Some might say the SCG has been desecrated. Sydney’s temple to cricket is currently being transformed into a symbol of blatant Americana: the baseball diamond. Replete with a dugout and a mound of clay – shipped all the way from San Diego – the SCG will this week become a genuine field of dreams.
And, like Costner, the Australian Baseball League is pinning their hopes on the maxim that if you build it, they will come. In an attempt to lure fairweather fans to the United States’ national game, the SCG has secured the opening match for this year’s Major League Baseball season, pitting the LA Dodgers against the Arizona Diamondbacks right here in Sydney.
It has also secured a visit from the man paid more than anyone else in the world to throw a ball: Clayton Kershaw, who recently signed a $238 million deal as the LA Dodgers’ opening pitcher. And, in a show of national pride, the Australian baseball team will challenge the Dodgers and the Diamondbacks with the intention of beating the Yanks at their own game.
The move is designed to pique Australians’ interest in baseball, which has recently been on the wane. Suffice to say, baseball is still hugely popular in America. Originating sometime in the early 19th century, the game grew out of informal ‘rounders’ tournaments. Part of baseball’s appeal has been its unusually democratic membership compared to, say, basketball and football – there are little to no constraints on height or weight, and each position has its unique merits and requirements.
But although baseball has been played in this country since 1856 (in fact, the upcoming game commemorates 100 years since the Chicago White Sox beat the San Francisco Giants in a match at the SCG), the game has never quite hit home with Australians. This is despite that over the last 20 years, some top-notch Aussie baseballers have been playing with some of the best teams in the States.
Mitch Dening, a Central Coast-born batter for the Boston Red Sox, believes that in recent years, baseball has gone backwards. “I think it has been dying over the last five to 10 years,” he says. “There’s definitely been less people coming to tryouts, and less people attending games.”
Brad Thomas – an accomplished, left-handed pitcher – believes baseball fans would come out of the woodwork if only they could get to a game. Thomas, who has played in Major League Baseball, Nippon Professional Baseball, in the Korean Baseball Organisation, and in Taiwan’s Chinese Professional Baseball League, recalls that when his home team, the Sydney Blues, played in Parramatta, it was commonplace to see crowds of well over 10,000. But, when the game moved out west, the fans didn’t follow. “A big part of that has to do with it being out at Rooty Hill,” he says. “If we had ANZ stadium in Homebush, [which was actually known as the Sydney Baseball Stadium during the 2000 Olympics and hosted the Sydney Storm in the Australian Baseball League for the 1998 and 1999 championship], you could get people to the games, and that’s what it’s all about.”
There’s real hope that importing such a high-profile event will go some way to resurrecting the game locally. While many Australians might snub the game, financially, baseball’s no small fish. According to Forbes, the league will generate more than $8 billion over the course of this year. The Australian Baseball League, which is 75 per cent owned by the American MLB, sees the potential for significant growth here in Australia. The organisation is currently pushing an eight-team league and sinking serious coin into developing young players. And, there’s the enormous marketing push of the Diamondbacks versus the Dodgers game. “There’s not one bad thing that can come from this game,” says Dening. “Maybe fans can start coming out to our other games, and signing their kids up. We need to start growing the sport again. We won silver at the Athens Olympics, and that was pretty big. But this is pretty much the biggest thing that’s happened inside Australia for baseball.”
Thomas believes that part of the game’s appeal is its highly-refined sense of competition. Players who’re good enough to participate at the professional level are pushed to the extremes of their ability. “The competition of the game is incredible,” says Thomas. “ When you get to the top, everyone is so good at what they do. It’s all about executing your role. You’ve got to be perfect, because those guys are so good, any mistakes – you get punished for.”
Thomas thinks the MBL event will give Sydneysiders that opportunity to see baseball played at the level it really should be: “People will see the game played by the best of the best,” he says.
There’s also the tacit expectation that a strong Australian league will act as a feeder for the American game, giving local players access to stratospheric salaries. Along with Thomas and Dening, another 29 players have already made the move to what’s literally The Big League. “Growing up in Australia, you don’t really know you can make a life out of the game – that you can play the game and earn a living,” says Thomas. “If kids work at it, they can make a living out of doing what these guys do every day of the week.”
Already, talented Aussie baseballers are being picked by scouts at local training camps. Dening, for instance, was picked up at the Major League Baseball Academy in Queensland. “They take the top 50 baseballers in Australia to go away for two months and play games against one another,” Dening explains. “All the American scouts come up there to watch us train, and pick the best ones to go play professionally.”
Publicity stunt or not, both Dening and Thomas are adamant that when game day comes around, the Australian side will be serious competition. “Every time I take the field I expect to win!” laughs Dening. “They’re going to be very hard to beat, they’re going to be very strong. It’ll be a very big upset if we do win. If we lose we lose, but we expect to win.”
The Major League Baseball will play in Sydney from March 22–23, 2014 at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
For more information and for tickets to the games, visit mlbsydney2014.com