Waverley and Melbourne Aces superstar Andrew Russell is the latest Victorian player to earn a shot at a professional career in the home of baseball - as a pitcher.......
The popular 26 year-old has inked a deal with Atlanta Braves that will see him suiting up for AA Affiliate Mississippi Braves in the Southern League season starting in April.
Renowned in Australian baseball as a dangerous hitter and athletic outfielder with a strong throwing arm, Russell has played in various positions over his baseball life, including some pitching at club level in summer and winter.
Developing his skills quite literally under the nose of Braves scout Phil Dale - an Australian baseball Hall-of-Famer - Russell is one of very few Australian players of his age to be signed as a pitcher. Major Leaguer Peter Moylan is the other who immediately comes to mind, coincidentally also a Melburnian who signed with the Braves at a mature playing age.
Aside from all that, and aside from being right-armers, the two have other qualities in common. They are both sidearm pitchers – a relative rarity in the game – and they both throw the ball hard. Very hard.
“I’ve been doing some pitching from time to time over the years,” Russell said, “more especially with Cheltenham during the winter season.”
“I’d been tinkering with the sidearm but I hadn’t been taking it all that seriously until lately. Phil Dale has been keeping an eye on me, I guess, and he said to me last week that if I could throw from down there (sidearm) at ninety miles an hour, then he’d sign me.”
Cranking the speed gun into action, it came as no surprise to Dale that Russell was clocking between 89 and 92 miles an hour, enough for him to see the enormous potential.
“I’ve consistently clocked him at those speeds,” said Dale, who manages both Waverley Baseball Club and the Melbourne Aces ABL team. “With good movement on the ball – and with his arm angle – he should be really hard to hit.”
“The movement on the ball is very important. He’ll be getting a lot of ground balls.”
“We have seen the success that Peter Moylan has had with the Braves. It’s tough, really tough trying to hit guys coming at you from that angle.”
While so many of the signings in Australian baseball are of younger, developing players, the opportunity arrived for Russell in a far different manner.
“Yeah, he’s an older guy to sign,” Dale said. “That’s come about partly because of circumstances. With the Aces commitments, I’ve had more of a need to use him as a pitcher at Waverley and I’ve seen what he can do.”
“I’ve pushed him for the past four or five weeks. His fastball has just kept getting better and he’s been concentrating on throwing the ball down low. He has sparked real interest from plenty of people with the way he has developed over recent weeks.”
“He has the mentality of a pitcher. He learnt much of his craft pitching during the winter and he’s always had a great arm. He is a good athlete and he has the raw tools that the Braves can develop.”
For Andrew Russell, it has all been pretty sudden and has come as quite a surprise. If everything works out according to plan – with a visa and the like – he will be heading to spring training in Orlando Florida in mid-March before suiting up in the AA Southern League when its season starts in early April. What happens after that is anybody's guess, although one suspects that Dale - a consummate judge of pitching talent - is confident that Russell has the wherewithal to be a chance of making it to The Show should performance and timing operate in his favour.
“The opportunity is awesome and it speaks for itself,” said Russell, who will happily forgo smashing the ball around the park, hosing guys trying to take liberties on his throwing arm as an outfielder and racking up the strikeouts in a chilly winter league for his chance at emulating some of the Moylan achievements.
“I’m really excited and I feel rejuvenated in the game,” he said. “I love playing baseball and I wasn’t getting bored with it – or anything like that – but it’s just a great opportunity to learn some new skills and play at a higher level. I know that I’ve plenty of work to do to throw my fastball consistently hard and to develop a decent change-up, curve and slider.”
In the final months of an electrical apprenticeship, Russell will be putting his trade on hold while he pursues the chance of another career in the sport that he started with at Williamstown as a youngster. Playing baseball twelve months of the year for much of his adult life, he has earned a string of local accolades and he commands great respect as an athlete and as a person.
“It’s an opportunity that has really come out of the blue,” Phil Dale said. “It’s a great story and it’s a great thing for Australian baseball because it shows that you are never out of the frame if you have the tools and you have the attitude and commitment.”
“It is unusual to sign players of his age. But we had Moylan. Now we have Russell.”
“It is almost freakish to find two players like this – especially sidearmers – in the same city, within a few years.”
“But Russell is a freakish talent. He can make a real go of this.”
Baseball Victoria extends its congratulations to Andrew Russell on earning this wonderful opportunity. The baseball community will follow his progress with great interest.
Russell in his more customary role of terrorising opposition pitchers (image: Tim Johnston)