Every offseason, dozens of Minor League prospects and Major League veterans pack their bags and head across the Pacific Ocean to play in the Australian Baseball League, one of the world's premier winter circuits. It's a chance to hone their skills and compete in the months that otherwise would be spent training for the next professional season, and one that has served as a rite of passage for such current big league stars as Ronald Acuña Jr., Rhys Hoskins and Didi Gregorius.
But players aren't the only ones who travel Down Under to improve before springtime rolls around. It's the ones watching the game too.
Nicholas Badders served as the play-by-play broadcaster for the Melbourne Aces during the ABL season after spending the summer as the voice of the Elizabethton Twins in the Rookie Advanced Appalachian League. He's only been back stateside for a couple weeks but is quick to express how grateful he was for the opportunity -- some reasons more substantial than others.
"This is the greatest experience that I've had in sports at all, getting the chance to work with the Aces," he said. "I didn't know what to expect from coming in, and it surpassed every expectation that I could possibly have. The best part is, I missed winter too. I went from summer to summer, and I'm going right back to spring and summer now. ... I don't like the cold."
If you truly want to understand Badders' experience, you need to go back further than his time in Australia or East Tennessee. He grew up in Livermore, California, a small city outside Oakland. There he fell in love with baseball, both as a player and a rabid fan of the A's, cheering along from the right-field bleachers at the Oakland Coliseum, where his family had season tickets.
He quickly realized he wasn't cut out to keep playing the game, but his passion for America's pastime was so strong that he couldn't stay away. So Badders kept score and did public address announcing for his high school team to set himself up for a promising future in sports journalism. When it came to deciding what college to attend, the parameters were simple -- have a good journalism program, a good baseball team and be close to lots of baseball. And as a West Coast native, the choice was just as simple: Arizona State.
"ASU checked all of those boxes, especially with how good the Cronkite School is," he said. "So it was the only school that I applied to out of high school. If I hadn't gotten in, I don't know where I'd be now."
During his first two years in Tempe, Badders called, wrote about or photographed games for several Sun Devils teams, including baseball, softball, football and women's hockey. That experience eventually netted him a gig with the Sonoma Stompers of the Pacific Association of Professional Baseball Clubs, an independent league in Northern California. There he cut his teeth as a full-time broadcaster and came to realize it was what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.
And as time went on, it became clear to Badders that the next step in making that dream a reality was to pursue a job in the Minor Leagues. The only problem? Teams weren't calling.
"I knew I wanted to get into Minor League Baseball and I applied to every opening that was posted," he said. "Did not get an interview. Did not get one interview. ... I was pretty much at a point where I was like, 'You know what, OK. Going back to indy ball's not the worst thing. They have a TV deal now. I'll have added responsibilities, that'll be great.'"
In late spring of his junior year, however, just weeks from the start of the Stompers' season, Badders came across an opening in Elizabethton on the Sportscasters Talent Agency of America website. He immediately sent off his application, and before he knew it, he was interviewing for a job he eventually landed.
It all happened very fast, but that doesn't mean it was an easy decision. Because the Twins' season stretched into September, he would have to take his fall semester classes entirely online if he took the job. And he would miss spending the first half of his senior year on campus with friends and classmates. It was a tough pill to swallow but one he ultimately knew was necessary.
The next few weeks proved he made a wise decision. He enjoyed his time in indy ball, but right away he could tell life in the Minors was a step up. He was constantly calling games with few days off, something that -- while tiring -- validated that it's what he wanted out of life.
"It was pretty early on in the season I went, 'Wow-oh, I really love doing this every single day,'" Badders said.
And just as quickly as his opportunity with Elizabethton came to fruition, so did his next endeavor. As he began to wonder what would come next, he stumbled across an opening in the ABL on the STAA website. He was already pretty familiar with the league, as he often watched games online to get his baseball fix during the offseason, and knew it would provide the chance to keep calling baseball once the Twins' season ended. So, initially, he was intrigued.
There was one thing holding him back, though. If he got the job, it would effectively mark the end of his time at Arizona State. He'd still be able to finish his classes online, but would have to forgo spending his senior year on campus altogether.
Keeping that in mind, he applied. After all, he didn't know if he'd get it. But not long after he sent off his resume, he found himself interviewing at midnight -- or mid-afternoon in Melbourne -- with a member of the team's ownership group. The process took considerably longer than with Elizabethton as he spoke with three separate members of the Aces organization over multiple agonizing, anxiety-inducing weeks, culminating with a conversation with general manager Justin Huber. They spoke for about an hour, and at the end of that time, Badders was offered the job.
He chose to mull the offer over for some time. The question wasn't whether he was interested but whether he was willing to give up on returning to Tempe. Luckily, he had no shortage of people to consult. He spoke with family and friends, of course, but also sought advice from his peers in the booth. The list was long, but the most impactful conversation he had was with Iowa Cubs broadcaster Alex Cohen, who'd previously held the position.
"He had a lot of good things to say about both the area, the team, the ballpark, everything. ... If I hadn't gotten that vote of confidence, reassurance from Alex, like, 'Hey, this is a really good opportunity, like I really enjoyed it, you should take advantage of it,' if I hadn't heard that from him, I probably wouldn't have ended up going to Melbourne," Badders said.
As his time in Elizabethton began to wind down, the time to decide drew nearer. And while he certainly would miss not being back at Arizona State for one last go-around, he knew deep down that it paled in comparison to what he could do with the Aces.
"I realized if I don't take this, I'm gonna be kicking myself down the road,'" he said. "Like I'm gonna be sitting in a classroom in December in Arizona like, 'Man, I wish I was in Australia right now.'"
So a few weeks after receiving the offer, he accepted. It was a bittersweet feeling to be leaving college life but one that was chased by the refreshing excitement of what would be next.
"It was scary. It was an unknown," he said. "But I'm really happy that I did it."
After the Appy League season ended, Badders returned to Tempe for a bit before heading home to Livermore. Then he hopped on a flight to Hawaii to spend a few days with his sister before jetting off to Melbourne to begin the next chapter. He arrived in late September, a month or two before the start of the Aces' season, and quickly settled in.
To say life in Australia was different than in East Tennessee would be a massive understatement. In Melbourne, Badders rented a bedroom in a family's home five minutes from the stadium; in Elizabethton, he lived in a hotel. In Melbourne, he had all the offerings of its bustling entertainment and culinary scene at his disposal; in Elizabethton, he had Applebee's.
But while it was undoubtedly a more exciting place to live, he felt a certain degree of culture shock being dropped into a new country. Having experienced multiple moves in his life, though, he embraced the change.
"It's weird walking on the left side of the sidewalk," Badders joked. "Just constantly swatting flies away from my face. Learning the accents and different phrases and terms ... really rewarding, though, to experience a different culture. I'm a fairly picky eater, but it was fun to try new foods, like a meat pie or something like that."
As for the baseball, the ABL and Appy League were more similar than you might think. Because baseball is still growing in Australia, the Aces and Twins have similar-sized fan bases, despite the difference in population. He found the talent level to be comparable to Class A Advanced or Double-A, featuring a mix of players both young and old.
"It was cool to have 18-year-olds and 19-year-olds mixed in with Delmon Young and Peter Moylan ... it was a really good mix of young and old, all sorts of talent levels, people of different backgrounds," he said. "Really diverse league, vs. the Appy League, it was a lot of guys fresh out of high school, college and the Dominican Summer League."
The biggest difference on the field was the quality of the teams themselves. Elizabethton went 33-34, the team's first losing season in more than 30 years. Melbourne experienced different results.
"Heading into the season, I knew the team would be good, didn't think we'd be championship-quality good," Badders said. "All the sudden, Delmon's hitting home runs left and right, the Japanese guys are performing well and the team was clicking. I'm like, 'OK, this might be something.'"
That "something" grew and grew as the season unfolded and the Aces finished with the league's second-best record. It grew even more when they swept Auckland in the semifinals, advancing to the Finals for the third time ever.
With the Championship Series airing on MLB Network, Badders' time in the booth was over, but his role with the league was not. He was approached by Andrew Reynolds, head of ABL broadcasting, who asked whether he wanted to do pre- and postgame interviews on the field. The answer, of course, was a resounding yes. And with Badders watching from the sidelines, Melbourne swept Adelaide to capture its first-ever Claxton Shield.
"My dad woke up to watch it in California, it was like 3 a.m. or something like that," he said. "I had a few friends in California and Arizona watching it, sending me pictures like, 'This is so cool!'"
His mother, who'd been traveling with him since shortly before the end of the regular season, caught all the action in person. She was there to celebrate with him and the team, although the party could only last so long. Two days after the win, the team was back in Melbourne. And just a few days later, the Badders were on a flight back to the States.
But while his journey is over for the time being, it's really just the beginning. He'll graduate from Arizona State in May and has another job in the Minors lined up for the summer. After that, he'll return to Melbourne for another go-around with the Aces shortly after the Minor League season wraps up.
So as he begins to reflect on his time Down Under, he's equal parts sentimental and grateful. More than anything, however, he's proud of the work he put in and knows the fruits of his labor were not unearned.
"The biggest thing that I take away is if you work hard ... for me, I worked hard, I put in my best effort and I was rewarded for it," Badders said. "The people around me were really good, they took care of me, they offered me the opportunity to come back next season. … The people were so good to me. It shows that if you work hard, if you're good to people, it does pay off."
In more ways than one.
"I guess I don't have to deal with cold weather for the foreseeable future," he joked. "Nothing would make me happier."
Jordan Wolf is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter: @byjordanwolf.