Major League Baseball takes a swing at Australia

Alessandro Del Piero, left, and Sonny Bill Williams, right, with Paul Goldschmidt and Clayton Kershaw. Picture: PA
Alessandro Del Piero, left, and Sonny Bill Williams, right, with Paul Goldschmidt and Clayton Kershaw. Picture: PA
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While your average Australian may be surprised to hear that the Arizona Diamondbacks and Los Angeles Dodgers are kicking off the 2014 Major League Baseball season in Sydney, history shows that they really should be anything but.

Although Australia is sports mad, baseball these days exists almost exclusively as source material for teasing any visiting American foolish enough to mention sports in a pub.

But America’s national pastime has actually been drawing impressive crowds Down Under for more than 150 years.

“A correspondent requests us to call attention to the practice of a number of boys and young men who congregate in Mr Wilkinson’s paddock. . . on Sunday afternoons, for playing at cricket, base-ball, making a great noise, and offending the eyes and ears of persons of moral and religious feeling,” Hobart’s Colonial Times newspaper wrote on 22 September, 1855.

The historic Sydney Cricket Ground, where the D-Backs and Dodgers will launch their seasons with back-to-back games tomorrow and Sunday, is itself home to more than 100 years of baseball lore.

It was at the hallowed ground that sporting goods tycoon Arthur Spalding kicked off his barnstorming 1888 Australian Tour with a game between his Chicago White Stockings and the All America’s, an All-Star team slapped together for the tour. The players were met triumphantly in Sydney Harbour by a flotilla swaddled in red, white and blue and more than 5,000 spectators turned to watch them play in Sydney, which was a pretty good turnout by 19th-century standards.

Baseball historians believe that the sport evolved from one of two British antecedents – either cricket or rounders – and Spalding may have picked Australia in the hope that lightning would strike twice, says Rick Burton, the David B Falk Professor of Sport Management at New York State’s Syracuse University.

“If it could be done in the United States from England, it could be done in Australia,” he explained.

That idea from long ago seems very similar to the one which persuaded Major League baseball to hold its season opener 7,500 miles away from Dodgers Stadium in Los Angeles.

With basketball and American football having benefitted hugely from overseas games of their own, baseball wants to use the Australia trip to continue to build on its successes in the Japanese and Latin American markets.

“Baseball has been played in Australia for 100 years so there is an appetite for this sport. Growing a base in this sporting landscape is not easy,” said Craig Shipley, an Australian-born journeyman infielder and now assistant to the D-Back’s general manager.

“But there is a place for baseball, it’s been here a long time and I think we can begin to make inroads and this series will be a great focal point to drive that participation.”

Baseball first arrived in Australia in the 1850s, when young American miners chasing a quick fortune in the gold fields of Ballarat – a gold rush town outside of Melbourne – would play pick up games to feel a bit closer to home.

By the late 1870s, Australians were staging their own competitive games, and 28 Australians have gone on to play professionally, according to the league’s official historian, John Thorn.

So this is not the first time Major League executives have tried to crack the Australian market. They will, however, be hoping to fare better this time.

When he departed, Spalding left behind in Australia a young aide called Harry Simpson, ordered to build on the goodwill garnered by the 1888 tour. Simpson, though, died of Typhus in 1891 after establishing the New South Wales Baseball League.