Ah, finally! Opening Day for baseball at last! The smell of the fresh-cut grass, the smooth, flawlessly groomed dirt, the piercing white of the bases, the audible “pop” of the player’s gloves as they play catch, the “crack” of the wood bats, the clean new uniforms, the constant chatter of food vendors yelling “LEEEMONADEE, GETTT YAAA LEEEMONAAADEEE HEREEE,” the roar of the crowd; nothing is quite like the experience of a baseball game. Especially when the game is played in Australia.
On March 22, Major League Baseball kicked off the 2014-2015 season in Sydney, Australia with a great matchup between two National League West rivals and possible World Series contenders, the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The teams played two games at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) and then returned to the U.S. to play in regular opening day games the following March. When first hearing the news of the location of the opening game, players reacted extremely favorably to the change of conditions. Aussie-born Dodgers reliever Peter Moylan said of the game, “It’s going to be fantastic. I’ve been trying to preach the game back in Australia for years.” Dodgers’ center fielder Matt Kemp said, “I always wanted to go to Australia. Now I got a real reason to go and I get to play baseball.” Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig raved about the opening series as well, saying, “Australia is an essential part of our long-term efforts to grow the sport. We look forward to writing an exciting new chapter in international baseball history at the historic Sydney Cricket Ground next March.”
Exciting it was. The Dodgers and Diamondbacks squared off to 38,000 cheering Aussies in a duel between Dodgers left-hander and National League Cy Young Winner Clayton Kershaw and Diamondbacks 10-win lefty Wade Miley. Miley kept the game close, going five strong innings while racking up eight strikeouts. But Kershaw proved to be too much for the Diamondbacks, pitching six and two-thirds innings, allowing just one run. In the second game, the Dodgers won 7-5 behind a strong start from Hyun-Jin Ryu. But more meaningful than the games’ outcomes were the effects the series had on fans and players. Australian fans were enthusiastic from start to finish, even cheering foul balls. “It was a great experience,” Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. “I know I come in here with the game on my head, but it’s been a great experience to be able to come here and be able to see the city, to be able to play in this atmosphere.” Australian born Diamondbacks reliever Ryan Rowland-Smith was impressed with the fan reaction to the games as well. “I could just hear people, not talking about how packed the SCG was or how loud it was, but it was more talking about Clayton Kershaw throwing some nasty pitches, or the sound off the bat, or certain plays. Things like that. That’s when I realized they are paying attention and loved what they were seeing.”
This outward expansion of baseball is part of a growing trend of the overall globalization of the sport. Traditionally, all of baseball’s opening day games are played on one Monday here in the U.S. But ever since opening in Monterrey, Mexico in 1999, MLB has begun seasons in Tokyo, Japan in 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012 and San Juan, Puerto Rico in 2001. The World Baseball Classic (WBC), an international baseball tournament similar to soccer’s World Cup, now includes teams from four different continents and 16 different countries. During Team USA’s game versus Mexico at last year’s WBC, Selig shared his dreams for the sport, saying, “The goal is the internationalization of the sport—this is what we’re trying to do. In my judgment, if we do it right, you won’t recognize the sport in a decade.” Selig also envisioned what he called a “true World Series,” where the champion from the MLB in the U.S. would square off against the champion from another country. “Internationalization has a chance to take this sport to heights we can’t imagine today,” Selig said. “The thought of having a real World Series, and the interest in the world, is breathtaking to me. It has economic potential that is huge, but it has sociological potential that is great.”