SYDNEY – The object of the game’s latest international obsession appeared on the right side of the lumbering two-story Qantas aircraft, some 14 hours after a bobcat mascot and his new pal, a misshapen kangaroo character wearing a red Qantas half-shirt (midriff exposed) and boozy eyeholes, had waved it off.
Maybe “obsession” is too strong. Curiosity maybe. Is there money to be made here? Athletes to farm? Relationships to nurture? Would anybody here care that Clayton Kershaw is the best in the world at this sort of thing? That Yasiel Puig is likely to do anything … twice? That Paul Goldschmidt is so good, so sound, so ridiculously decent as to be overlooked, which is why he is becoming a superstar?
Depending on the source, baseball rates here somewhere after cricket, rugby and Aussie rules football, and somewhere before, maybe, recreational darts, depending on the stakes. Baseball being baseball, God bless its romantic soul, it will leap oceans to deliver its message, which is, in a nutshell, I’m not as plodding and complicated as you think I am.
With that, the Arizona Diamondbacks and a traveling party that filled five buses departed from Phoenix on Sunday night and crept into Sydney on Tuesday morning. They’d missed wholly St. Patrick’s Day, which went pffft at the international dateline, though in the course of a long night the occasional green beer did totter through the economy cabin. (In a bitter coincidence, the Diamondbacks also lost their best pitcher – a man by the name of Patrick Corbin – to an elbow injury as it approached the same spot. Also, St. Patrick was fabled to have rid Ireland of snakes, and now the day named for him was rid of Diamondbacks. Conspiracies abound.)
There is perhaps no better time to come upon an unfamiliar city than at dawn, and from above, with orange rising in a distant sky. It also occurs to a weary passenger that after a half-day’s journey with no land in sight, the pilot might be excused for musing to himself, “Found it again. Cool.”
Down there somewhere, on a converted cricket ground, the Diamondbacks would begin their season. The Los Angeles Dodgers were a few hours behind, seemingly dragging their feet. This has always felt like an adventure for the Diamondbacks and a burden to the Dodgers. So, in the winged Qantas apartment complex, a light cheer went up when the first officer announced touch down in Sydney, and then some murmuring when he added context, that it was “Tuesday the 18th … of March,” because at that point there was no telling.
Led by the owner and the president and the general manager, accessorized by wives and significant others, the Diamondbacks went by bus to their hotel, then by bus for a tour of the city, then by bus to the Sydney Cricket Ground, where they’d hold a light workout, because the ruin of the time and distance traveler is the siren call of the nap. (They talk of naps here like they do crack in the States; one whiff and before long you’re on a park bench eyeing pigeons for lunch.)
That and the realization one’s cell phone has no idea where it is and, furthermore, wants nothing to do with wherever it is, and in that way totally gets where the Dodgers are coming from.
Anyway, the folks at Major League Baseball took a look at this delightful city on the southeast coast of Australia, its nearly five million inhabitants, and figured there must be baseball fans there. And beyond. About a year and a half ago, the league approached the ever-peppy Diamondbacks, who eagerly agreed to the roadie. The Dodgers went along. For a few hours over one weekend baseball will take its shot here, in a country that has produced 27 major-league players in the past century. We’re talking Grant Balfour and Graeme Lloyd and Peter Moylan and Craig Shipley, who is assistant to Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers, and Ryan Rowland-Smith, a non-roster invitee in Diamondbacks camp.
The iconic Sydney Cricket Ground, for the uninitiated, was raised in the mid-19th Century. Today, it’s half Churchill Downs, a quarter Veterans Stadium, a quarter ESPN signage, and all national treasure. They moved thousands of tons of earth and sod, shipped from San Diego more than 200 tons of special clay for the basepaths and mound, and on Saturday they’ll play the first regular-season major-league game on Australian soil – 400 to dead center and 328 down the lines.
Sydney-born Rowland-Smith came here as a boy, sat in these seats, and watched the national games. They were wonderful enough.
“But,” he said, “I wanted to do something different.”
He acquired a tape of the 1993 World Series, Toronto Blue Jays over the Philadelphia Phillies in six, which he watched until he’d memorized the lineups and the outcomes, discovering baseball that way. It was the only way.
“I was infatuated,” he said.
By Sunday night he was on a flight home for a real baseball game. He’d wear a big-league uniform on this field, maybe even stand on a mound that few ever would have imagined would be there, and he’d be joined by tens of thousands of his countrymen.
Maybe some will be obsessed. Baseball hopes curious, at the very least.
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