Australia opens its arms for Dodgers, Diamondbacks

A look from the stands at the Sydney Cricket Grounds.

SYDNEY — “Tonight will be groundbreaking.”

These words didn’t come from a publicist, spin doctor, or promoter. They came from a fan. Jay Hyett and his wife Lauren are from Melbourne, Australia. While spending time in New York in 2009, they witnessed firsthand the joy and excitement of baseball.

“We went to the new Yankee Stadium, right when it opened,” remembered Jay. “It was such a cool thing to be a part of. I loved every second.”

While his friends occupy their time following Australian rules football and rugby, Jay stays up late watching MLB games on the Internet.

“I try to get them into it, they think I’m crazy,” Jay said.

It’s that craziness that spurred him to fly up to Sydney to watch the Dodgers and Diamondbacks do battle.

“Hopefully this (game) will change some minds,” he added.

Many have questioned why Major League Baseball would open its season in Australia. Unlike other international destinations the league has visited, such as Mexico and Japan, there is no established fan base Down Under.

Still, looking around the Sydney Cricket Ground on Saturday night, it was hard to find an empty seat in the house. There were long lines in front of every souvenir booth, with patrons eager to fork over their hard earned money in exchange for a keepsake from the occasion. Aussies proudly wore merchandise that read “LA” and “Arizona,” even though in many cases they have never visited either place.

For all the second-guessing over whether these sports fans would embrace the spectacle of Opening Day, the response went beyond what most could have imagined.

Fans line up to get Dodgers and Diamondbacks gear.

Baseball is one of the true, unequivocally identifiable symbols of American culture.  Though the NFL has overtaken it in terms of domestic popularity, baseball is still America’s pastime in the eyes of the world. Never was this so clear then on Saturday night in Sydney.

The moment wasn’t simply about Australia embracing a game. It wasn’t even about either of the teams on the field. For this evening, Sydney embraced all things American.

A trio of musicians played “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” as fans entered the stadium. Massive ballpark hot dogs sold out long before their Aussie counterpart, meat pies. A look at the crowd saw Australian flags and American flags being waved together with equal pride and gusto.

Each foul ball, each routine grounder, every play that the average US baseball fan takes for granted during the course of a game was cheered and applauded by the capacity crowd.

Lisa proudly showing off her souvenir home run ball.    

The irony, of course, was that the game itself offered little in terms of offensive fireworks. Scott Van Slyke’s two-run homer provided the most excitement.

The ball wound up in the hands of a woman named Lisa, a local girl who proudly supports Australia’s own fledgling professional league, the ABL. Lisa became an instant celebrity for the night, high-fiving and taking pictures with other fans, all while she proudly showed off her souvenir home run ball.

It will be difficult to gauge the full effect of this Opening Day until further down the line. In the immediate, things are simple; the Dodgers are 1-0, the Diamondbacks 0-1.

It’s never easy to introduce a new sport to a foreign audience, especially one that already has its own thriving sports culture within its own shores. Getting people energized for a special event is one thing, maintaining genuine interest over the course of a 162 game season is quite another.

Still, there’s no denying that for one night, Sydney buzzed with an electricity generated by baseball.

Officials hope this can be the first major step towards breaking into a new market for the MLB. Years from now, if that goal becomes a reality, we’ll all be able to look back at this night and agree, it really was groundbreaking.

Corey is an Australian rules football player for the LA Dragons. He is also a music producer, radio producer for Westwood One, and freelance contributor to multiple publications.