There are voices in David Nilsson's head, and they sound as if
they want to sell him a Subaru Outback. They speak with that
easy Paul Hogan lilt, like old pals standing around the barbie
and throwing back a few Foster's. They are friendly and
comforting until the subject turns to the 2000 Olympics in
Sydney, and then the voices in Nilsson's head turn into a vice
grip on his heart.
The world is coming to Australia next year, and Nilsson, the
pride of Brisbane, has a small problem: He's not sure if he will
be there to welcome it. The Milwaukee Brewers' 29-year-old
catcher has played professional baseball in the U.S. for the
past 13 summers, but if he plays next year, in some ways it will
be his most difficult season. He will have to watch the Games
from half a world away as his friends and family throw the
biggest party in the history of his homeland. Can he do it? Will
he even try? When asked if he could skip the Games, Nilsson
says, "I could do it. But I'll be honest: It would be very tough."
Nilsson insists that the folks back home are not pressuring him
to put his big league career on hold and represent his country
in 2000, but he can't ignore the siren song of his native land.
The name of the island continent rolls off his tongue in a
little more than a syllable--"Ah-straya," he says--and a proud
smile invariably follows. He can't lie: He comes to the U.S. for
baseball; he goes home for everything else. "I don't mean any
disrespect to America, but there's no reason for me to be here.
My friends, my family, everything in my life is back in
Australia," says Nilsson, who during the off-season returns to
the Gold Coast, outside Brisbane, with his Aussie wife, Amanda,
and his one-year-old son, Jacob. "I feel very comfortable in the
United States, but there's always a part of me that knows I
don't belong here."
Before this season Nilsson made sure he wouldn't have to be here
next September. In a negotiating move that probably says more
about his intentions than his words do, Nilsson cut an unusual
deal last December that assured him of free agency at the end of
this season. The Brewers relinquished a one-year option to
extend Nilsson's contract through the 2000 season for $5.5
million. In exchange, Nilsson allowed the cash-strapped team to
pay his '99 salary ($4.7 million), plus a $1.5 million buyout,
over a three-year period, interest-free. Now, at season's end he
can go home and stay there to compete in the Olympics or sign
with another major league team, a decision he says he will make
by November. A return to Milwaukee, the only organization he has
ever played for, appears unlikely.
In the meantime Nilsson is finishing his eight-year Milwaukee
tenure with a flourish. Entering the season he was a lifetime
.280 hitter who was prone to injury. But at week's end a hale
Nilsson was hitting .316. He also had 16 home runs--he hit a
career-high 20 in 1997--and 41 RBIs, and he was seventh in the
National League in slugging percentage (.609). In a different
year, Nilsson might be a shoo-in for the National League
All-Star team, whose roster will be announced July 7. But with
so many of his catching rivals (the Pittsburgh Pirates' Jason
Kendall, the Philadelphia Phillies' Mike Lieberthal, the Atlanta
Braves' Javy Lopez and the New York Mets' Mike Piazza) having
marvelous seasons, Nilsson might not make the squad.
Nilsson appears to be reaching his offensive prime at the same
time he's reaching the free-agent market for the first time. The
result: His love for country and his desire to play in the
Olympics could be tested by a big-budget ball club's love for a
6'3", 229-pound, lefthanded-hitting catcher who also has
experience at first base, in the outfield and at DH. Could, for
instance, his deep-pocketed countryman Rupert Murdoch lure
Nilsson to Los Angeles to play for the Dodgers for, say, $8
million a year? "I don't know what David's going to do, but
nothing would surprise me," says Nilsson's agent, Alan Nero.
"Could you turn down $50 million to represent your country? I
know I couldn't. But, believe me, David Nilsson could."
While most people respect his love of country, not everyone in
Nilsson's world is ready to cast a sentimental vote for
true-blue patriotism over major league green. "I think it's
crazy," says David's father, Tim, who pitched for the Australian
national team in the 1960s and now helps run the family's
printing company in Brisbane. "How could anyone choose the
Olympics over the major leagues? It makes no sense. The major
leagues is the ultimate. Compared to the majors, the Olympics is
like rookie ball."
Of course, young Nilsson has been toiling in the relative
obscurity of Milwaukee. At 34-40, the Brewers were the only
sixth-place team in the majors at week's end. The team hasn't
finished above .500 since Nilsson's rookie year, in '92. "At
some point in my career, it would be nice to see if the grass is
greener somewhere else," he says.
In Sydney, Nilsson would be the biggest baseball star on the
host team, and for once in his career he believes he would have
an opportunity chance to win something. "Quite frankly, the way
the Olympics is set up, I feel Australia would have a chance to
win a medal, maybe even a gold medal," he says. Participating in
the Summer Games would also give Nilsson a chance to attract
more of his countrymen to the sport. First played in Australia
in 1856, baseball is still minor compared with cricket, rugby,
Australian-rules football, tennis and even swimming, but Nilsson
is the biggest fish in the baseball pond. Indeed, they say he
owns professional baseball in Australia, and he has the receipts
to prove it. Last December, in hopes of rescuing the game,
Nilsson struck a deal to create a new league that absorbed six
of the eight teams from the country's existing league. He
declined to reveal the price, but one publication said he paid
$630,000. "I didn't do this just to say I'm an owner," he says.
"I think there's a chance for me to benefit financially."
Nilsson wants to lure more American players to the
October-to-February league. (Last season there were around 20.)
In the early '90s he was joined in the winter league Down Under
by some Milwaukee mates, including first baseman John Jaha (now
with the Oakland A's) and outfielder Troy O'Leary. "Dave is huge
over there," says O'Leary, who now plays for the Boston Red Sox.
"We went to Brisbane one day, and we couldn't even walk the
streets. It was like going to the mall with Jose Canseco or
Michael Jordan." A humble Nilsson disputes O'Leary's
recollection. "I'm no superstar at home," he says. "Very few
people know who I am."
One move that wouldn't make him too popular over here would be a
deal for next year that would allow him to abandon his big
league team in early September, when the Olympics commence. For
his part, Nilsson insists he wouldn't even ask. "There are 24
other guys in the clubhouse, and I could never look them in the
eye and tell them that come crunch time, I'm leaving," he says.
A proven hitter who could help a contender, Nilsson says there
are two simple explanations for his added production this
season: When he arrived at spring training in February, he was
completely healthy, and he knew what position he would be
playing. Before this season Nilsson had made six trips to the
disabled list in his Brewers career, including one to start the
1995 season while he recovered from Ross River fever, a rare
affliction that he contracted from a mosquito bite in Australia.
The illness, which caused fatigue and pain in his joints,
limited him to only 81 games. "I probably should have taken the
year off," he says.
Nilsson bounced back in '96. In 123 games, including 40 as a
designated hitter, he put up career highs in average (.331) and
RBIs (84) and batted an American League-best .359 against
righthanded pitchers. After the '97 season, though, Milwaukee
switched to the National League, a move that affected Nilsson
more than any other Brewer. No longer could Milwaukee manager
Phil Garner try to keep him off the DL by putting him at DH.
Last year Nilsson had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee
during spring training. When he returned in May, he caught in
only six games, splitting time between first base and leftfield
while hitting .269 with 12 homers and 56 RBIs. Coming into the
'99 season, the catching-thin Brewers decided to stick him
behind the plate and take their chances. Nilsson, who hadn't
caught full time since '95, welcomed the move because, he says,
"it was just nice to know what position I was playing for a
Always a streaky hitter, Nilsson this season settled into a
groove early and stayed there. No longer is he content to just
slap a single up the middle when his team needs extra bases. "I
think he is finally realizing what he is capable of doing," says
Brewers hitting coach Jim Lefebvre. "He's a bright guy who goes
up to the plate with a plan. He's become a great situational
hitter." Under the direction of Lefebvre, who joined the
Milwaukee staff last August, Nilsson began to pull nearly every
pitch in batting practice, a habit that helped him become a more
instinctive power hitter. "Normally, the hitting coach tells you
the exact opposite--go the other way, use the whole field--but
Jim wanted me to get used to pulling everything," says Nilsson.
As for Nilsson's defense, Garner says "the best part of his game
is his offense." The manager does rate Nilsson "a smart catcher
who knows how to work with a pitching staff." Moreover, though
at week's end Nilsson had thrown out just 17.1% of runners
attempting to steal this season (fifth worst in the league),
Garner says his pitchers are as responsible for the spotty
results as the catcher. The ever-intense Garner says he is fond
of his laid-back backstop, even if Nilsson is not likely to
steal his manager's nickname, Scrap Iron.
"Nillie's a negotiator, not a fighter," says Garner. "He's a
cerebral guy, very intelligent, with great instincts. He doesn't
relish contact, but there's nothing wrong with that. Yogi Berra
didn't like contact. He always thought it was smarter to step
out of the way and tag you as you were running by. Nothing wrong
Nilsson says his baseball upbringing was not too far removed
from that of his American counterparts. Tim Nilsson raised his
four sons to play the game. David got his first bat and glove
for Christmas when he was four, played tee-ball and Little
League, and watched games on TV whenever he could. "Of course,
we would only get the World Series, and it would be at, like,
three in the morning," he says. "My brothers and I played all
sports, but baseball just grabbed us." Two of Nilsson's three
older brothers, Bob and Gary, pitched professionally in the
U.S., but never made it out of the minor leagues. David was just
the third player from his country to make the big leagues,
following Joe Quinn (who played from 1894 to 1901) and Craig
Shipley, a utilityman who made his debut in 1986 and retired
before this season.
"When I signed my first contract I was 17 years old, and I felt
like I was moving to a different planet," says Nilsson, who
began his career with the Helena (Mont.) Brewers of the Pioneer
League. "The possibility of actually making it to the major
leagues was almost inconceivable to me."
Now he is thinking about walking away from the major leagues, a
possibility that's almost inconceivable to everyone else.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY V.J. LOVERO Swing shift Pulling the ball more, Nilsson already has slammed 16 homers, four short of his career high.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY V.J. LOVERO Healthy outlook Nilsson says his improved physical condition has meant increased productivity.
COLOR PHOTO: BRAD MANGIN Catching blame Nilsson has had trouble throwing out runners partly because his pitchers fail to hold them on.
"How could anyone choose the Olympics over the major leagues?"
says David's father, Tim. "It makes no sense."
"Nilsson's a negotiator, not a fighter," says Garner. "He's a
cerebral guy, very intelligent, with great instincts."