PORTLAND, Maine — Portland Sea Dogs manager Kevin Boles saw and smelled a vegemite sandwich while coaching in Sydney, Australia, this past winter.
Vegemite is a food paste made out of yeast extract, and it earned notoriety when it was included in the lyrics of the Men at Work song “Down Under.”
“I just couldn’t,” chuckled Boles when asked whether he tried it.
But the winter was rewarding and educational, said Boles, whose Sydney Blue Sox finished tied for third in the six-team Australian Baseball League comprised of Australians and imported players, including professional ballplayers. The Blue Sox went 20-25.
His Sydney team beat Adelaide in their first-round series before losing to Melbourne in their second-round series. Perth beat Melbourne in the championship series.
In ABL, the top two seeds square off in a best-of-five first-round series as do the third and fourth seeds. The winner of the series between the top two seeds advances to the best-of-three championship-round series. The loser of that 1-vs.-2 series meets the winner of the 3-vs.-4 series in a best-of-five series to produce the other championship-round team.
“It was terrific. It’s a beautiful country,” said Boles, who is in his second season as the skipper of the Sea Dogs. “They’re trying to get baseball going over there. It’s a cricket country, no doubt about it.”
“They’re starting to develop the youth program and it’s exciting to see it developing,” added the 37-year-old Boles.
He said each team in the ABL, which is sponsored by Major League Baseball, has an assortment of players ranging from “local younger guys hoping to sign professional contracts to former major leaguers to current major leaguers.
“There’s a mixed bag of players over there and they’re trying to build it up,” he said.
They each have 35-man rosters, but only 22-24 are active.
“If they aren’t [active], they go and play club baseball. Club baseball is huge,” Boles said.
Oakland Athletics reliever Grant Balfour, who used to pitch for Tampa Bay, is from Sydney; Minnesota Twins pitcher Liam Hendriks and infielder Luke Hughes are both from Perth and pitcher Rich Thompson of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim is from Hornsby, Australia.
Boles said in addition to managing the team, he was also responsible for compiling his roster.
That’s much different than the United States, where the major league franchises supply the players to their minor league affiliates.
That was challenging, he said.
“It was a great learning experience, having to rotate your roster with different personnel,” he said.
Boles got to coach in the league’s first all-star game as he led his World team to an 8-5 victory over Team Australia in Perth.
“It was shown on the Major League Baseball Network and seen in a number of countries. It was a pretty big deal. It was pretty neat to be a part of it,” he said.
There is no set roster limit on the number of players from other countries, Boles said.
“We had two or three and other teams had 10-12. You had to fill out your roster. Hopefully, each team will be limited to four to six imports. There are a lot of quality players in the league and a lot of young impressive Australian players coming through,” he said.
Boles said people such as Ben Foster, the operations manager of the ABL, and David Balfour, Grant’s father and the Sydney Blue Sox GM, are doing a great job advancing baseball’s development in Australia.
Coaching baseball is Boles’ passion. He is in his 12th season as a manager and is following in the footsteps of his father, John, who formerly managed the Florida Marlins and is a member of the Sea Dogs Hall of Fame for his days served as the director of player development for the Marlins.
John Boles had a big hand in supplying the players for the Sea Dogs’ 1995-97 playoff teams, and he is currently the senior advisor to Kansas City Royals general manager Dayton Moore.
“It was always intriguing watching my dad run a ballclub,” said the younger Boles, who went on to catch for the University of South Florida and had a brief stint in the Chicago Cubs organization.
“When I was in high school, I thought managing was something I’d like to do,” said Boles, who served as the bullpen catcher for the Sea Dogs in 1997.
He is glad to be back in Portland.
“I love Portland. It has been my favorite place to manage and I’ve been in some terrific places like Greenville, South Carolina,” he said. “The people here are very supportive of what we’re trying to do.”
He loves Hadlock Field and its mini-Fenway Park features and said the fans are extremely hardy and loyal.
“They’ll sit in sleet, rain and snow. They’re amazing,” said Boles, who has a career record of 664-648 in his 12 seasons.
The Sea Dogs took a 3-8 record into Monday night’s game against New Britain, but he said his Sea Dogs are athletic at every position and have a mixture of speed, power and impact hitters in the lineup.
“We definitely have a chance to be a solid ballclub. We’ve got to get our starting pitchers going [better]. Everything begins with starting pitching,” he said.