The Baseballer who put Australia on the map

Ross Greenwood speaks to former Milwaukee Brewers catcher, Dave Nilsson who has been named as a member for the Order of Australia, for significant service to baseball as a player, mentor and coach

Ross Greenwood:Great to have your company here on Money News going right around Australia. I just want to stop and reflect a little on the Queen’s Birthday Honours that were handed out. There’s many really worthy recipients. Plenty of men and women in there who have done great deeds for Australia but there’s a few in there that I think maybe a lot of people will just tend to overlook and you’ve got to stop occasionally and read some of the stories, look at some of the stories.

I want to actually bring you in here and bring you into one of the great stories of the Queen’s Birthday Honours and that is a fellow called David Nilsson. Now, you both the back of your mind maybe know this name, maybe not know this name. You should recognize it. The reason is because, Dave Nilsson, is undoubted Australia’s best ever baseball player. Now, I can say that he once said that he’s much more humble than me, I know that but in this regard, if you sit there and think about the fact that between 1992 and 1999, he was in the Major League Baseball in the United States with the Milwaukee Brewers.

He was their catcher, scored 105 home runs but the other great part of Dave Nilsson, I think as a story is that he, in the year 2000, decided to quit the Major League Baseball even though his last year there netted him more than $5 million, he was considered the second highest paid professional sports person in Australia after Greg Norman that year but came back to Australia because guess what? He wanted to play for the Australian National Team at the year 2000 Olympic Games. Since then, he’s been instrumental in not only the Australian men’s baseball team but also on top of that, he’s been a really very significant as now the Director of Baseball Operations with the Brisbane Bandits.

He is a key steal and a conduit between Australia and the United States. Now, remember only 33 Australian baseballers have ever played in the Major League Baseball and that is including three currently. The other great baseballer Grant Balfour. He’s another one but there’s no doubt, Dave Nilsson, in terms of accomplishment, what he did all-star games all that sort of stuff stands head and shoulders. I’m pleased to say he’s on the line right now. Dave, congratulations on the honors in the Queen’s Birthday awards.

Interview with: Dave Nilsson, Former, Professional Baseball player

David Nilsson: Yes, thanks, Ross. Obviously, as we spoke earlier it’s very humbling. It’s not something you strive for or work for but when you get it and you’re acknowledged you’re very thankful for just for being acknowledged and– Yes, it’s very humbling. It’s a great reward. Not just for myself but for family and friends and everyone that’s really contributed to my journey along the way.

Ross Greenwood: Yes, look it’s an amazing story. Just tell me about that key moment in your career when you decided after nine years playing Major League Baseball that you would come back to Australia to play for the Australian National Team in the Sydney Olympics. Just go through your thought process at the time and where you were.

David Nilsson: I’m sure you can appreciate a lot goes into it and I’ll try to make it as short as I can but my contract with the Milwaukee Brewers was coming to an end at the completion of the ’99 season. Sydney had been awarded the 2000 Olympics and obviously, there was a lot of banter and conversation around that and would I be available and really it started to pick up steam after the ’98 season.

The Brewers thankfully allowed me to redo my contract in a bit more flexibility and really I just tried to get some flexibility in my contract. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I was very happy with the Major League career and the way that was going and I had a lot more I wanted to achieve but as it all panned out, as we got closer to the Olympics I was a free agent. A team from Japan made an offer to me which allowed me to play competitive baseball, still be paid and participate in the Sydney Olympics. It was really pretty easy leading up to the Olympics in ’99. We had a World Cup in Sydney when I got to be a part of the National Team really for the first time and we won a gold medal there and I just felt like we had a lot more to do and Olympics in my own country I thought is going to be once in a lifetime and it was. I took it and here we are.

Ross Greenwood: Then take me through the next decision making process as you went through and ended up in the 2004 Olympics because I looked at one stage that there was something of a hiatus but you almost had to go back at professional baseball but then for the Australian National Team to win silver at the 2004 Olympics it was incredible in some ways. It was almost over achievement in some people’s eyes.

David Nilsson: Well, maybe in some people but as a reference in 1999, 10 months before the Olympics we actually won a gold medal. Australia’s greatest performance at the World Cup in Sydney. We had a good team. We had a lot of young developing players coming through and myself I had a bit of age, a bit of experience. So in Sydney, it was– We basically fell on our face. We finished seventh out of eight. The moment I think was just too big for a lot of people involved. That’s not unusual for athletes at their first Olympics. Fast forward a few years we got the band back together.

We knew we had a business to take care of. We knew that we had unfinished business and we had the experience of the Sydney Olympics playing back on and we’ve got a core group of us and we got together and we came away with the silver medal which was another one of Australia’s great performances. We went up against Team Japan which was all Major League Players. Guys had a total salary of over $200 million on their team and we beat them twice and I think in six days. We’re the Aussie battlers, so to speak. That’s what it means when you play baseball for Australia.

You’re not going to get much notoriety. You’re not going to– You’re not doing it for the money. Most guys currently on the Australian National Senior Team are making less than $10,000 or $15,000 a year playing baseball. That’s what we are and we’re ranked seventh in the world. We do remarkable things down here in baseball and I think if more people did actually know about the journey of the Australian baseball and what they do and what they sacrifice, I think the public, would probably behind us a bit more but we totally understand what it means to be a baseball in Australia.

Ross Greenwood: Of course, the game was in some ways overtaken by cricket because it was first played on the goldfields. It was here from very early days as those from the Californian gold rush coming to Australia seeking their fortune. It’s not as though it’s a new game in Australia. It’s been very historic, but tell me about the transition because I noticed an article that you’ve done, an interview you’ve done with Crash Craddock, Robert Craddock in the Sunday Mail a few years ago. Talking about the transition from baseball as here in Australia to earning telephone numbers when they eventually do reach the Major Leagues in the United States. That, for any young sportsperson, is almost hard to comprehend, hard to get your head around. You’ve got to be thoroughly and utterly grounded to be able to make certain you don’t lose perspective and make some really bad decisions on a thought.

David Nilsson: I think athletes generally look a lot better prepared today. Obviously, information is a lot easier to gather but back in the day when I played prior to the Internet and a few other available services, it was very tough, it was very tough and going from, as you said, from a little to a lot was quite a journey, enjoyable journey, I enjoyed going through but you had a little responsibility with that that came along with it.

Ross Greenwood: Tell me the other thing also about baseball in Australia today. Sponsorship, media coverage, all that sort of stuff. Where exactly is the game in today? Because given the fact we’ve got three players from Australia playing Major League Baseball it has been said to be something of a conduit to have to play Major League if you can show any real form coming out of Australia but, what state is the game in attracting players and the rest that comes with it?

David Nilsson: We have a league we’re in the 10th year the new Australian Baseball League. It’s a 8-team league Major– All the capital cities. We have a team based in along the full Korean team, we have a team out of Auckland and the game is very healthy. Obviously, we have a lot of competition with all the different codes of cricket. Historically, Team Australia doesn’t get to play much here in Australia. It’s been a tough sport. It’s therapeutic for fans to follow it and tough response to be a part of. Once we get the media deals going and there’s been a lot of movement in the last 12 months like all other sports we haven’t had that moment that every other sport has had in the last 20 years where they get that media partner to help us through the journey and help grow the sport.

That’s a stage right now, we’re doing some good things in Asia, Taiwan, Korea, and Japan. These various strong markets for us and the one thing Australia has is our summertime is the rest of the world’s wintertime when we’re playing in our baseball league nothing’s happened around the world. There’s a great opportunity here for us, but again the biggest obstacle for us is just getting the word out. We’re great unknown in Australia.

Ross Greenwood: Well, I’ve got to say it’s good to have you on the program and it really is terrific to have one of the all-time great legends of not only Australia baseball but baseball around the world. Queen’s Birthday Honours are all over Australia. Dave Nilsson, we really appreciate your time in the program this evening.

David Nilsson: Thanks, Ross. Thanks for your support, mate.

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