By Nick Mulvenney
SYDNEY (Reuters) – There can be little doubt Major League Baseball (MLB) hit a home run with its first visit to Australia in a century after nearly 80,000 fans swarmed to the Sydney Cricket Ground over the weekend to get a taste of America’s pastime.
As the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks started the long journey back to the United States, though, there was little certainty about what had been left behind beyond the detritus of thousands of hot dogs and nachos.
Memories certainly for those lucky enough to be able to afford tickets – Australia’s reputation as a sports-mad country is not exaggerated and the chance to see some of the finest athletes in the world up close was never going to be passed up.
How much impact it will have on the popularity of baseball in the long-term, however, remains a moot point.
The previous six overseas opening series were played in Mexico, Puerto Rico and Japan, countries already boasting well-established baseball cultures.
While Australia’s connection with the sport goes back to the tour that sporting goods mogul Albert Spalding organized in 1888, the local MLB-owned league is very much a minor player in the country’s fiercely competitive sports market.
So much so, in fact, that for the week the Sydney Cricket Ground was magnificently transformed into a ballpark, it was the only baseball stadium in Australia’s biggest city.
“I hope that it leaves a legacy and part of that legacy is a growth in participation,” said Craig Shipley, an Australian-born former major league player now on the Diamondbacks staff.
“I hope that the growth in participation leads to a better playing pool and we have a great need for a baseball-specific facility.
“Not a 50,000-seater stadium, a boutique stadium, that the people of Australia can go to and see how baseball is best viewed.
“If those two things can come out of this, that would be great.”
While the series may have provided inspiration for some Australian youngsters to eschew the cricket bat or rugby ball and pick up a baseball glove as Shipley did, a ballpark may be longer in coming.
Major League Baseball’s commissioner Allan “Bud” Selig responded with few specifics when asked what the league was going to do to leverage the interest stoked by the series.
“We own the league here, we’ve done a lot of things,” he said. “We’ve got to work hard with the people here … we really need to continue to work really hard to build baseball up.
“We’ve spent a lot of money, are happy to do that and will continue to do that.”
The 79-year-old went on to suggest that while Australia would not have to wait 100 years for another visit, Europe was the most likely destination for the next overseas series.
“I want to play some regular-season games in Europe,” he said.
“But we’re going to examine all possibilities. The nice part of all of this is we’re now getting overtures, really good ones, from all over the world.”
Australia’s overtures cost the state of New South Wales a reported A$13 million ($11.82 million) and in return Sydney received a sporting contest of genuine international stature.
The pitching of Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw and the raw physicality of muscle-bound sluggers pounding balls into the bleachers wowed the crowds, although there was some amusement for the players at the vocal enthusiasm for foul balls.
The LA Dodgers returned across the Pacific Ocean with a 2-0 start to the season on the back of rock solid performances from starting pitchers Kershaw and South Korean Ryu Hyun-jin.
The big budget that manager Don Mattingly has been handed to end 26 years without a trip to the World Series means expectations are high this year, however, and he was frustrated that the D-Backs got back into game two before succumbing 7-5.
Arizona manager Kirk Gibson’s week started badly with the loss of ace pitcher Patrick Corbin to an elbow injury that is likely to rule him out for the season.
The long journey to Australia and two defeats were unlikely to sooth the temper of a sometimes irascible character but he still spoke warmly of the time spent Down Under.
“This event was outstanding, really cool,” Gibson said.
“The crowds were great. The preparation from the city of Sydney was outstanding. They treated us well.
“There were a lot of Diamondback fans here. It’s just too bad we couldn’t win a game for them.
“They were very vocal about it, they were very excited to be here, they were into it as much as we were into it.” ($1 = 1.1002 Australian Dollars)
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)