- Jim Caple, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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When Ryan Rowland-Smith was growing up in Sydney, Australia, about the only exposure most Australians had to baseball was "The Simpsons" 1992 episode "Homer at the Bat," in which Mr. Burns hires nine major league ringers to play on the company softball team.
Rowland-Smith made his major league debut 15 years later against Ken Griffey Jr., which he was happy about because Junior was the only active major leaguer at the time his friends back home in Australia could identify. Friends would tell him, "Oh, yeah, he's one of the guys who was on 'The Simpsons!'"
"It's different now," said Rowland-Smith, who is hoping for a big league comeback with the Diamondbacks this season after last pitching in the majors in 2010. "I've got friends who aren't baseball fans, but they've got MLB TV and they can archive games whether I'm playing or not, because the accessibility has made it easier. And the interest is higher -- MLB has pushed the brand out. The familiarity with big league players now is way better than it was 10 or 15 years ago. Before, you would have to watch 'The Simpsons' to figure out the guys to watch."
Baseball hopes to grow its popularity further in Australia this weekend when the Dodgers and Diamondbacks officially open the 2014 season with a two-game series at the Sydney Cricket Ground. (Rowland-Smith is with the D-backs for the games in Australia.) The MLB season has opened several times in Japan, where, like here, the game is the national pastime, but these will be the first major league games ever played in Australia.
There are some people -- Anti-Crocodile Greinke among them -- who don't get why baseball opens in another country. I can understand that feeling. International openers, especially those played on the other side of the date line, disrupt normal routines. They force teams to start the season before their pitchers are at peak strength and force fans to either watch the games when they are normally sleeping or miss their team's opener entirely.
But international series serve a purpose. They grow the game, bringing in more talent while generating more fans and global interest.
"These games are a showpiece, a platform to give baseball a boost," said Paul Archey, MLB's senior vice president for international operations. "It's played in Australia and it's a growing sport. From numbers and talentwise, Australia is arguably one of the fastest-growing baseball countries in the world." Archey said that some 30 Australians have made it to the majors since 1999, with another 70 or 80 in the minors and even more in colleges.
"We've seen the game develop and we hope to give it a boost and a showcase to people who really haven't seen it up close and personal."
Baseball remains a niche sport in Australia compared to cricket, rugby and Australian rules football, but it is a growing niche. Archey worked for MLB International in Sydney during the early '90s and recalls that most Australians weren't even aware the game was played in their country. "If you saw someone here wearing a Yankees cap, you knew they had gone on a trip to the United States," he said. "That's all changed."
Baseball's exposure is much greater thanks to the Internet and gamecasts. Major League Baseball also got the Australian Baseball League going again a couple of years ago, giving Australian players additional career paths. There are baseball academies. And the success of Australians in the majors -- financially as well as statistically -- provides inspiration for younger athletes to try the sport.
"When Grant Balfour signs a two-year, $12 million deal or a three-year deal with Oakland [worth $13 million], that amount of money and that magnitude of the contract, is something they can't comprehend back in Australia. So that's big news," Rowland-Smith said. "Grant is a national figure because of what he's done. Stuff like that, you just didn't hear about 10 years ago."
Likewise, Major League Baseball is also more interested in Australia. "When I signed 13 years ago, there were a handful of teams that were serious about sending scouts over and trying to sign you," Rowland-Smith said. "Now, every team sends someone over there."
MLB has been working to play an opener in Australia for many years -- so many that Archey said someone once joked there would be ice hockey at Dodger Stadium before there was baseball at the Sydney Cricket Ground. That prediction was correct, but just barely. Converting the cricket ground to baseball cost a reported $2 million and provides an interesting mix of nostalgic grandstands and modern stadium. While some tickets remain available, sellouts of 38,000 are expected.
"I'm just really hoping this will be a big thing in Australia and the reviews are good afterward," Rowland-Smith said. "And that the nonbaseball fans pick up on it. That's what I'm hoping for."
Baseball fans here should hope for the same thing. While the opening game times may be inconvenient for fans in Los Angeles and Arizona (1 a.m. on the West Coast), it will be worth it in the long run, when some kid who was inspired by the games at the Sydney Cricket Ground grows up to hit a Kirk Gibson-like home run in the World Series for the Dodgers or hit a Luis Gonzalez-like game-winning single for the Diamondbacks.
It's just too bad baseball couldn't find a way to get Homer and Griffey (with his grotesquely swollen jaw) to play in Sydney as well.
CSI: Box Score
Each week, I provide a fragment from an old box score and challenge you to determine what game it is from and why it's significant. I give this one a difficulty rating of 8.0. Answer below:
Baseball Card of the Week
Two players on this rookie card (1973 Topps No. 615) went on to have excellent careers, not that you would have necessarily guessed it based on Mike Schmidt's first full season that year when he hit .196 with 136 strikeouts (which was A LOT back then).
But Schmidt also hit 18 home runs that season and went on to lead the league each of the next three years (and eight years overall), win three MVP awards, lead the Phillies to their first world title and wind up in the Hall of Fame. Ron Cey was a six-time All-Star with 316 career home runs and 1,139 RBIs in a 17-year career. John Hilton, however, played in parts of only four seasons and hit .213 with six home runs, despite those mean-looking eyeglasses.
Schmidt talked over the weekend about his battle with skin cancer (stage 3 melanoma), telling reporters he felt fantastic after two surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation treatment for the illness. Here's hoping his health continues to improve. As Schmidt proved after his rookie year, this is a man you should never underestimate.
Yeah, Well, That's Like, Just Your Opinion, Man
Plus, They Don't Have To Sit In A Middle Seat. One complaint/worry some have about the Australian openers is the effect that the time change and jet lag might have. This should not be an issue. As an experienced traveler (I once covered a 2000 Olympic event in Sydney, then flew to Anaheim, Calif., and covered a baseball game all in the same day), I've come to learn that jet lag is mostly mental. Baseball feeds into jet lag worries by padding the travel time. Playing these games almost 10 days before the season opens here and giving the players a full week back in the U.S. before resuming the season just reinforces the misconception that the adjustment will be arduous and take time. It's better to play international openers as close as possible to the regular openers. The quicker you have to adjust, the quicker you will. The more time you're given to adjust, the longer it takes. "Absolutely," said Rowland-Smith, who estimates he's made the Sydney-America trip 40 times. "Adjust as quick as you can."
Frankly, I think it's more of an adjustment to the body clock for players to go from waking up for early morning workouts during the six weeks of spring training to immediately playing games at night when the season starts.
And After That, Let's Start A Petition To Make Babe Ruth's Birthday A National Holiday, Too. It might be driven by a beer company promo, but I still appreciate Ozzie Smith's pursuit of getting Opening Day declared a national holiday. (He still needs around 15,000 signatures to generate a White House response.) Opening Day should be a holiday. One, despite the NFL ratings generated by gambling and fantasy football, baseball is America's national pastime. Two, tens of thousands play hooky on Opening Day anyway. Three, and most important, who doesn't want an additional day off work (or another day of time-and-a-half pay)? The question this year is: When exactly is Opening Day? Is it when the Dodgers and Diamondbacks play in Sydney this Saturday (very late Friday night/early Saturday morning back here)? Is it Sunday night, March 30, when the Dodgers and Padres play in San Diego? Is it Monday, March 31, when most other teams open the season? Or is it Tuesday, April 1, when the Astros and Yankees open in Houston? Here's the best compromise. Rather than celebrate a single day, let's have the entire Opening Week turned into a national holiday.
But Ralph Fiennes Still Doesn't Look As Silly As Chet Lemon Did In Those White Sox Shorts. I'm not a big fan of many Wes Anderson's movies. His films too often are a little too precious, as if just creatively posing actors in amusing period costumes and hairstyles is enough to carry a 90-minute story. Hey, Turn Back the Clock days are great, too, with the old uniforms and all, but you still need a real and interesting nine-inning game to hold the fans' interest. I did, however, very much enjoy Anderson's latest offering, "The Grand Budapest Hotel," which actually has a definite and enjoyable plot that takes viewers on an entertaining ride. And yes, the period costuming is also as entertaining as the 1970s and '80s White Sox uniforms.
CSI: Box Score Answer
This was a tough one. The biggest clue was this week's column about Australian baseball. That, plus the name Shipley in what was clearly a lineup of names from the '80s (Garvey, Templeton, Niedenfuer, Welch et al), might have given you all the hints you needed. That's because this box score fragment is from Craig Shipley's debut when he became the first Australian in the modern era to reach the majors (way back on June 26, 1986).
The Diamondbacks and Dodgers face off to open the 2014 season in Sydney, but the real winner will be Australian baseball.