Aussie rules baseball

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First baseman Nic Spence loves every minute of taking a game he played in near obscurity in his home country of Australia and lifting the Bearcats through the high-profile Big East grind in America. 


CINCINNATI - From scruffy beard to red and black striped socks, Nic Spence looks every bit the average University of Cincinnati baseball player.


Only, the second he yells a command from his first-base post to the rest of the infield, his unique background becomes more obvious than a high-and-tight fastball.


"Runnah!" Spence echoes across Marge Schott Stadium.


The alert doesn't sound awkward to Spence, a native of Australia, who moved to the United States three years ago to pursue a baseball career.


"I guess it's a little bit different than how you guys pronounce it," he said, allowing a knowing shrug.


His accented alert quickly became a catch phrase with the new teammates Spence met upon his first UC season since transferring from Central Arizona CC. It lasted about a week, then predictably, another of his unique accented phrases turned into a running gag around the Bearcats.


Spence expects jokes. Living on the opposite side of the world from his hometown, ribbing comes with the territory. Select phrases are lost in translation and he caught the first sight of snow in his life. Still, he's quick to point out his new home in Clifton looks more like his old home in the Southeast corner of the state of Victoria than most on this campus could ever know.


That is, except for the atmosphere surrounding the baseball field he now calls home.


There are no high school baseball teams in Australia. No parks packed with grade-schoolers filling the local knothole league on Saturday morning. No Major League Baseball broadcasts glowing the television on summer nights.


On the national sports radar, baseball falls somewhere into a jumble behind Aussie football, soccer and cricket. In fact, only seven players from the country currently play in the bigs.


For those reasons, just by starting for the Bearcats, Spence is defying the odds of his home country.


"He's got pretty good feel for the game for a guy whose probably not played the game as our guys have played as a young kid growing up," Bearcats coach Brian Cleary said. "He's got really good baseball instincts."


He built those baseball instincts living like a minor leaguer for most of his childhood. Without many local teams to play against -- even at the age of nine when Spence first started playing baseball -- his teams traveled an hour or more for nearly every game.


Spence spurned the more popular sports. They never fit. He wasn't quite interested in the running of soccer or physicality of Aussie football.


Much like the jokes he endures regarding his accent at UC, he took on the comments about playing an obscure sport in his home country in stride.


"All my mates were playing football and I am sort of the odd one out playing baseball," Spence said. "As much as they give you a hard time about it, it's also tongue and cheek because people knew I loved baseball a lot and had an opportunity to come over here."


His opportunity came with a blueprint.  


Nic's brother Josh, 23, is two years older and first left Australia to attend Central Arizona CC. Josh latched on at Arizona State after two years of junior college. Two years after that he joined the San Diego Padres, where he currently owns a 2.38 ERA at Double-A San Antonio.


Watching Josh prove his baseball success in Australia translated favorably to baseball success in America provided a security and confidence to make leaving home less daunting.


Actually, for Nic, it was a no-brainer.


"It made the process easier, the fact he's in the same steps," Spence said. "I always wanted to play baseball, so my junior/senior year, I knew I wanted to come over to play. It was made easier the fact that Josh was playing at Arizona State and I was 40 minutes down the road at a junior college."


Two years into his junior college experience, Arizona State coach Pat Murphy placed a call to Cleary, who he coached with at Notre Dame. He wanted to relay word about a player he thought would be a nice fit for the Bearcats.


The concept of taking on a player who didn't own the same exposure to the game in his youth didn't subdue Cleary's excitement about the potential match. Cleary spent a stint as a pitching coach for the British National team, which was comprised of many Australian players. Not as many players take part in the game down under, but those that do played it well in Cleary's estimation.


"I wasn't as concerned about that," Cleary said. "We had gotten so many positive responses doing research and digging on what kind of kid he is. Will he work? Will he compete? As you do that you rarely get a unanimous response when everyone says this guy is the makeup of what you are looking for. But in this case it was."


Spence struggled with the bat early in the season, seeing his average hang consistently below .200. Cleary connected most of the struggles to adjusting to the speed of Division I baseball. Spence's unique background required unique solutions.  


"In having a conversation with him, he really did some things that you say, 'Man, that's really unorthodox, how did you ever learn that?'" Cleary said. "And in talking to him he says that's how you swing a cricket - I don't even know what - paddle? You sit there and say 'OK, that makes some sense.'"


Of late, Spence put down the cricket, uh, paddle, and picked up the whooping stick. He entered Wednesday on a seven-game hitting streak where he's hitting .393 including a 4 of 5 performance Tuesday against Otterbein. Actually, over the past month he's hitting .317 with 20 hits in 63 at bats.


His offensive numbers serve as icing on the cake that is his defense. He's started every game because Cleary wouldn't dare take his glove out of the lineup.


"I say all the time, there is nobody who is a good enough defender to warrant not giving you some offense," Cleary said. "But he might be the exception to that rule. I can't tell you how many outs and runs he's saved."


Spence established himself as a central figure of the program for the next two years. Beyond that, he hopes to establish himself as a central figure in this remarkably baseball-crazed side of the world.


"It's a dream to go play pro baseball, but I know that's not for everyone," Spence said. "I'd love to stay over here in America. I love it a lot over here. Whether I could coach or something, you play baseball for so long you learn so much, you want to give that back to kids who are going through the same process you are going through would be pretty cool."


Going back to his home country and adding to the slowly growing number of coaches and players in Australia is also an option. But, for now, he's squarely focused on keeping the Bearcats near the top of the Big East and among the eight teams to advance to this year's conference tournament.


"I think his strength is how he attacks the game and how he handles himself," Cleary said. "I think he's great and, you know, he brings the accent."

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