The last time the Dodgers went west to start the season was 1958, when they left Brooklyn for Los Angeles, leaving behind millions of broken hearts that haven’t mended to this day.
This year they are again opening up a new frontier for baseball, but at least this time they will be returning to L.A.
On Monday, the Dodgers boarded a plane for their 16-hour flight to Sydney, where they will begin the 2014 Major League Baseball regular season with a pair of games against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
It’s the seventh time since 1999 MLB will open its regular season outside of North America, but the first time in Australia. It’s a part of outgoing commissioner Bud Selig’s master plan to expand MLB’s reach in the Asia-Pacific, after having played regular-season openers in Japan four times in the past decade.
But is baseball’s popularity really reaching new heights in Australia? Ron Flatter, a Fox News Radio national anchor who worked for Radio Sport National in Melbourne, isn’t buying it.
“I can say with confidence that baseball’s rise there is overstated. Very overstated,” Flatter told The Diplomat. “Particularly this week when the media there that hypes first and quantifies later needs to rationalize its devotion of time and space to these two games.
“Someone who was at MLB and very plugged in to what was going on when this trip was concocted told me the main reason for it was MLB is now a partner providing money to the Australian Baseball League. As Mr. Felt (the noted “Deep Throat” of Watergate) said, ‘follow the money.’”
The Dodgers and Diamondbacks are scheduled to play exhibition games against the Australian national team on Thursday and Friday before facing each other in two regular-season games at the Sydney Cricket Ground over the weekend. So far, neither game is sold out at the 48,000-seat stadium.
But others point to Australia’s long (though somewhat tenuous) connection to MLB, starting with Joe Quinn, an Aussie who enjoyed a 17-year career from ’84-’01, as a player or manager for eight different teams. Of course, that was 1884-1901.
The Dodgers and Diamondbacks also won’t be the first MLB teams to set foot on the historic Sydney Cricket Ground (built in 1848). A century ago, the Chicago White Sox defeated the New York Giants in an exhibition game in front of 10,000 spectators, after traveling by steamship from San Francisco. Their month-long journey later included stops in Ceylon, Egypt, Italy, France and England.
Of course, today’s pampered players consider anything more than a few hours’ flight a hardship. In 2011, the planned season-opening series in Taiwan between San Francisco and Arizona was scuttled after the Giants balked at the extended travel schedule. This year, Dodgers pitcher Zack Greinke made the rather undiplomatic admission to ESPN: “I would say there is absolutely zero excitement for (the Australian trip). I can’t think of one reason to be excited for it.”
The Dodgers conveniently left Greinke back in California to recover from an injury, but made sure the traveling players are well taken care of, including receiving an LED light treatment that was used on NASA astronauts to combat the effects of jetlag.
To make the schedule work, both the Dodgers and Diamondbacks had to break camp early in Arizona and spend nearly two weeks playing just two games. After they return from Australia, each team will play a few more exhibition games before the MLB season opens Stateside on March 30.
Whether the MLB project in Australia will deliver in the long haul remains to be seen, but the biggest problem for the sport’s growth Down Under is the lack of role models. Tampa Bay’s Grant Balfour, a relief pitcher best known for his “Balfour Rage,” might be the only Australian to crack an MLB roster when the season opens.
“This is a nice little junket,” Flatter added. “(Australian fans) will pay attention as a sidebar when Balfour is in the playoffs, and that will generate some noise. But that’s about it.
“I am still contracted to do work that is of interest (in Australia), and I’ll just say that the NBA Finals and Super Bowl are on that list. The baseball World Series – and they ask every year why it is so named – is most definitely not on that list.”
At least Brett Pickett, the chief executive of Baseball Australia, is tempering his expectations.
“I’m not suggesting for one minute that the series will help us overtake the AFL (Australian Football League) or National Rugby League,” Pickett told the Associated Press. “These two games will not be a panacea for all things baseball. But 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.”
Samuel Chi is the Editor of RealClearSports and RealClearWorld. His column on world sport appears every Thursday in The Diplomat.