Thursday, February 22, 2007

New Nationals outfielder Chris Snelling is locked in a three-way battle with Ryan Church and Kory Casto for the starting job in left field.

Snelling was born in Miami but grew up in Australia, where he started playing baseball in a land obsessed with Australian Rules Football, rugby, cricket and tennis, just to name a few.

Snelling was acquired from the Mariners as part of the Jose Vidro trade and always has been considered a top prospect. He hit .300 or better in his first seven seasons in the minors, but a slew of injuries held him back. Snelling has undergone 10 surgeries in his career, seven on his left knee alone.

Ken Wright sat down recently with Snelling and talked about how he got started in the game in a land Down Under.

Q: Did you ever play in the Australian Baseball League?

A: I did play in the ABL. I played when I was 15. It was probably the best thing that ever happened to me just because I played against big-league players that were outstanding and I was 15 playing against them. I think I went 1-for-80 or something. But, hey, I was 15. It helped me.

Q: I spent a little time in Australia. My wife is from Perth, and I watched a few of the Perth team’s games when I was over there. It wasn’t bad baseball. What did you think of the overall quality of the ABL?

A: Well, the league is not around anymore, but it was great back when I played. You know Vernon Wells played in the league. I played on the same team with him. Shea Hillenbrand played in that league. You know, a lot of good-quality players.

Q: So, what’s going on with baseball in Australia right now? Is there any being played?

A: There’s baseball. There’s a thing called the Claxton Shield. It’s basically a state-versus-state tournament that goes for two weeks. And that’s it, which is kind of sad. Especially after we won a silver medal in the Athens Olympics.

Q: Yeah, there’s been plenty of Aussies to play at the MLB level, like Graeme Lloyd, Dave Nilsson and yourself. Are they going to try and resurrect the ABL?

A: It’s just a matter of some sort of funding or somebody willing to put up money to pay for a league in Australia. I don’t think people are willing to do it because they are not going to get a whole lot of money back. Baseball is about as popular as cricket is here. Nobody really understands it or plays it.

Q: Did anything ever crazy happen during a game in Australia? Like an emu jumping on the field and chasing players?

A: No. Where I come from, we really don’t have baseball fields. There’s a couple, there’s probably two or three within a 40-mile radius, but we don’t play on no cow paddocks or stuff like that.

Q: Where are you from in Australia? Victoria?

A: That’s an insult. I’m from [Gorokan, New South Wales], two hours north of Sydney. Most people, if you say, “Yeah, I’m from Gorokan,” they’re like, “What?” And then you have to list a major city two hours north of that.

Q: That’s rugby country, right?

A: More rugby league than union, and then cricket is big everywhere.

Q: Well, the weather’s always good there. Do you still live there?

A: Both. I move back and forth.

Q: What do you think of flying over there? The flight is brutal.

A: You’ve got to plan on not sleeping the day before so you can sleep on the whole flight. That’s the key.

Q: You got here early. Were you the first to arrive at spring training?

A: On the team? No, I don’t think so. I think a couple other guys were here, but I got here early. I got here around Feb. 1. I think the reason why I did it - I have a house in Arizona, and I’m five minutes away from the Mariners complex.

The first day at the end of the season, if I wasn’t in Australia, I would be at the complex. Just being around baseball, talking to guys, whether it was watching the Arizona Fall League or watching the instructors, just working out at the gym. Not really doing anything serious, other than just being at a baseball field. And I miss that. I wasn’t able to do that when I was in Arizona so I decided I wanted that feeling again. I just miss it.

Q: When you were growing up, did you see any American baseball on TV?

A: You know what, my dad bought me a couple tapes. It was the 1995 World Series and some other game. We watched that one game over and over and over again. That was about it.

Q: So given that scenario, there was no way that you were going to have a baseball idol at all, right?

A: Well, no. I loved Howard Johnson with the Mets. I was actually born in Miami. I don’t remember a whole lot. My dad was over here coaching tennis and I grew up watching the Mets. I loved the Mets. I loved watching Howard Johnson play.

Q: How did you become a baseball player with your dad a tennis coach? Or do you have a tennis game to match?

A: I can hold my own on a tennis court. I’m not great by any means. I’m not whatever, but yeah, I grew up on a tennis court. It was either tennis or baseball. After awhile, I figured I wasn’t any good at tennis.

Q: Is there a lot of competition in Australia when it comes to men’s tennis players? Guys like Lleyton Hewitt and Patrick Rafter.

A: There was a lot of good players when I was growing up that were coming up, too.

Q: Did you ever play against any of them?

A: No, but I’ve watched them play and all that stuff.

Q: How about meeting those guys? Did you ever meet them and just hang out or whatever?

A: Yeah. I wouldn’t say that I know them. I’ve seen them. It would be like you and me. I saw you, but no, I really didn’t meet you. I’m a big fan of old Lleyton’s.

Q: Did your dad coach anybody big?

A: He used to work at a place, I don’t know if it’s around anymore, a place called Turnbury Isle in Miami. Him and Fred Stolle, he owned the tennis complex, and my dad used to work for him. People came by.

Q: Do you surf?

A: I’ve tried. I’m not really good at it, especially after seven knee surgeries.

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