(Transcript from World News Australia)
It’s a game that befuddles the unfamiliar like few can.
..like cricket to anyone outside the Commonwealth.
Like cricket, baseball appears to have grown out of the old British folk games from centuries ago and now has grown into a national pastime.
But it’s a national pastime in the United States and in several other lands, not Australia, where it’s been around a long time but not in a big way.
Now Australian baseball officials are hoping that’s about to change as an international showcase comes to the Sydney Cricket Ground this weekend.
Ron Sutton has the story.
Ben Foster does not pretend two games in Sydney between a pair of high-profile United States baseball teams will suddenly propel the sport into any kind of dominance in Australia.
There is, says the Australian Baseball League boss, simply too much established competition out there on the Australian sporting scene.
“Australia’s one of the most densely populated sporting landscapes in the world. I’ve just come back from the US, and, even speaking to some of my counterparts over there who are involved with the major-league teams, when you tell them that a city like Sydney has some 30-plus professional sporting teams, it just blows their mind. Even a city like New York only has eight.”
Still, Australian baseball is hoping for a major shot in the arm when the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks face off this weekend at, of all places, the Sydney Cricket Ground.
More than 40-thousand people are expected for each of the two games launching the 2014 US major-league season, Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.
Behind the fabled New York Yankees, the Dodgers rank as one of baseball’s and the world’s most visible and valuable franchises, selling for more than two billion dollars last year.
The Dodgers broke baseball’s colour barrier with the first black player, Jackie Robinson, in the 1940s, then signed the first big-time Asian player, Japan’s Hideo Nomo, in the ’90s.
And for decades, they have enjoyed a huge following down through Latin America, the other hotbed of baseball, along with parts of Asia, like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.
The Arizona Diamondbacks are a relatively new team, born in 1998, but they became the champions of US baseball in just their fourth season.
Even before the two teams take the field — indeed, almost immediately after it was announced last year they would do so, says Foster — they have impacted baseball in Australia.
“We saw an immediate spike in our membership levels and our number of fans attending games. And so, what that led to, over the course of our recently completed ’13-’14 season, is a 20 per cent growth in ticket sales and attendance. And that was crucial for us, in our fourth year of operation, to see that continued growth and that step forward.”
Baseball in Australia actually is believed to date back to the 1850s, when US miners transported the game during the Victorian gold rush.
The first competitive series, involving a baseball club and the New South Wales Cricket Association, came in 1875, a year before the first US major-league competition began.
Today, the US major leagues, the US minor leagues and Japan’s Nippon Baseball League rank first, second and third in total attendance out of all sport in the world.
But much of that is because baseball is played daily over six months, and, even with its improved attendance, the Australian league averaged just 14-hundred people a game last season.
Why, then, would US baseball move its season opener 12-thousand kilometres away to Australia, something it has only tried previously in Mexico, Puerto Rico and Japan?
Jon Deeble, manager of Australia’s national team — or head coach, as some sports would call it — sees it as a reflection on the country’s potential for producing players of that level.
“We had 28 kids sign (there) last year, for a total of four-and-a-half million dollars. And two of them are both left-handed pitchers, Daniel McGrath and Lewis Thorpe, they’re both big-time prospects over there. So, you know, because of the same language, because of the same living conditions as there are in America, it’s definitely a hotbed. Even though it’s a long way away, it’s a place where … it’s probably the most over-scouted country in the world. There are a lot of people employed over here to scout the Australian players. And, if we look back, usually 5 per cent of kids signed (to the minor leagues) get to the big leagues, and I think, with the Australian kids, we’re working at about 10 per cent.”
Over the years, more than 350 Australians have signed to play baseball in the United States, including two who became all-stars in the major leagues — Dave Nilsson and Grant Balfour.
Out of that total, 31 have reached the major leagues.
Balfour, who recently signed a new two-year, $12-million contract with the Tampa Bay Rays, is one of three or four Australians expected to start this season in the major leagues.
Around 60 others are playing in the US minor leagues and another hundred or so at US universities.
Jon Deeble, a former coach and now scout with the Boston Red Sox organisation, says Australian players have proved to be good fits for positions that accent power, like pitching.
“Our Australian guys, we’re built to pitch, we’re built to catch, we’re built to play the corners — the corner infield and outfield positions. We’re not really built with the speed to play up the middle (positions) like the Latin American kids. So, you know, pitching, we always say to the kids, ‘There are 15 roster spots on a major-league team, there’s one spot at shortstop, so, 30 teams times 15 pitchers, there are a lot more spots.’ But I think that’s just the nature of the beast:* the Australian kids are big and strong, and they throw the ball hard.”
Actually, about a dozen spots on a team’s 25-man roster go to pitchers, but the point is well-made — all of the Australians on this year’s opening-day rosters may be pitchers.
The interest in developing talent in Australia is strong enough that US baseball helps fund both the Australian Baseball League and a talent academy on Queensland’s Gold Coast.
It is a major investment for a game that barely makes the top 20 as a participation sport in Australia.
At Baseball Australia, chief executive Brett Pickett says the sport is hoping the Los Angeles-Arizona series can produce, above all, an awareness.
“Baseball, up until now, really has struggled for the sort of profile, both commercial, media and general awareness, that hasn’t really allowed us to, I guess, put the sport in the hearts and minds of Australia. And we hope this series is going to be the turning point for the sport, where we can show the hundreds of thousands of kids out there playing sport that baseball’s an option. It’s an option for them on a recreational level, and it’s an option on an elite level.”
A few hundred tickets remained available in the final days before the games, primarily because prices ranged from $69 for the worst seats all the way up to $499 for the best.
Pickett cites a wide array of costs to host the games, most tied to the huge revamp of the Sydney Cricket Ground to meet major-league baseball’s specific requirements.
There was a clay-soil mix required for the infield and pitcher’s mound, for example, not available in Australia and shipped by the tonne from San Diego.
But when all is said and done, Ben Foster, back at the Australian Baseball League, is hoping the collaboration helps hike his league to a new level.
Timed for the US offseason, when many young players have traditionally played in leagues in Venezuela, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, Australia’s league could find a niche.
“I think what we have to offer is something very different in terms of, a) it’s a very real concern for some clubs in terms of safety and security and things of that nature that we have to offer over some of those Latin American countries, and, b) what we have to offer is something in terms of being English-speaking, which is really important for some of the US-based players who maybe don’t have a Spanish (speaking) background.”