For Australia, Dodgers-Diamondbacks is good look at curious sport
SYDNEY -- Here they were in the flesh: The Arizona Diamondbacks and the Los Angeles Dodgers. About $330 million worth of Major League Baseball's finest had come from Up Over to play Opening Day before spring training had closed.
No effort had been spared to make them feel welcome, and it was understood real effort would be required to satisfy those accidental tourists from Los Angeles, whose pre-series moaning had made a 15-hour flight in a luxuriously appointed 747 to a picturesque, worldly city seem like manned space travel to Pluto.
To please these reluctant visitors, we had turned the Sydney Opera House into a Walmart. Or as good as. The sacred green turf of the Sydney Cricket Ground was buried beneath tons of imported dirt and its ancient pavilions were desecrated with red, white and blue bunting until the place looked like a genuine ballpark. In his resting place, cricket legend Donald Bradman -- imagine Babe Ruth, but with some real game -- was spinning harder than anything they would throw from the mound.
No promotional stunt was considered too cheesy to entice locals to splurge up to $500 a ticket to take themselves out to our new ballpark. Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw patted a kangaroo. Some of his teammates ate one. Instagram blew smoke as the competing clubs posted photo after predictable photo of first basemen climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge and relievers eating Vegemite sandwiches. Local politicians tugged forelock, doffed hats and declared they couldn't be more excited to host the, "Ummmm, Diamondbacks is it," if they knew which city they came from.
Yet for all these attempts to indoctrinate and assimilate, when opening day arrived in the middle of the American night and they finally played ball, the star of the show was just that: The ball, not the ballplayers.
Yes, the packed house cheered Kershaw as the rangy left-hander repaid the first installment of his $215 million contract with an eye-catching display of power and guile. Even those cricket fans who are more accustomed to seeing the ball bounce before it reaches a batsman -- never batter -- instead of seeing it duck, curve and disappear in thin air left impressed. Yes, the fans rose when Dodgers slugger Scott Van Slyke cleared the rightfield wall for the first home run, the symbolic moment when a cricket ground became a real ball park.
But to both the astonishment and amusement of the vast traveling troupe of players, coaches, officials and media, what Australia loved most was the ball. More precisely, the foul balls that created the type of frenzy you might normally expect when United Nations food parcels are airdropped into a starving village.
To understand why the desperation of some pot-bellied accountant from Woolloomooloo -- look it up, Russell Crowe has an apartment there -- to catch a foul ball was more rapturously received than the more athletic efforts on the field, you need to know your cricket. In cricket, the same ball is used for at least 80 overs. There are six deliveries -- six pitches in baseball currency -- in each over. That means the red ball is used 480 times before the umpires produce a shiny new one.
And on those rare occasions when the batsman -- never batter -- hits the ball into the crowd? It is tossed back to the fielder and returned to service.
So to a cricket crowd, the very idea of keeping the ball instead of giving it back it is just so indulgent, so wicked, so American. Thus the frenzied pursuit of these rare giveaways, which was not quite what Major League Baseball had in mind when it was convinced by Sydney sports entrepreneur Jason Moore to send opening day south.
MLB had assumed the missionary position. It was taking baseball to a foreign market where a relatively small population was producing a promisingly large supply of players. Baseball wanted Aussies to love this game enough to play it, not just fight over free balls.
But before you convince Australians to love anything, you must first convince them you love them. No first-time visitor gets a step beyond customs here without being asked: "What do you think of Australia?" A negative response is like the proverbial passing of wind at a royal tea party. So when Dodgers gums-for-hire Zack Greinke said during spring training what a lot of his teammates were thinking -- there was "zero interest" in playing in Australia -- his name was mud, even before most Sydneysiders knew how to pronounce it.
This would set the scene for the series. The humble "home team" Diamondbacks bent over backwards to sell the two-game series. The Dodgers wore the black caps due to their barely disguised disgust at having to drag their billion-dollar brand across the globe.
But for all the Dodgers' party-pooping, by the time the planes touched down on the Tuesday morning before the first game, the sense of excitement in Sydney was palpable. Largely because the teams' pay slips preceded them. We might still blame "American excess" for poisoning the world's economic well. Yet the obscene salaries in American sports remain an enduring source of astonishment for Australians.
More local context: Some local sporting heroes posed for a photo with Kershaw and Diamondbacks slugger Paul Goldschmidt. Adam Goodes is a two-time championship winner with the Sydney Swans in the Australian Football League -- "Ossie Rules football" to you -- and has twice been voted the competition's best player. An aboriginal, he was also recently named Australian of the Year for his work in the indigenous community.
Annual salary: $700,000 per season.
Sonny-Bill Williams is a two-sport star who starred with the world-famous New Zealand All Blacks in rugby union before leading the Sydney Roosters to last year's National Rugby League championship.
Annual salary: $1 million per season.
Of those in the picture, only Alessandro Del Pierro, the Italian soccer World Cup hero, has occupied the same financial stratosphere as Kershaw. Yet the relatively meager $2 million contract the 39-year-old accepted to play out his days with local club Sydney FC is considered scandalously large here.
Which is why the figures on the ballplayers' contracts rather than those in the almanacs dazzled the locals. More context: Kershaw's $30 million-plus annual pay packet would consume the entire salary cap of six of the 16 National Rugby League teams.
The Dodgers and Diamondbacks sharpened their claws in a couple of Dingo League games against the Australian national team, comprised of a bunch of semi-pro and part-time players whose combined annual salaries wouldn't cover the bar tab at a World Series after-party. So Australia's 5-0 victory over those ever-obliging visitors, the Diamondbacks -- of course, the villainous Dodgers rallied late to deny the locals in their game -- prompted some local chest-beating.
A more valid source of local wonder was the transformation of the field. Three months earlier, the Sydney Cricket Ground had hosted The Ashes, the fiercely contested cricket series between Australia and England. Think Canada vs. the U.S. in ice hockey, but with Hugh Grant in goal.
The Ashes is a tiny urn containing the burnt bails, the small wooden implements that go on top of the stumps, which are....well, it's complicated. Anyway, The Ashes are not, as the Diamondbacks had been misinformed by Goldschmidt upon his return from a promotional trip to Sydney, the remnants of dead cricketers sprinkled on the turf.
During The Ashes, even with the Sydney Cricket Ground's towering new grandstand almost complete, it was difficult to imagine how baseball would fit. But with the green outfield wall blending perfectly with the ground's vintage pavilions and the red dirt of the running tracks marking the game's turf, the place looked picture perfect.
The games? Kershaw didn't quite conduct a master class on opening night but, with the 3-1 win, convinced Australians he might be worth at least, say, 10 percent of his contract. The Dodgers completed the Sydney Sweep the next day, holding off a late Diamondbacks rally to win 7-5, and making their fears about the trip seem even more absurd.
Australians loved what they saw. They loved their old-is-new ballpark, the outsized baseball circus, the artery-clogging American "food". But more than anything, they loved those foul balls. Can you believe you get to keep them?
Richard Hinds is a sports columnist with the Daily Telegraph newspaper in Sydney.