2-game MLB series between Dodgers, Diamondbacks to help fledgling baseball grow Down Under
Former Boston Red Sox coach Jon Deeble, who's been around Australian baseball for more than 30 years, figures next weekend's season-opening, two-game series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks in Sydney will have a "massive impact" on the sport Down Under.
Certainly there's plenty of room for growth.
Baseball is not among the top 10 or 15 participation sports in Australia, well behind Australian Rules Football, rugby league, rugby union and cricket. Add to that list, among others, tennis, golf, basketball, the women's sport of netball and, according to government figures, recreational skiing.
Deeble manages the "Southern Thunder" Australian all-star team that will face the Dodgers on Thursday and the Diamondbacks the following day ahead of regular-season games on March 22-23 at the Sydney Cricket Ground. He says having "the best in the world" in Australia will translate into much-needed exposure.
"It will help the Australian Baseball League, kids who play the game, and that will convert hopefully into registrations," Deeble, who is a Pacific Rim scout for the Red Sox, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "It's also an opportunity for the players to see where they are really at, and something to ascribe to."
The Dodgers and Diamondbacks arrive in Sydney on separate charters Tuesday. They'll hold workouts at the cricket ground over the following two days before the pair of exhibition games against Team Australia. The opening series figures to feature Clayton Kershaw's fourth consecutive opening-day start for the Dodgers next Saturday, with Patrick Corbin on the mound for Arizona. The Dodgers' Hyun-Jin Ryu is slated to start the second game against Trevor Cahill.
The series marks the first regular-season games in Australia. Previous MLB season openers were held in Monterrey, Mexico (1999), San Juan, Puerto Rico (2001) and Tokyo (2000, '04, '08 and '12).
And while baseball may be not have the interest or participation level of other sports in Australia, it has longevity. Next weekend's games will mark the 100th anniversary of an exhibition game played by the Chicago White Sox and the New York Giants at the Sydney Cricket Ground, won 5-4 by the White Sox before 10,000 fans on Jan. 3, 1914.
Ben Foster, general manager of the six-team Australian Baseball League that has MLB financial backing, said he noticed a number of positive spinoffs after the series was announced in June.
"We saw an immediate increase in traffic on websites, interest in our players, and that translated into a 20 percent increase in our attendance in the 2013-14 season," Foster said from Arizona, where he was concluding an eight-day spring training visit to all 30 MLB teams.
Foster said the league's fourth season saw average attendance increase to 1,400 — "remember, we are going forward from nothing four years ago" — but more importantly is seeing more interest in the ABL from major league teams.
"Our first season, we had four or five clubs send players over," Foster said of the overseas contingent in the ABL. "This past season it was 13 clubs sending 34 players. So it's getting better every year."
The old ABL folded in 1999 amid mounting debt and was purchased by former Milwaukee Brewers catcher David Nilsson, an Australian. The competition created in the wake of the ABL, the International Baseball League of Australia, folded in 2002.
Brett Pickett, the chief executive of Baseball Australia, is taking a pragmatic approach to what the series might provide.
"There's no question it's going to be huge, but I'm not suggesting for one minute that the series will help us overtake the AFL (Australian Football League) or National Rugby League," Pickett said. "These two games will not be a panacea for all things baseball. But it will provide a level of exposure for the sport we have never been able to achieve previously. If nothing else, it will put the sport into the minds of some of the sporting public, who, sadly, don't even know we play baseball in this country."
Pickett says there are about 60 Australian players under contract this season with major league organizations, and that there's a good chance four or five of them might be in the majors when the season starts — Grant Balfour (Tampa Bay), Peter Moylan (Houston) and Ryan Rowland-Smith (Diamondbacks) among them.
Rowland-Smith is on the Team Australia roster, meaning the left-hander could pitch against the Dodgers in the Thursday night exhibition game, then appear against the Australians on the Friday night when he'll be on the Diamondbacks roster for the second preseason game.
Pickett defends the cost of ticket prices for the two regular-season games between the Dodgers and Diamondbacks — they start at 499 Australian dollars ($450) for platinum seats and scale down to A$69 ($62) for seats in the outfield grandstand.
"The promoters have had to fly out two baseball teams on chartered 747s, and build a baseball stadium to major league standards at the SCG," Pickett said.
The SCG field will have an 8-foot-high outfield fence and it'll be 328 feet down the foul lines and 400 to straightaway center field.
More than 35,000 square feet of turf will be temporarily removed to construct the clay infield, base paths and warning track. And it wasn't just any dirt — the soil-clay mixture used for the infield and pitcher's mound was imported in 14 shipping containers from the U.S. West Coast. The new expanded replay system for umpires won't be used.
Pickett said with less than two weeks to go, there were only about 1,000 tickets left for the Saturday night game in the 38,500-seat stadium, and even fewer available for Sunday afternoon. The platinum and second-best gold seats were the first to sell out.
"With the corporate marquee areas, they'll be more than 40,000 in the stadium for each game," Pickett said.
And based on comments from the U.S.-based caterer hired to provide food for fans and the players, they'll all enjoy traditional baseball fare.
On the menu will be 2-foot-long hotdogs, nachos served in plastic Dodgers and Diamondbacks helmets and something at least one Australian newspaper had to explain to its readers — "caramel-coated popcorn and peanuts."
Cracker Jack, not usually available in Australia, will be sold.