/January 1888-89.

Spalding left behind an American named Harry Simpson, who created the first "inter-colonial" matches in Australia. The foes were Melbourne and Adelaide.

By 1908, when the U.S. Pacific Fleet visited Australia, Adelaide had four teams and Melbourne eight. The New York Yankees and Chicago White Sox played a series of games in Melbourne and Sydney in 1914, with more U.S. teams visiting in 1923, 1928 and 1929. The game exploded again in 1942-44, with the presence of U.S. servicemen.

The first post-war innovation in Australia was "baseball under the lights" in late 1952.

And when baseball season in Australia was changed in the 1970s from winter to summer, it became even more popular.

In 1978 - the year Prokopec was born - Australia made its first appearance in the real "World Series" in Milan, Italy; an Australian youth team (18-year-olds) toured the United States for the first time that same year.

A winterball professional league -- in which many Americans played - operated in Australia from the late 1980s through the late '90s. It folded because of financial problems.

"The strength of Australian winterball was that it wasn't as hectic as, say, the Caribbean winterball leagues," Prokopec said. "Instead of playing every day, you can do all your lifting - pack it on for the coming season - and then play games on Thursday-Friday-Saturday. You get stronger, and yet you're still able to keep your skills sharp."

Aussies in majors

Sixteen Australian natives have played in the U.S. major leagues since the National League was founded in 1876.

(An asterisk indicates those who are still active. For those, we include position, big-league affiliation and present level of play.)

In alphabetical order: Grant Balfour* (LHP, Minnesota Twins, Triple-A), Shayne Bennett, Cameron Caircross, Trent Durrington* (IF, Anaheim Angels, Triple-A), Mark Ettles, Mark Hutton, Graeme Lloyd* (LHP, New York Mets, majors), Damian Moss* (LHP, San Francisco Giants, majors); Dave Nilsson, Luke Prokopec* (RHP, Cincinnati Reds, disabled list), Joe Quinn, Craig Shipley, Chris Snelling* (OF, Seattle Mariners, Double-A), John Stephens* (RHP, Baltimore Orioles, Triple-A), Brad Thomas* (LHP, Minnesota Twins, Triple-A) and Jeff Williams.

"Dave Nilsson's the best-known, because he had the longest career of the modern guys," Prokopec said. "I think Snelling is the next Dave Nilsson. Snelling is going to be awesome."

Source: Flintoff and Dunn's; John Erardi.

The Mighty Quinn

Joe Quinn, the first Aussie to play in the U.S. major leagues, was born in Brisbane on Australia's Gold Coast on Christmas Day 1864.

When he was 11, he emigrated with his family to the United States - Dubuque, Iowa, to be precise - where his father set up the family's mortician business, said Joe Clark, author of The History of Australian Baseball: Time and Game.

The younger Quinn made the major leagues at 19 in 1884 and played for 18 seasons, mostly as a second baseman, retiring at 36 in 1901. Even during the offseason, Quinn always worked as a mortician.

Lord knows Cincinnati didn't show much life in 1900, when the Reds finished 62-77. Quinn batted .274 in 74 games for the Reds.

Down Under, mate

Here are some baseball terms unique to the game in the Land Down Under:

Balls out: Called by the umpire to tell the team in the field to throw the practice balls in so the inning can begin.

"Bat on ball!" Form of encouragement called to the batter, as in, "C'mon, Bazza, bat on ball!"

Dead: Number of outs. As in, "Two dead!"

Digs: Inning.

Time and game: Most Australian club games are timed, usually two hours or less. When the time limit is reached, the umpire yells, "Time and game!"

Two in the bin: Two out. (South Australia term.)



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Reds notebook: Riedling prepared to start
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First win of season gives Graves shot of confidence
Aussie takes American game for a kick and a jog
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