When it comes to a sport using a bat and ball to obtain runs and outs, Australians would primarily think of the sport that came over from the United Kingdom known as cricket. However, there is another, and it comes from our other partner when it comes to AUKUS being the United States and the American pastime of baseball. Played since the Victorian Gold Rush, it has been gaining a following since, even forming a professional competition back in 2009. But the sport’s finest hour would come in 2023 during a legendary run through the 2023 World Baseball Classic grabbing the attention of all. Through nail-biting games and complete dominance, this is how this performance went down in Japan.
Though not on the same level of popularity as cricket, baseball has been in Australia since American miners immigrated to the gold fields in Victoria during the 1850s with the first formation of teams happening in Ballarat in 1857. The first iteration of the Australian Baseball League (ABL) would be formed in the 1980s but would collapse by the end of the 20th century. It wouldn’t be until 2009 with a 75-25 per cent partnership between the American Major League Baseball (MLB) and the Australian Baseball Federation that the ABL would be brought back. This was to further develop players in Australia who dream of playing in the big leagues in America or get game time during the MLB offseason.
The Australian national team entered the 2023 World Baseball Classic as a team that has qualified for every tournament since the Classic’s formation back in 2006 but has never progressed further, always missing out on the top two finishing position in the pools to qualify. Their closest competition was in 2017 when they finished just short, losing out to the quarterfinals to Cuba. The Aussie team would be based in Japan as one of the main hosts for the tournaments (the United States and Taiwan were other host nations) and were drawn into Pool B with South Korea, China, Czechia, and Japan.
Australia’s opening game of the tournament saw them take on South Korea in what would eventually play out as one of the closest games of the tournament. At the top of the 7th inning, Australia was down 4-2 with only one out left with runners on 2nd and 3rd base. A home run by shortstop Robbie Glendinning, would put Australia in front with that one run margin being enough for them to take an 8-7 win to start the campaign. This game was made famous by a blunder made by South Korean Baekho Kang who hit a double, but after getting to 2nd base, briefly stepped off it and was tagged out. At the time, baseball pundits were ruling this as Australia’s best win ever.
Australia’s second match would see them take on China – a team that Australia is favourable against after they played each other in the last Classic in 2017. Australia won by mercy rule, which is when a score gets too big at a point during the match, and won 11-0 in the 8th inning. Australia’s momentum would continue and better their 2017 effort against China winning 11-2 in the 7th inning and activating the mercy rule again. But then they had to face Japan. To say Japan takes baseball seriously is the understatement of the decade, as even high school games can bring tens of thousands of people in attendance, as well as currently having arguably the best baseball player in the world, Shohei Ohtani. Australia would lose 7-1 to Japan with Japan being 4-0 up within the first inning. Making the last match in the pool against Czechia a must-win to make the playoffs.
Australia would take on Czechia, have a great start to the game, and by the top of the 8th inning, Australia was up 6-1. Even with a late surge by Czechia making it 6-3 at the bottom of the 8th inning, Australia would bring the score back to a five-run lead and finish the game 8-3 securing their place in the quarterfinals for the first time in their history. This marked the moment baseball in Australia was reported on by the major media companies and there wasn’t much knowledge about the tournament even being reported in the first place. Now all the hype was focused on the quarter-final game against Cuba.
Unfortunately, this game would be where this dream run would end. After a gruelling and close game, Australia would come short and lose 4-3 to Cuba. This is the same score Cuba beat Australia in 2017 that prevented Australia from making the quarterfinals. However, this tournament and this run have shown that this can be a catalyst for the sport to gain more traction in the country in a similar way that Australian basketball has since the bronze medal win at the Olympics.
Only time will tell with the 2024 Olympics and the 2026 World Baseball Classic coming up on whether this Aussie traction will be capitalised.