Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don Mattingly.
Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don Mattingly. Alex Gallardo

Baseball coach could return Down Under

BASEBALL: Legendary LA Dodgers coach Don Mattingly only travelled to Australia for the first time last month, for the Major League Opening Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks in Sydney.

He could return Down Under in July.

In a jam-packed MLB schedule, which features 162 regular-season games, Mattingly will enjoy a rare four-day break from July 14 to 17, with the Dodgers to resume playing on the 18th.

That could allow the nine-time Golden Glove and former Yankees star a brief trip to our shores once more.

That could be for a "coach the coaches" clinic at Baseball Australia's high-performance academy on the Gold Coast.

Mattingly and Dave Duncan, the Diamondbacks' pitching consultant, have expressed interest in the initiative.

"Of course, there is a difference between when someone says they are keen, and whether they can manage to do it,"

Baseball Australia's head of coaching development, Peter Gahan, told APN.

"But they both sounded very genuine.

"(Diamondbacks assistant to the general manager and former Australian talent scout) Craig Shipley has also expressed his interest.

"It would be a great experience for aspiring pitching coaches and coaches, and pitchers at the end of their careers who want to get in to coaching."

Gahan also spoke about his high hopes for Australia's nationwide Little League competition, now in its second year.

Brisbane North won the Queensland titles last weekend, with that team and the second and third-placed Gold Coast and Brisbane Metro, earning the right to compete at the nationals.

The Australian Little League Championships will be held at Alleygators Baseball Club on the Gold Coast, from June 4-9.

The winner from the elite junior 20-team competition will earn the right to compete at the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, USA.

This will be the second year Australia will automatically receive entry into the World Series.

This pathway will give Baseball Australia an enormous opportunity to grow Little League in Australia, with the world-series competition to attract a large global audience.

"It's an incredible opportunity for juniors in Australia," Gahan said.

"This year it'll be for the 12-and-under bracket. Next year we'll expand it to under-14, 16 and 18 level."

A fresh new emphasis on promoting Little League baseball is part of the governing body's effort at growing the game, with a renewed focus on grassroots participation.

It is Baseball Australia's response to the Australian Sports Commission's recent decision to cut its Winning Edge funding, and those funds were largely set aside for players at high-performance level.

Hence the new direction the sport is now taking, on the back of the unprecedented exposure it received domestically and internationally, during last month's MLB Opening Series.

Last week's annual Baseball Australia summit looked closely at the renewed focus on developing junior players of all skill levels, in order to increase the sport's popularity Down Under.

"We all reached an agreement that developing our grassroots coaches and recognising excellent coaching are now high priorities," Gahan said.

"Coaching our kids well and promoting an enjoyment of the game are things we'll be looking at more closely.

"And even for adult players, we want to give more time towards those who only play the sport as a social activity, and for pure enjoyment."

Meanwhile, Gahan told APN last month the Diamondbacks were considering recruiting Melbourne Aces short stop Brad Harman.

But it seems those rumours have since cooled, and Harman will remain with the Aces.

And Brisbane's Windsor Royals took out the club of the year award at Saturday night's gala Baseball Australia Diamond Awards on the Gold Coast.

Club president Mark Ready showed great initiative to approach the Australian Baseball League in a successful attempt to secure the foul poles used during the historic MLB Opening Series.

Those to foul poles will now be installed at Holloway Field - home of the Royals and the ABL's Brisbane Bandits.

The ABL-champion Perth Heat team dominated the night, with Lewis Thorpe picking up the Youth Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year awards.

The ABL's Pitching Champion went to US import and Heat star Mike Ekstrom, who went five wins and one loss, with an amazing 0.72 earned run average in seven starts, including a whopping 57 strike-outs in 50.1 innings pitched.

The Oregon native is currently pitching for Club Rimini in the Italian Baseball League, and has 51 games of previous MLB experience.

"The goal is to get back to the big leagues (in the US) and pitching here helps," Ekstrom told APN, after dominating against the Bandits, in Brisbane last December.

The Heat's US import Joey Wong won the Gold Glove Award for the ABL's best fielder.

And Australia's Player of the Year was a no-contest, with Grant Balfour awarded that gong.

Balfour became just Australia's second Major League All Star representative last year, behind David Nilsson, while closing for the Oakland Athletics.

Balfour is off to a strong start at his new club the Tampa Bay Rays, producing four saves from four opportunities on the mound so far in 2014.

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