Sports

Wake me up for the ballgame: MLB’s Aussie opening day shuts US fans out

Baseball’s effort to go global, make money means season starts in the middle of the night for fans back home

Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith and a beer company are driving a petition toward the White House to make opening day a national holiday.

It might be a fine idea for fans of Major League Baseball, as long as they can find opening day.

The first pitch is not in the United States this season. The first game is not even going to be played in the Northern Hemisphere, or in front of a crowd full of seasoned fans who are worried about their team’s pitching rotation and have been anticipating the start of the 2014 season since October.

If you are a baseball fan and wish to see the first pitch of the season, either drink a lot of coffee or set your alarm clock.

The 2014 Major League Baseball season starts in Sydney, making for the king of all road trips. The Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks flew 15 hours west, across the International Date Line, to start the season Saturday on a circular cricket field transformed into a baseball diamond.

On the calendar in the U.S., the teams will play two games on Saturday: the first at 4 a.m. ET/1 a.m. PT, the second at 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT. It's the ultimate day-night doubleheader.

And if that isn't zany enough: The Dodgers and Diamondbacks will fly back home and resume spring training with exhibition games, not the regular season. On top of that, ESPN is promoting the Dodgers vs. San Diego Padres game on March 30 as opening day, despite the fact that the Dodgers will have opened their season already.

Traditionalists might wonder if this is this any way to start the season — their fears exacerbated by the fact that this is the season in which instant replay will be introduced to bail out umpires on close calls.

So, why bring the game Down Under? This is not a test run for Major League Baseball to put a team in Australia and take a step into making the World Series truly a world series. It is a goodwill tour, exposure for Major League Baseball, a chance to sell jerseys, caps and baseball cards, or perhaps sell subscriptions to MLB TV for games shown online. It is a brand-building trip.

“The globalization of our game continues to be paramount to Major League Baseball, and Australia is an essential part of our long-term efforts to grow the sport,” MLB commissioner Bud Selig said in a press release. “We look forward to writing an exciting new chapter in international baseball history at the historic Sydney Cricket Ground next March.”

Different perspectives

The historic SCG has been transformed into a sparkling, emerald-green baseball field. The crowds for the two games are expected to be approximately 47,000, which is near capacity. The Sydney Telegraph called it a “curtain raiser,” not opening day.

The Dodgers and Diamondbacks will sightsee and build baseball’s brand in a gorgeous city that cherishes sporting events.

Meanwhile, many Dodgers fans are outraged, filling message boards with grief over how the start in Australia might affect the first month of the season and carry over through the summer. They are also angry because opening day is sacred to U.S. fans, the lighting of the fuse for a 162-game journey. The only salve is that the Diamondbacks, now a bitter rival because of a bench-clearing melee last June, also have to make the trip.

But beyond the smiles and pleasantries, the Dodgers appear to be scornful of the journey.

Pitcher Zach Greinke — who wound up not making the trip due to a calf injury — fired a shot heard halfway round the world when he said last month there was “zero excitement” for baseball’s plunge Down Under. The club, according to MLB.com and other media, brought in a lighting expert to help the Dodgers deal with the jet lag brought on by the trip, a 15-hour excursion to Sydney and the trip back to L.A.

Manager Don Mattingly said he has concerns about starting and stopping the season. The Dodgers return to the U.S. and will play three exhibition games against the Los Angeles Angels before their second opening day at San Diego.  

“The bell rings, those two games count, then you come back and say, ‘Don’t matter,’” Mattingly said. “I worry about bad habits.”

For his part, Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson is saying all the right things, having remarked that he and his team are looking at the trip as “a positive.”

Global push

Major League Baseball had previously opened the season six times outside the U.S.: in Monterrey, Mexico (1999); Tokyo (2000, 2004, 2008, 2012); and San Juan, Puerto Rico (2001). A strong New York Yankees team returned from a two-game trip to Japan to play the then-Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 2004 and went 7–10, but regrouped to win the American League East. The 2000 New York Mets went to Japan to start the season and ended up in the World Series.

While the Dodgers and Diamondbacks are not going to overthrow cricket and rugby in the week they are in Sydney, the near circling of the globe will be a moneymaker for the Aussies. The Sydney Telegraph said the games will mean $13 million to the local economy in New South Wales.

Australians are not totally unfamiliar with the game. In the 2004 Summer Olympics, Australia won a silver medal, and there are a handful of Australians considered "active" in the majors — with about four having a real shot at making their teams' opening day rosters. One of them is Diamondbacks relief pitcher Ryan Rowland-Smith, who this week will suit up for Team Australia in a pair of exhibition games against his own Diamondbacks and the Dodgers, before donning his Diamondbacks uniform for the opening series. 

“It’s not a major sport,” Craig Shipley, an Australian who had a 13-year journeyman major league career and now works in the Diamondbacks’ front office, told ESPN LA. “There is tremendous competition in Australia for the attention of sports fans. It’s one of the countries in the world where you have more competition for athletes and media attention than virtually any other. You have cricket, Australian-rules football, rugby, rugby union, field hockey, tennis, swimming. There are lots of sports in Australia, and most kids play some type of sport.”

Shipley then said something that might raise the collective pulse of baseball fans in the U.S., particularly those in L.A. and Arizona as they either fight off sleep or opt to simply miss opening day.

“Baseball just doesn’t have the profile other sports have,” he said of its following in Australia. “It doesn’t have the participation base.”

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