Weekly Hit Ground Ball: Off to Aus

Major League Baseball’s efforts to increase the popularity of the sport worldwide will take another significant step forward in March 2014.

It was announced last week that the Arizona Diamondbacks and Los Angeles Dodgers will play two regular season games in Australia at the Sydney Cricket Ground.

MLB has staged season-openers in Japan, Mexico and Puerto Rico in recent years but the trip to Australia will be the first time that they have ventured into a country where baseball isn’t already a major sport.

It could be considered to be the start of the second phase of MLB’s globalization and is a great boost for baseball fans around the world, hopefully setting the stage for MLB games to be played in Europe in the near future.

Australia is a natural fit to be the latest country to welcome Big League baseball to its shores.

MLB has backed the resurrection of the Australian Baseball League since 2009 and taking two Major League games to Sydney should have the effect of not only promoting MLB, but also the ABL. That gives MLB the chance to do more than just build a bit of interest and good will with the visit by having a competition and some infrastructure in place to capitalise on the sport’s exposure.

Twenty-eight Aussies have made it to the Major Leagues so far including current Oakland A’s closer Grant Balfour, who is one of seven Sydney-born players to make it all the way to The Show. With a further 60 players currently under contract with MLB organizations, there’s a healthy crop of Aussies plying their trade in North America and you can be sure that MLB will use this as a way to drum up interest in the games and to encourage even more youngsters to take up the sport.

Here’s hoping that two more demoralizing Ashes series defeats between now and next March will also help to make the next Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist, Shane Warne and Glen McGrath decide to take up a different bat-and-ball game too. The Fifth Test in the Ashes series in Australia will be played at the Sydney Cricket Ground in early January 2014 and that should be a great launching pad from which to sell the MLB experience, focusing on how the iconic cricketing venue will be transformed into a ballpark in just a couple of months’ time.

Just a few weeks ago, I considered the potential of MLB coming to the U.K. as part of Manchester City’s tie-up with the New York Yankees. My mocked-up picture of the Etihad Stadium with a diamond at one corner suggested one – probably imperfect – way of putting baseball into a sporting venue here, but a cricket ground arguably offers a more suitable playing field on which to build a temporary Field of Dreams.

The Oval in London would be the most obvious choice of venue and it has hosted baseball before. Back in 1993, 5,190 spectators went to the Oval to watch a game played by minor leaguers from the New York Mets and Boston Red Sox. In his book ‘British Baseball and the West Ham Club’, Josh Chetwynd notes that the game created some enthusiasm, quoting reporter Richard Weeks’ view that “but for the gasholders and the spires of Parliament, the 5,190 gathered here yesterday might have thought they had parachuted into downtown Cincinnati or St. Louis”.

More recently, Somerset County Cricket Club transformed their County Ground into a ballfield to stage a game in October 2008 between Great Britain and Marcus Trescothick’s ‘Bangers’ as part of the former England international’s testimonial festivities.

If MLB can create good quality playing conditions in Sydney then that would show something similar could be created at the Oval. Unfortunately the problem would still remain that MLB would ideally want to bring games over in the second half of March, so that the two teams can travel back to the States in time with no ill effects before the full regular season begins at the start of April.

Holiday-weather.com introduces its summary of March in Sydney as follows:

“March is the beginning of Autumn in Sydney and the lovely weather means it is one of the best times of year to visit the city.

Many tourists find the weather in Autumn in Sydney is the most pleasant and therefore choose this time of year to come to the city”.

As for London:

“March sees temperatures in London become slightly more mild than previous months, but it can still be fairly wet and chilly.

Daytime temperatures now reach a high of 10°C (50°F) but can fall to around 3°C (37°F) in the evenings. There are five hours of sunshine each day.

You are likely to experience rain during your stay, with the average this month being 15 days’ worth. So warm clothing would be essential, with hats, gloves and scarves, as well as a waterproof jacket and an umbrella.”

Perhaps it’s no surprise that Australia is the more enticing target for MLB, then.

It must have been slightly embarrassing for MLB that just a couple of days before the official ‘Aussie Opener’ announcement, the two teams picked to be ambassadors for the sport had an almighty bust-up with beanings and two bench-clearing brawls. If MLB Commissioner Bud Selig was worried about any negative publicity, he need not have been.

At least one former England cricketer would likely suggest the aggro would actually be a selling point to the Aussies. And a current England cricketer would no doubt agree.

Whether the benches clear or the two teams are on their best behaviour, the sports-mad Aussies are sure to make it a great event and that can only be good news for the growth of the game.

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