The game of baseball may be growing internationally, with players from 17 different countries currently on big league rosters and scouts now regularly frequenting places like China for new talent.
But for as popular as it has become worldwide, in one sports-crazy country baseball ranks below the likes of swimming, cricket, rugby and netball [yes, it’s a sport]. Just for a point of reference, former Milwaukee Brewer Dave Nilson – with his 105 home runs – is probably Australia’s most-accomplished big leaguer.
But when he was growing up, one young Aussie preferred America’s national pastime to all the other sports, and now stands on the verge of re-claiming a big league roster spot. That young Aussie is Nashville Sounds pitcher Chris Oxspring, who will start the Triple A All-Star game for the Pacific Coast League next week.
Oxspring is in the eighth year of a pro career with its share of highs (a cup of coffee in the majors with San Diego in 2005) and lows (a so-so year in Japan last season). But the 2007 season has been perhaps his best yet. Oxspring has compiled a 6-5 record, to go with a 3.84 ERA and 99 strikeouts in 89 innings. It was those numbers which earned him the spot on the All-Star team.
“It’s the first time for me so it’s a big deal and a good honor,” Oxspring said. “It’s always nice to get recognized for having a good year.”
Oxspring picked up the sport in Australia as a kid because his older brother and cousins played fast-pitch softball.
“Ever since then I just stayed with it,” Oxspring said. “It’s in my blood now and I can’t get it out.”
Oxspring took a roundabout path to playing professionally stateside. He attended an independent tryout camp in Chicago eight years ago and caught the eye of scouts from the Padres.
His minor league career began in 2000 and Oxpsring climbed up the proverbial ladder. He topped out two years ago when he went 12-6 with Triple A Portland to earn a late-season call-up to San Diego. After holding his own in five appearances, Oxspring was left without a contract the following offseason.
That’s what led him to Japan, where he was up and down with the Hanshin Tigers en route to a 4-3 record and a 5.12 ERA.
He signed on with the Brewers organization last offseason and has been Mr. Consistent for the Sounds this year.
“It’s not just one thing, it’s a combination of a whole bunch of different things,” the modest Oxspring said. “Having good command and them just happening to hit the ball right at guys.”
As he’s pursued a big league career, Oxspring has spent offseasons helping develop the game in Australia.
“If we’re in the top 20 [sports], we’re lucky,” Oxspring said of baseball in Australia, which has slowly grown. The national team got silver at the 2004 Olympics.
Oxspring conducts training camps for kids and helps publicize the game in Australia.
“Out there it needs a lot more publicity,” Oxspring said. “It needs to challenge some of the bigger sports. It’s just too hard. It’s kind of like when soccer was first starting to take off here.”
But getting another Australian to the majors certain would help publicize the sport and Oxspring seems on the verge of making that happen. He isn’t currently on the pitching-rich Brewers’ 40-man roster, but if the 30-year-old Oxspring continues pitching like he has then a promotion is inevitable.
“He’s a guy that shows the younger guys, ‘I’m only interested in getting guys out and doing what I need to do to get better,’” Sounds pitching coach Stan Kyles said. “If he continues to pitch like he has, with the big club in the hunt up there, they’re going to want to continue to improve their team any way they can.
“He’s one of the guys they’re looking at that hopefully can help them down the line.”