The careers of Michael Collins and Andrew Graham have taken many parallel roads. This weekend, their paths will converge in Michigan.
Fort Wayne Tin Caps manager Collins and West Michigan Whitecaps skipper Graham will meet up at Fifth Third Ballpark for three games starting Friday in one of the first meetings ever between Australian-born managers and the first since 1999.
"We played against each other when we were younger," Collins, the TinCaps' first-year pilot said. "We played with each other on a couple of Australian teams, played against each other professionally. We've taken very similar paths, just with different organizations, and now just to meet here in the Midwest League -- we actually played against each other here in 2005. He was in West Michigan, and I was in Cedar Rapids, and that's kind of funny to cross paths again."
Collins hails from Canberra, Australia's capital city, while Graham is from Sydney, a three-hour drive northeast along the Hume Highway. Baseball, though, has brought the pair closer than that on many occasions, even when more than 9,000 miles from home.
"It's definitely exciting," echoes Graham, likewise a first-year manager in West Michigan. "Knowing Michael for so long, we were teammates on Australian teams for some of those years, and we played against each other in this league as well. We've played against each other; we've played with each other. We've coached against each other, and now we're managing in America against each other. There's only so many Australian coaches over here. The fact that we're both Australian and we're both young and in the same league is pretty cool."
Both Collins and Graham are budding stars in Australian coaching ranks. Collins, 29, got his managerial start with the Padres' Dominican Summer League affiliate in 2012 and climbed a step to the Arizona League last year. Graham, 32, spent the last three seasons with the Connecticut Tigers of the short-season New York-Penn League. Each has substantial coaching experience back home, too. Graham has helped out as a member of the Sydney Blue Sox staff while Collins manages his hometown Canberra Cavalry, a team he led to the Australian Baseball League crown in February 2013 and an Asia Series title nine months later.
"I've learned a lot from the Australian league," Collins said. "I've learned a lot of things from the successes as well as the failures. It's a short season in Australia, so every decision, every game is very important. Being a part of that has been huge. Although I haven't managed for many years, those seasons there almost feel like another [full] season. I've had two seasons there, and this will be my third season here, so it feels like I've had about five seasons instead of three. That short season -- it's almost like playoff-style baseball the whole season in Australia."
Bother former Minor League catchers, Collins and Graham spent time playing in the ABL before moving into coaching roles. Collins captured the league's batting title with a .360 average during the ABL's inaugural season in 2010-11. Graham played during that season and sparingly in 2011-12 before dedicating himself to coaching full-time. Both managers have gone from Minor League seasons during the North American springs and summers right back into spring Down Under for ABL campaigns.
Two elder statesmen of Australian baseball, Paul Elliott and Tony Harris, are familiar with that feeling. Elliott and Harris met as managers in the Pioneer League in 1999. Elliott still works with Toronto as the GCL Blue Jays' hitting coach while Harris is a Pirates scout and Melbourne Aces assistant coach in Australia.
"The fact that you're doing it year-round keeps your mind fresh," Graham said. "You're always learning stuff every day in baseball. It's good that way. All the kids and developing different kids at different levels, you're working on how to communicate with guys with different experience. In the ABL, there were players like [former Major Leaguers Chris] Oxspring and Brad Thomas, so you're coaching ex-big league players, you're coaching guys who have never played pro ball, you're coaching guys who have a few years' Minor League experience. You really develop the way you talk to kids."
Graham is taking what he's learned around the globe back to the familiar confines at Fifth Third Ballpark, a place he called home as a player for 58 games from 2004-05.
"The main thing is, having played here and been here, you feel comfortable in your surroundings," Graham said. "The way they run the system up here -- same owner, same GM here as when I played -- so we already have a relationship here at West Michigan. The atmosphere is great. It's a great fanbase. It's the perfect town. It's the same from playing as a manger, really."
It isn't just the managers who are close. At 8-11, Fort Wayne trails 10-10 by a game and a half in the Midwest League standings. Friday night's series opener of three will be the first of 19 total meetings between the two clubs -- and two friends -- this season.
"I'm sure at some point we'll get together and start talking about some of the times gone by and now being in the same league together," Collins said. "It should be interesting, and I'm sure there will be a few people back home both in Sydney and Canberra probably rooting for our teams respectively, just like it's a Cavalry-Blue Sox matchup again."