America's pastime goes walkabout

 Clayton Kershaw

Opening Day, that blissful harbinger of spring and optimism and the renewal of America's mythical pastoral pastime, will take place Saturday morning at an ungodly hour -- either too early or too late, depending on your level of hipness -- on the complete other side of the world.

Dodgers vs. Diamondbacks, in a famous and historic cricket stadium, for the opener of a two-game series that's so weird it takes place on different days in Sydney, Australia, but on the same day in this country, like a pre-dawn/late-night twi-night doubleheader (4 a.m./10 p.m. ET). Separate admission, of course.

The teams will return to Arizona after the weekend, play some more Cactus League games -- highly spirited, to be sure -- and then pretend their season starts all over again with everybody else. Makes perfect sense.

There is a reason for this, one obvious reason for this: money. It's yet another blatant commercial intrusion into sports, like the First Four and the NFL's annual London junket. Major League Baseball wants to promote the game internationally, to sell more jerseys and caps and trinkets in places that don't normally have access to Dodger-themed key chains.

Fine. Ambassador the hell out of the game. Sell Clayton Kershaw and Paul Goldschmidt to every 10-year-old from Brisbane to Perth. Send Kirk Gibson and Kevin Towers into the schools to teach the art of crafty but vicious retaliation. Convince Dante Exum to ditch basketball and take up shortstop.

You could, if you're cynical, make a convincing case that baseball should focus its ambassador efforts domestically -- maybe in some of the inner cities the game has ignored and subsequently lost over the past 30 years -- but there's a big market and a lot of unclaimed dollars out there in places where nobody knows which end of the bat to hold. There's more good PR to be found in Australia than east Oakland or southeast Houston, and there are probably fewer bad hops in the infield, too.

So go. Go to Australia and India and wherever else the gospel needs to be spread. And go during spring training, and go with six or eight teams, two apiece to each continent if you must, and go with the idea of making sure these untapped countries see our best and brightest in their full spring plumage.

Just do one thing for us, please: Don't make the games count in the standings.

Is that too much to ask?

Would anyone in Australia care, or even notice, if the two games in Sydney counted toward the Cactus League standings and not the Western Division standings? No offense, but they really don't know what they're watching. Presumably, that's a big part of the charm. The accents, the photos of Vin Scully with a koala and Kershaw with a kangaroo and Goldschmidt with a wallaby -- it's all part of the contrived wackiness of baseball's trip Down Under. Hey, look, everybody, it's 1964 again and baseball can do what baseball does best: Pretend the world hasn't changed in 50 years.

From a baseball standpoint, it's hard to argue with Zack Greinke. "I can't think of one reason to be excited for it," he said at the beginning of spring training. His comments nearly set off an international incident, with Australian officials asking MLB officials to explain why their country was belittled by a guy who throws a ball for a living and gets paid too much to do it.

The Dodgers got a little upset over Greinke's comments, enough so that team president Stan Kasten stepped in to inform everyone that he's having trouble finding enough hotel rooms for the families and employees who want to make the trip. But the problem isn't with the trip, or the destination, or even the timing. The problem is with the importance of it, the folly of making baseball's Opening Day into a sideshow on the other side of the world.

According to ESPN's Mark Saxon, the Aussies are having fun painting the Dodgers as the villainous 1 percent and the Diamondbacks as the homespun -- and, presumably, highly gritty -- underdogs. A story in the Sydney Morning Herald suggested the Dodgers spend their offseason flying around in private jets, popping into a few private resorts, while the Diamondbacks "spend time catching up with family and enjoying sports on television." Clearly, if the Aussies knew their stuff they would know the Diamondbacks spend a good portion of their offseason practicing sliding headlong into first base and firing fastballs into the ribs of dummies set up in the batter's box in makeshift diamonds of East Texas ranches.

But this whole episode raises one of the enduring mysteries of sport: Why does Major League Baseball believe it's fine to mess with the regular season by creating bastardized "real" games? A good number of the already-committed fans treat Opening Day like a national holiday, so much so that some of them started a petition this year to make it official. The problem is, how many Opening Days need to be recognized? How many days off do we get? There's the Sunday night opener, the Monday afternoon opener, the Tuesday opener -- and, oh yeah, we almost forgot the Dodgers and Diamondbacks in Australia.

Sounds good. If Opening Day -- that ever-moving, ever-expanding day(s) of rest and rumination -- is a national holiday, it looks as though everybody is off through the first week of April. By today's conversion rate, though, the Aussies get to miss one shift, 1½ tops. Given their importance in the overall scheme of things, that hardly seems fair.

Join the Discussion
You are using an outdated version of Internet Explorer. Please click here to upgrade your browser in order to comment.
blog comments powered by Disqus
 
You Might Also Like...