MLB hopes Sydney series helps gain foothold for baseball in Australia

Dodgers-Diamondbacks series expected to help spark interest in sport among youth down under

In this November 4, 2013, file photo, Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, right, uses a cricket bat to hit a ball at the Sydney Cricket Ground in Sydney, as Australian cricket player Mitchell Starc fields behind. An Australian all-star team will face MLB clubs in exhibition games against the Los Angeles Dodgers) and the Diamondbacks ahead of the regular-season games on March 22 and 23 at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Rick Rycroft / AP Photo
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Jon Deeble has been around Australian baseball for more than 30 years and the former Boston Red Sox coach figures next weekend’s season-opening, two-game series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks in Sydney will have a “massive impact” on the sport down under.

Certainly, there is plenty of room for growth.

Baseball is not among the top 15 participation sports in Australia, well behind Australian Rules Football, rugby league, rugby union and cricket. Add to that list, among others, tennis, golf, basketball, the women's sport of netball and, according to government figures, recreational skiing.

Deeble manages the Australian all-star team that will face the Dodgers on Thursday and the Diamondbacks the following day, before the two Major League Baseball clubs begin their MLB seasons with games at the Sydney Cricket Ground on March 22 and 23.

Having “the best in the world” in Australia will translate into much-needed exposure, Deeble said.

“It will help the Australian Baseball League, kids who play the game, and that will convert hopefully into registrations,” he said.

The Dodgers and Diamondbacks arrive in Sydney on separate charters on Tuesday. They will hold workouts at the cricket ground during the following two days before the exhibition games against Team Australia.

The opening game of the 2014 MLB season, on Saturday, features Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers, the highest-paid pitcher in the game, against Arizona's top pitcher, Patrick Corbin.

The series marks the first regular-season games in Australia. Previous MLB season openers were held in Monterrey, Mexico (1999), San Juan, Puerto Rico (2001) and Tokyo (2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012).

Baseball may not have the interest or participation level of other sports in Australia, but it has longevity. Next weekend’s games will mark the 100th anniversary of an exhibition game played by the Chicago White Sox and the New York Giants at the Sydney Cricket Ground – won 5-4 by the White Sox – before 10,000 fans on January 3, 1914.

Ben Foster, general manager of the six-team Australian Baseball League that has MLB financial backing, said he noticed several positive spin-offs after the series was announced in June.

“We saw an immediate increase in traffic on websites, interest in our players, and that translated into a 20 per cent increase in our attendance in the 2013/14 season,” Foster said.

He said the league’s fourth season saw average attendance increase to 1,400 – “remember, we are going forward from nothing four years ago” – but, more importantly, is seeing more interest in the ABL from MLB teams.

“Our first season, we had four or five clubs send players over,” Foster said of the overseas contingent in the ABL. “This past season, it was 13 clubs sending 34 players. So it’s getting better every year.”

The old ABL folded in 1999 amid mounting debt and was purchased by David Nilsson, an all-star for the Milwaukee Brewers in the 1990s and perhaps the most prominent Australian player in MLB history.

Brett Pickett, the chief executive of Baseball Australia, is taking a pragmatic approach to what the series might provide.

“There’s no question it’s going to be huge, but I’m not suggesting for one minute that the series will help us overtake the AFL or National Rugby League,” Pickett said. “These two games will not be a panacea for all things baseball.

“But it will provide a level of exposure for the sport we have never been able to achieve, previously.

“If nothing else, it will put the sport into the minds of some of the sporting public who, sadly, don’t even know we play baseball in this country.”

Pickett said about 60 Australian players are under contract this season with MLB organisations and said the chances are good that several of them might be in the majors when the season starts, including Grant Balfour (Tampa Bay), Peter Moylan (Houston) and Ryan Rowland-Smith (Diamondbacks).

Pickett defends the cost of ticket prices for the two regular-season games between the Dodgers and Diamondbacks: they start at A$499 (Dh1,492) for platinum seats and scale down to $69 for seats in the outfield grandstand.

“The promoters have had to fly out two baseball teams on chartered 747s and build a baseball stadium to major league standards at the SCG,” Pickett said.

An outfield fence must be constructed and more than 35,000 square feet of turf will be temporarily removed to construct the clay infield, with the red earth imported from the United States in 14 shipping containers.

Pickett said that with less than two weeks to go, about 1,000 tickets remained unsold for the Saturday night game in the 38,500-seat stadium, and even fewer are available for Sunday afternoon. The platinum and gold seats were the first to sell out.

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