TWINS: Australian native Luke Hughes came a long way to crack major leagues
TAMPA BAY, Fla. Joe Mauer famously gave up football for baseball, turning down a scholarship to play quarterback for Bobby Bowden and Florida State to join the Twins' farm system in 2001. At about the same time, half a world away, Luke Hughes was...
TAMPA BAY, Fla.
Joe Mauer famously gave up football for baseball, turning down a scholarship to play quarterback for Bobby Bowden and Florida State to join the Twins' farm system in 2001.
At about the same time, half a world away, Luke Hughes was making a similar decision.
For Hughes, it was choosing between baseball and Australian Rules Football, that combination of soccer, rugby and, uh, boxing in a sport as popular Down Under as the NFL is here. Hughes loved it and was good at it.
"I'm an aggressive guy. I usually got a lot of my aggression out playing it," he said. "It was something I loved to do. The competition and the team aspect to it were fantastic."
In fact, Hughes, at just 16, decided to give up baseball. Football was more popular, and he could play it at home.
"There was a grand final with East Perth, and that was kind of my decision to go play football," he said. "I talked to a lot of people, and it was a pretty hard decision."
Then fate stepped in.
At the same time, Major League Baseball and the Australian Baseball Federation opened the Australian Academy Program on Gold Coast, Queensland -- on the other side of the country from where Hughes grew up in Perth. It offered Australia's best young players almost two months of baseball all day, followed by school in the evenings.
"If (the Academy) wasn't going to start for a year or two, I probably would have played football," he said. "But that sounded pretty good to a 16-year-old kid."
Hughes often had regretted the decision, but not anymore. Time has justified his decision. It has been a road of miles and many obstacles, but Hughes, at 26, is a major league baseball player.
"Baseball has taken me over all the world -- Asia, Europe and the United States," he said, "and it's been a fantastic ride."
On April 28, 2010, Hughes became just the fifth Twins player to homer in his first major league at-bat. After seven seasons of minor league baseball, it appeared he had arrived. Though he was optioned back to Class AAA Rochester, the Twins were excited about him, and it seemed clear he would be back.
But he played only nine games with the Red Wings before popping his groin while moving to field a grounder at second base. Doctors discovered a sports hernia, and his season was over.
Without a full season of Triple-A ball, Hughes had only spring training to make his case for promotion this season, and he made a strong one -- leading the Twins in home runs (six), runs batted in (15), slugging percentage (.567) and total bases (37).
It wasn't enough to supplant Matt Tolbert as the team's utility infielder, but it made him first on the list for a call-up, and it came when second baseman Tsuyoshi Nishioka broke his leg trying to turn a double play April 7 in New York.
Hughes' starts include a two-run single in the Twins' 10-inning victory over Kansas City on Wednesday.
"Most of the time, he can get to a fastball pretty good. He can bang it pretty good," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "His defense is, you know, OK -- not a lot of range or anything, but he's solid. He gets to the balls he's supposed to catch, and he's gotten better and better."
Even if Hughes never becomes a star -- in the U.S., anyway -- his rise through the Twins' organization is a success story for both player and organization.
"In the baseball ranks, if you get a guy to Double A, it's a success," said Twins vice president for personnel Mike Radcliff. "It's relative to where the guy is drafted or what he signs for, but Luke signed for well under $100,000.
"You sign a guy like that and get him to the big leagues, that's a tremendous success for the scouting department and player development and the player himself."
BRAVE NEW WORLD
For Hughes, success has been almost as much about making it in the U.S. as making it in the majors. It's a common theme for Australians trying to crack the world's biggest entertainment market, whether they're filmmakers or rock bands. It's no different for baseball players, Hughes said.
In fact, Hughes grew up across the street from the musicians who formed a band called Gyroscope. They're his friends and his favorite band.
"I talk to them a lot," he said, "and a lot of the challenges are the same."
That commonality helps bind Australian baseball players, whether they're established in the major leagues, trying to get there or trying to stay there.
"It's a pretty small community," said A's left-hander Grant Balfour, one of several Australians to come up with the Twins. "I didn't play with Luke, but of course I know him."
With a 10-year career and World Series appearances with Tampa Bay last season, Balfour is a star among the Australian baseball cognoscenti, along with players such as former all-star Dave Nilsson, Craig Shipley and Graham Lloyd.
Though he has played in fewer than 10 major league games, Hughes is among that elite group, as well, and has helped rebuild Australia's winter league, which restarted last season after a moribund period.
Hughes clearly takes his role seriously. When he speaks of efforts to build baseball's popularity, he uses the universal "we" and "us." Listen, for instance, to him talk about his start in T-ball.
"Parents get kids into that as something to do in the summer," he said. "It's a summer sport besides cricket. A lot of kids grow up playing T-ball, but it's pretty hard for us to get them to continue to play baseball. That's the thing we're trying to do in Australia right now, help the transition between the T-ball clubs and the baseball clubs, and breach that gap there.
"Cricket, of course, is the No. 1 sport in Australia; that and Australian Rules Football and rugby. Australia's had so much success in cricket over the last 10 years, baseball will never be able to compete with that. But we're trying to show there's another avenue, another sport to play."
A HUMBLE KID
Hughes views himself as someone who simply got a chance when Howard Norsetter, a Wisconsin native who is the Twins' full-time scout in Australia, signed him in 2002.
"Howie has signed a lot of guys and given them the opportunity to come over here and play," Hughes said. "I wasn't a big-money guy or anything like that. I was just an average ballplayer who got an opportunity to play, and it's something I'm really appreciative of.
"I sort of grew into a baseball player, but I never really was one. I was more of a football player trying to play baseball."
Radcliff said Hughes is being humble, though he acknowledged, "Even as an amateur, he never stood out because of great baseball tools."
"If one thing stood out to Howie, it was his raw potential," Radcliff said. "He was not below average by any means; he ran fine, threw fine, played shortstop and moved to second and third. He's probably being a little bit humble, but a lot of the Australians are like that."
Hughes is with the Twins to fill a hole right now; when Nishioka returns, Hughes could be out of a spot because he's not as fast or defensively adroit as Tolbert. On the other hand, Minnesota will not turn down an effective bat.
The Twins already believe that Hughes can hit major league pitching; what they need to see is a reliable major league glove. Hughes knows this.
"My biggest thing here is just to play defense," he said. "That's the thing Gardy preaches, and we all know it. That's the Twins Way; T.K. (Tom Kelly) pounds it into you in spring training. That's just the way things are done here. So that's my biggest thing, just come here and play solid defense."
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.