(24 March 2014)
The first time I ever attended a game at the Sydney Cricket Ground was in 1959. A Melbourne boy, we were visiting my mother’s family for the Christmas holidays. An uncle took me to see Australia take on England for the 1958/59 Ashes cricket series. The game was drawn. Since moving to Sydney, in 1973, I have attended countless sporting events involving soccer, rugby league and Australian football, not to mention listening to Bob Dylan, literally, singing in the rain. Over the weekend of 22 and 23 March 2014, two of Major League Baseball’s teams, the legendary Los Angeles Dodgers and the ‘new boy’ Arizona Diamondbacks, a team which entered the league in 1998, commenced Major League Baseball’s 2014 season with two games at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
They are not the first Major League teams to visit Australia. In 1888/89, Albert Goodwill Spalding, former player and sporting goods manufacture, brought out his Chicago team and an ‘All America’ side to Australia as part of a world wide tour. In 1914, the New York Giants and Chicago White Sox played at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Baseball has also been played by American sailors and university teams on visits to Australia.
Under Baseball’s collective bargaining agreement, Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players’ Association have to jointly agree on arrangements for International Play. In recent years they have agreed to start the regular season with games in baseball’s diaspora: North East Asia (especially Japan) and Latin America. Spring training and exhibition games are also played south of the border. Such ventures are part of a longer term strategy by the League and players to grow the international appeal of the game. Australia has now become part of this venture. It is conceivable that opening games in Australia may become part of a four year cycle.
Baseball is a minor sport in Australia. It has a hard core of fans and has been played here for well over a century. A national league of eight clubs operated from 1989 to 1999. A revamped six team Australian Baseball League commenced operation in 2012/11. A number of Australian players have made their way into Major League Baseball, commencing with Joe Quinn, who strutted his stuff from 1884 to 1901.
Both the Dodgers and the Diamondbacks played warm up games on the Thursday and Friday nights, respectively, against a team of Australian All Stars. The All Stars acquitted themselves quite well. Against the Dodgers they fell apart in the eighth innings and lost 4-2. They beat the Diamondbacks on the Friday night 5-0. The crowd for both games were in the vicinity of 10,000 to 12,000. To put this into context, on Friday night Rugby Union put on a game between the New South Wales Waratahs and the Melbourne Rebels next door at Allianz Stadium. It only drew a crowd of 16,000. Maybe this says more about Rugby than it does baseball.
Unsurprisingly, many Americans were in attendance for the two weekend games; a combination of tourists and those who have immigrated to Australia. A variety of Major League club baseball caps were on display. The Dodgers had the majority of fans. Sydney Swans star player and Australian of the Year, Adam Goodes, threw out the ceremonial first pitch of game one. A spy has informed me that it was an off speed strike. For game two, Australians who have played in Major League Baseball were presented to the crowd. Graeme Lloyd threw out the first pitch for game two with Craig Shipley at the plate and Dave Nilsson catching. It was a ball.
Baseball is a game between bat and ball. In both games the Dodgers got on top early and established three run leads. Diamondback pitchers got behind in the count and their batters had trouble stringing hits together. Over both games, the Diamondbacks gave up ten walks, compared to the Dodgers five. In game one the Diamondbacks scored a late run to lose 3-1. In game two the Dodgers steadily accumulated hits, which combined with errors by the Diamondbacks enabled them to jump to a 7-0 lead by the end of the seventh. The Diamondbacks scored five runs in the last two innings, but to no avail, The Dodgers won 7-5. Despite this late rally, both games lacked the tension of a close contest. Another one of my spies told me that the Dodgers had a stronger line up than the Diamondbacks.
There was more variety in game two than game one. The bases were loaded several times; there was a run down of a Dodger caught between first and second and a few errors. As someone who has watched more cricket than a reasonable person should, the highlight for me was the fielding, catching and especially the throwing; low sidearm bullets that barely got off the ground.
Australian crowds traditionally throw the ball, of whatever sport, they are attending, back onto the ground. Baseball has a different tradition. Once the crowd learnt this, especially at the two warm up games, which seemed to have a large attendance of families and kids, they wanted players to throw balls to them. Also, seeing foul balls fly into the crowd, especially those headed for the moon behind home plate and whether it would wreck the stadium or be caught by someone was a source of fascination, especially those new to baseball.
The Sydney Cricket Ground has an approximate crowd capacity of 42,000. Both games drew crowds of more than 38,000. There were long queues outside merchandise outlets. Crowds at both games seemed to enjoy themselves. Baseball has a gentle rhythm, similar to that of cricket, with quiet moments where pitchers are on top, punctuated when batters shatter the status quo and bring fielders and running and drama on the baselines into play. Hopefully, there will be another time when the Big Show will return to the Sydney Cricket Ground, or other parts of Australia.