Home base

David Nils­son was the kid from Queens­land who be­came an Amer­i­can All-Star. Now lo­cal base­ball presents a new chal­lenge for the Mil­wau­kee Brew­ers’ “great­est catcher in his­tory”.

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What home­grown base­ball star David Nils­son did next

Strolling among the ven­dors hawk­ing two foot-long chilli dogs and the salted peanut stands at the Syd­ney Cricket Ground ear­lier this year, when Amer­ica’s Ma­jor League Base­ball came to town, was a tall, ami­able bloke called David Nils­son, Aus­tralia’s most suc­cess­ful ath­lete you’ve prob­a­bly never heard of. For two days only, the SCG was trans­formed into a bona fide red, white and blue ball park, at­tract­ing some 80,000 fans, and an event where Nils­son, 44, felt right at home.

The small-business owner from Bridge­man Downs in Bris­bane’s north-west could be seen shoot­ing the breeze with MLB’s most pow­er­ful man, Com­mis­sioner Bud Selig, chat­ting with the crew from ESPN, Amer­ica’s lead­ing cable sports chan­nel, and trad­ing high fives with star play­ers from the LA Dodgers and Ari­zona Di­a­mond­backs.

Be­cause while many in his home state of Queens­land may not know Nils­son, they sure do know him in Amer­i­can base­ball cir­cles – par­tic­u­larly in Mil­wau­kee, Wis­con­sin, home of the beloved Mil­wau­kee Brew­ers where Nils­son was once the team’s favourite, if im­ported, son. For eight years, from 1992 to 1999, Nils­son was the Brew­ers’ star catcher, a 193cm south­paw who’d earned the fans’ re­spect and gained two nick­names – “Dingo” and the “Thun­der from Down Un­der” – along the way.

Rated in the MLB’s 2013 Power Rank­ings as the “great­est catcher in Mil­wau­kee Brew­ers his­tory”, Nils­son was in­ducted into the team’s Hall of Fame in May this year. And in the in­tensely com­pet­i­tive world of Amer­i­can base­ball, Nils­son won cov­eted se­lec­tion in the 1999 All-Stars team. Each year’s All-Stars, se­lected from the MLB’s 30 teams, are voted for by coaches and fans. Un­til last year – when Grant Bal­four, orig­i­nally of NSW and now play­ing for the Tampa Bay Rays, was se­lected – no other Aus­tralian had made the cut.

Over 1000 games and 105 home runs, “Dingo” Nils­son was one of base­ball’s big hit­ters, both lit­er­ally and lu­cra­tively. In 1999, he was Aus­tralia’s sec­ond-high­est earn­ing sports­man be­hind golfer Greg Nor­man, and dur­ing the ’90s he made a for­tune, his fi­nal three-year deal with the Brew­ers ru­moured to have been worth $US20 mil­lion.

When Nils­son left the Brew­ers, he signed with Ja­pan’s Chu­nichi Dragons for a one-year mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar con­tract; later, he flirted with join­ing the Bos­ton Red Sox or per­haps the New York Yan­kees, both of which had ap­proached him at dif­fer­ent times, but in­stead took the Aus­tralian base­ball team to two Olympic Games. And then, he walked away. HIS FRAME FILLS THE DOOR­WAY, HIS TORSO mo­men­tar­ily block­ing out the sun be­hind it, his hand­shake sur­pris­ingly gen­tle. “Hello,” David Nils­son says qui­etly, “thank you for invit­ing me.”

For a man with his own set of base­ball cards, Nils­son – mar­ried to Amanda and fa­ther to Ja­cob, 16, Tyla, 14, Grace, 7, Ash­leigh, 5, and Eli­jah, 3 – is po­lite, self-ef­fac­ing and mod­est, to a point. Later, when asked if his freak­ish tal­ent for base­ball was ev­i­dent at an early age, he an­swers some­what halt­ingly: “I don’t ever re­call, in my own age group, um, be­ing av­er­age.” His pro­file may be lower than those of his con­tem­po­raries in­ducted into the Sports Aus­tralia Hall of Fame in 2008 – Ian Thorpe, Alisa Cam­plin and Todd Wood­bridge – but then the game in which he ex­celled is still find­ing its feet in this coun­try. While its pop­u­lar­ity is grow­ing – with Aus­tralian Base­ball League attendance fig­ures steadily in­creas­ing from 114,000 in its first 2010-2011 sea­son to 148,000 in 2013-14 – it’s un­likely to ever at­tain the stature it has in the United States, where last year 74 mil­lion spec­ta­tors at­tended MLB games.

Com­pe­ti­tion for a place in an MLB team starts with a dog-pad­dle through thou­sands of lit­tle league games in the hope of be­ing spot­ted, then a long, slow slog through the mi­nor leagues, start­ing at the very bot­tom of the tank, and hop­ing to come up for air long enough to be plucked from ob­scu­rity to swim with the big fish. So how did a boy from Stafford State School in Bris­bane’s in­ner north, hav­ing had a child­hood “as Queens­land as you can get”, be­come one of them? Nils­son’s eyes crin­kle as freck­les dance across his nose. “Well,” he grins, “I can’t say it was easy.” GOR­DON PARK, NORTH­SIDE BRIS­BANE, 1970s; in the shade of a sprawl­ing mango tree, the Nils­son boys – Bob, Gary, Ron­ald, and David, the youngest – are pitch­ing curve balls and slid­ers in the back yard, as their fa­ther, Tim, watches on. In a town that’s all about the cricket and footy, the

Nils­son fam­ily, in­clud­ing mum Pa­tri­cia and older sis­ters Jean­nie and Susan, are an anom­aly in their fascination for base­ball. There were few kids play­ing the game in Bris­bane in the ’70s – and if they did, chances are they were in­tro­duced to it by the Nils­son clan. “We loved the cricket and the footy too, but we were ab­so­lutely ob­sessed with base­ball,” Nils­son re­calls. “That came from my dad [Tim Nils­son died last year, aged 74, while Pa­tri­cia still lives on Bris­bane’s north­side]. He was a re­ally good crick­eter him­self, but some­how along the way, and I’m not sure how, the base­ball bug bit him. Of course we couldn’t watch it, as tele­vi­sion cer­tainly didn’t show it, so we played it, a lot.”

At first it was just the Nils­son boys load­ing the bases in the back yard, but they soon man­aged to rope in some school­mates. For David, at first it was just all about want­ing to play with his older brothers, but be­fore too long, he laughs, “I wanted to beat them. I re­ally credit a lot of my suc­cess to them be­cause you had to keep up with them, you had to be com­pet­i­tive, there was no slack cut be­cause you were younger, or smaller. I think they made me a com­peti­tor.”

The Nils­son brothers be­gan seek­ing out and play­ing for the few base­ball clubs around at the time in Bris­bane, some of which no longer ex­ist – Ten­nyson, Stafford, Val­leys, Ever­ton Park – and it soon be­came ob­vi­ous that the youngest had some­thing spe­cial. At age nine, he made the un­der-13 state team, at 16 mov­ing to the se­niors to play the 18-plus Clax­ton Shield, Aus­tralian Base­ball League’s ver­sion of the State of Ori­gin. He was named Rookie of the Year for the ’86/’87 sea­son.

And then, like a scene from a base­ball movie, two scouts – one from Oak­land Ath­let­ics, the other from Mil­wau­kee Brew­ers – started hear­ing tales of a tal­ented kid from far­away Queens­land, Aus­tralia, and both be­gan court­ing a then 17-year-old Nils­son to join their club’s mi­nor leagues. In Jan­uary of 1987, at a pub in Wick­ham Ter­race, Bris­bane, the tall, shy teenager inked his name on a six-year con­tract with Mil­wau­kee Brew­ers. His fa­ther Tim was there as a wit­ness, Nils­son be­ing too young to be in a ho­tel by him­self but old enough to sign a deal that would take him far away from his fam­ily and into the very heart of Amer­i­can base­ball. BASE­BALL IS A HUN­GRY BEAST, where ALMOST ev­ery day is game day. Dur­ing the MLB sea­son, teams play 162 games over 182 days, and to get there, Nils­son muses, it’s all about sur­vival.

Mi­nor League play­ers, rook­ies, se­lected from all over the world, first at­tend train­ing camps for their clubs scat­tered across the US, and are then as­signed their mi­nor league teams. In 1988, Nils­son was sent to He­lena, Mon­tana, along with five other Brew­ers rook­ies. They’d play ball all day, ev­ery day, Nils­son says, inch­ing their way to­wards the big time. “It was sur­vival, sink or swim, but I loved ev­ery sec­ond of it. I was 17, liv­ing away from home with no chap­er­one, liv­ing, breath­ing and sleep­ing base­ball – for me, a dream come true. But you have to be sin­gle-minded about it, you have to prove that you’re bet­ter than the next guy, so that they should choose you.”

For four years, Nils­son – slowly, steadily, but al­ways with his eye on the prize – worked his way up through base­ball’s ranks, from rookie league to “Sin­gle A” in Wis­con­sin, then Cal­i­for­nia, “Dou­ble A” in Texas, “Triple A” in Colorado and fi­nally, in 1992, the big time. At age 22 he was named catcher for the Mil­wau­kee Brew­ers, which was, he re­calls in his un­der­stated way, “quite a big deal, I guess”. The catcher of a base­ball team is its heart, the player who dic­tates to the pitcher what to throw, sets the field de­fences and calls the tac­tics, and the role is also con­sid­ered the most phys­i­cally de­mand­ing. Which is per­haps why the most re­mark­able thing about Nils­son is that when the Amer­i­can base­ball sea­son, from April to Oc­to­ber, fin­ished for the year, he packed up his kit and came home to play ball. “Th­ese days the MLB wouldn’t let you do it,” Nils­son muses, given how phys­i­cally de­mand­ing the US sea­son is, but I just felt re­ally strongly I had some­thing to con­trib­ute to the game in Aus­tralia. I was the only guy over there do­ing it, so I fig­ured I should come back here and try to help out.”

While Nils­son un­der­plays his role dur­ing those years play­ing for Bris­bane Ban­dits and Waver­ley Reds, ac­cord­ing to Queens­land ra­dio iden­tity, base­ball fa­natic and Base­ball Queens­land board mem­ber Paul Cam­pion, “it was a bit like Don Brad­man com­ing back to play for Bowral”.

“It was a big thing for him to do; he cer­tainly didn’t need the money, he did it for the love of it,” Cam­pion says. “The truth is, I don’t think David has ever been given the recog­ni­tion he de­serves for his con­tri­bu­tion to base­ball in this coun­try.”

Aus­tralian Base­ball Fed­er­a­tion chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer Brett Pick­ett calls Nils­son “eas­ily the most pro­lific and suc­cess­ful in­ter­na­tional player this coun­try has ever pro­duced”. “Had he been that good in one of the more popular sports here, he’d have come home an ab­so­lute rock star.” NILS­SON PLAYED HIS LAST BALL GAME after the 2004 Olympics where, as cap­tain, he led the Aus­tralian team to a sil­ver medal. His exit from the game was not as he would have liked it, com­ing as it did rather abruptly, and for all sorts of rea­sons. He left, it was said, be­cause he blew his chances in the MLB after tak­ing time out to lead Aus­tralia in not one, but two suc­ces­sive Olympic Games; be­cause he didn’t get the deal he wanted with the Red Sox or Yan­kees after his Brew­ers con­tract ex­pired; be­cause his sub­se­quent sea­son in Ja­pan was marked by dis­ap­point­ment on both sides; be­cause he wanted to come home to Aus­tralia per­ma­nently; be­cause he was burnt out. The truth, he says, as in all good sports sto­ries, is “some­where in the mid­dle of all of those things”.

“I prob­a­bly had six or seven good years left in me, and there are those who still can’t be­lieve I walked. The best way I can de­scribe it is that when I left the Brew­ers, there were so many sto­ries about where I was go­ing and what I was do­ing, I just wanted to step away from the mad­ness for a while.

“The thing is, once I stepped off the merry-gor­ound, I found I couldn’t get back on. The years had taken their toll, phys­i­cally and men­tally, and I just couldn’t turn the switch back on.”

While Nils­son laughs that he is in “no dan­ger what­so­ever” of be­ing mobbed in the streets, the same can’t be said of his ap­pear­ances at Bris­bane base­ball games, where kids reg­u­larly stop him for au­to­graphs and pho­tos. Th­ese days he’s Bris­bane Ban­dits’ chair­man, their just-named coach and in­ter­na­tional am­bas­sador for Base­ball Queens­land. Nils­son has also launched the Dingo In­ter­na­tional Ju­nior World Se­ries to take place in Bris­bane next year, fea­tur­ing the best un­der-14 play­ers from the US, Aus­tralia and Ja­pan. And along with his sib­lings, he’s still run­ning Dingo Print, the fam­ily business since 1959, while bring­ing up his own kids, watch­ing them pitch curve balls and slid­ers in the back yard, com­ing full cir­cle, mak­ing his own home run. Bris­bane Ban­dits kick of f the Aus­tralian Base­ball League sea­son on Thurs­day, at home to Ade­laide Bite.

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