Over the last several weeks, Lars Anderson has regaled us with stories from his time in Australia. If you’ve been following along, you know that the 30-year-old former big leaguer began his Down-Under adventure with the club-level Henley and Grange Rams, then took his talents to the Australian Baseball League’s Sydney Blue Sox. Along the way, he experienced a cultural joy ride that was sometimes thoughtful, often absurd, and nearly always entertaining.
In the final installment of this series, Lars says goodbye to Australia and, in all likelihood, to his baseball career.
Lars Anderson: “Yet another season has come to an end. Another round of heartfelt thanks and goodbyes both given and received. Another locker room left empty, with trash bins full of worn-out spikes and sweat-stained hats. And once more, as faithful as the rotating seasons, a ‘summer’ that started with complete strangers ended in solemn friendship and brotherhood. I watched them recede down that well-worn road into my past. Odds are, we’ll never see each other again.
“My Australian baseball adventure ended as it began, with a loss at West Beach Field in Adelaide. This time, mercifully, we didn’t make eight errors like the mighty Rams did in my first contest in the Southern Hemisphere. Not surprisingly, however, the Blue Sox fell short of making the playoffs after a loss in the third-to-last game of the season, rendering the final two tilts collectively meaningless. Quite simply, we did not perform like a playoff team, but not for lack of effort. We played the final two games at the same level of intensity as we had the entire season. It was an ‘honorable’ death.
“I was physically hobbled for the entirety of the series against Adelaide. In mid-December, I developed a fun case of plantar fasciitis in my right heel. Over the ensuing weeks, my left knee, doing more heavy lifting than usual, caught an even funner case of patellar tendonitis. What was left was an ability to run in a straight line (kind of), but any lateral movement rendered me about as graceful as a newborn fawn on muscle relaxers.
“Fortunately, I made it to the finish line without any body parts spontaneously combusting. The pain killers are better down here, and that is not hyperbole. They sell Voltaren — an anti-inflammatory/pain killer that requires a prescription in the states — over-the-counter in the wonderful world of Oz. With its aid, and the deft work of our ‘physio’ (trainer), I played each of the final four games.
“In what was, in all likelihood, my final at-bat in Australia — and quite possibly my final at-bat anywhere — I hit a deep fly ball to left field for an out. I was conscious about the potentiality of this at-bat being ‘it’ as I walked to the plate. I did my little pre-at-bat routine before directing my eyes toward the pitcher. He gathered and delivered.
“The first offering was a ball outside. 1-0. The next pitch was a fastball for a strike. 1-1. Matt Williams — not the sleeve-chewing, homer-bashing, former third baseman, but rather a red-headed, right-handed pitcher who looks more like ‘Wild Thing” Mitch Williams — threw another fastball on the outside part. I swung, and the ball came off of my bat hard and high. For a moment I though I had gone deep to left. Alas, the laws of physics took over as the ball sliced over the fence but foul. 1-2. The next pitch was a splitter down for a ball. I saw it well and took it with ease. Taking that pitch the way I did, I knew I was locked in. 2-2.
“The next offering was another fastball, and I just missed it, but the swing felt great. I ran back to the dugout thinking, ‘That was a great at-bat; I am happy it went down like that!’ If I only had that perspective when I was 21 years old!
“I stood, arms draped over the dugout’s railing, perspiring and contemplating. I’ve been thinking about retiring for the past four or so years, so I can’t even take myself seriously anymore in the ‘this might be my last game’ melodrama. I can say, however, that this last-game melodrama was far less melodramatic than previous years’ final games. In 2016, I damn neared cried as I walked off the field in Tulsa after our last contest. Instead, I stood there in the calm Adelaide night, sweat falling off of me like Patrick Ewing at the Gates of Hell, analyzing the pitch sequence and feeling of that last at-bat! Pretty cool!
“Another player had his last at-bat the next inning… his, like, for-real last at-bat. Forty-one-year-old Taiwanese import, Chang Tai-Chan, a.k.a. ‘Tarzan,’ has decided to hang them up following this ABL season. Our fate has been intertwined since the beginning of the season in that Tarzan was the player wo kept me from suiting up with the Bite when the season started. We both play first base and DH, and if he wasn’t there, I would have stayed in Adelaide instead of signing with Sydney. Yet Tarzan had signed with the Bite before the season, and there was no more room for ol’ Larsie on the already ancient import list.
“I spent time around Tarzan while practicing with the Bite, and he always treated me with respect. I enjoyed his company, especially his sense of humor and general ease while interacting with younger players who do not speak his language. Already a legend in Taiwan (I believe he is their all-time leader in home runs) but now on the wrong side of the hill, Tarzan couldn’t find a job in his native country last year. Wanting one more season in the sun, he opted to finish his career in Adelaide.
“As I was still replaying my last at-bat from the bench (I was the designated hitter, so I was not on the field), Tarzan came to the plate with the bases loaded and two outs. It was the eighth inning and Adelaide was leading 4-1. In all likelihood, this would be it for the Taiwanese fossil. Throughout the series, and for the first five pitches of this at-bat, Tarzan had looked impossibly lost at the plate. He swung at pitches that bounced in front of the plate, popped balls up in the infield, and hit ground balls so softly that they would not have cracked a sheet of ice in Southern California. Tarzan was about as intimidating at the dish as Tobey McGuire. George of the Jungle would have beat that ass.
“The beginning of his at-bat was indicative of the previous three games: Tarzan tapped weak foul balls with even weaker swings but still somehow summoned the plate discipline to work his way to a count of three balls and two strikes. Full count, bases loaded, two outs — the scenario we all dream about as children playing in the backyard, That was what my false-teeth-having, prune-juice-sipping Taiwanese compatriot found himself in.
“With nowhere to put Tarzan, our own 18-year-old pitcher served up a thigh-high fastball. Summoning a Samson-esque final bit of strength, Tarzan’s body unwound and his bat whipped through the zone, finding the ball’s flight with absolute precision. The crack of the bat followed as Tarzan stood at home plate with arms outstretched. He knew it was gone off the bat, and we all watched as the ball bounced high off the light pole in left-field for a grand slam.
“The crowd went apeshit as Tarzan pointed to them while running to first base. He blew them kisses as he touched first, then took his helmet off as he rounded second and third base. (I’d never seen that before!) After he rounded third, he stayed with the crowd, showering them with more kisses before touching the plate for the last time in his career.
“On the long walk back to the dugout and the awaiting arms of his teammates, Tarzan broke down and wept. The players who had been on base for his homer, as well as the on-deck batter, helped carry him the rest of the way to the dugout where he was engulfed by the rest of the Bite players and staff. ‘Touching’ wouldn’t begin to describe it.
“The best part, however, was how our own easily combustible, 18-year-old catcher handled the Tarzan Farewell Tour. As I wrote before, Mitchell channels both Chris Pontius and Stephen Hawking: he floats from the profound to face-palm with stunning ease and efficiency. After the grand slam, Jordan McCardle, the batter behind Tarzan, took a long time to make his way to the plate for his own at-bat. Hey, he’s boys with Tarzan and was literally helping to carry Tarzan off the field and into the dugout.
“Once that nursing home task had finished, McCardle stuck around for a bit of the celebration in the dugout — no big deal in my mind. But when he started towards home for his own at bat, I noticed Mitchell yapping at him. I knew that he wasn’t happy with how Tarzan celebrated (Mitchell didn’t know it was his final at-bat), and it became apparent that StephenHawkingPontiusTyson wasn’t too fond of how long it took for McCardle to get in the batter’s box, either. They barked at each other until the umpire quelled them, and McCardle summarily struck out.
“Once back in the dugout, I said, ‘Mitchell, what’s the deal? Why were you freaking out?’ He said, ‘He took so long to get in the box! I didn’t like it, so I told him!’ We explained the Tarzan situation. Mitchell understood, but still wasn’t happy. ‘I still don’t like it,’ he reiterated.
“This dynamic is one of the many endearing things about the ABL: players come here to finish their career, yet others are just beginning, still teenagers ready to fight the world. One player might be in Double-A for the Pirates, rapping on the door of the major leagues, whereas his counterpart in the bullpen or outfield might have been working construction before the game. Everyone here loves baseball. It’s obvious. But that isn’t to say that each player is looking to get the same thing out of it, and it leads to some choice scenarios and realities. I am happy to have been a part of it.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.