Opening Day Down Under: An Aussie-American perspective
The stars seemed too perfectly aligned.
As an Australian raised in America, I adopted the Los Angeles Dodgers at an early age. Baseball became my passion, even after it became obvious I wasn’t good enough to play in the big leagues.
In my adult life I’ve returned to my roots, becoming an active member of the Los Angeles Dragons Australian Rules Football Club. I’ve seen the view from the pitcher’s mound, as well as from the goal square. The two sports are as opposite as the sides of the world they’re played on. Still, like anything in life, it’s all about perspective. Mine is a rather unique one.
Australia is historically a sports crazed culture. As an example, look at the annual AFL grand final that takes place each year in Melbourne. Over 100,000 people will attend the game. In a city with a population around 3 million people, that’s impressive.
Still, I wondered how the Aussies would respond to baseball being played in their backyard. Would they appreciate the historical aspect, celebrate the pageantry of Opening Day, or simply yawn it off as little more than a fleeting spectacle?
The boys in blue were headed Down Under to Sydney, the city where I was born. As if that weren’t enough, my girlfriend, a Phoenix native, would be coming with me to cheer on her hometown Arizona Diamondbacks. Rarely do things line up so perfectly.
It was game day morning. Walking around Sydney, a unique vibe was in the air. I had a late breakfast at Darling Harbour, a gorgeous area popular with tourists. The waterfront was lined with flags promoting the Dodgers-Diamondbacks clash. I picked up the local newspaper and there was Dodgers outfielder Andre Ethier on the cover. Flipping through, there were articles on other Dodgers — Clayton Kershaw, Brian Wilson and Yasiel Puig.
This may have only been the first game of the 2014 season, but already the publicity machine was in midseason form. All around town, there were baseball fans. At each city crosswalk, each café and restaurant, someone was wearing Dodger blue or Diamondbacks red.
Here were symbols of a pastime thousands of miles from its home, about to be played in the city I was born. At times, I had to shake my head in astonishment.
We entered a crowded bus and headed towards the game. On board, the spectrum of baseball fans ran the gamut. There was the couple from Melbourne determined to see Major League Baseball played on their shores; the Aussie teens who knew nothing of the sport and were disappointed to learn they couldn’t bring in their own alcohol; the elderly couple from Oakland who used the game as an excuse to finally visit Australia.
They all came from very different walks of life, yet here they were united by this singular event. I found myself charmed by the situation, happy to sit back and eavesdrop rather than inject my own story into their conversation. This was people watching at its finest.
The bus doors opened and we all filed off. There in front of us was the historic Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG). The first time I set foot in this place, I was 5 years old, attending a match with my father and grandfather. Three generations of my family, joined together over a love of sports. It’s one of my earliest memories. And now, some 25 years later, I was going to the same stadium to watch my beloved Dodgers take the field.
Excitement was all around us. Booths were set up where you could gauge the speed of your best fastball, take a picture in front of the official Opening Series logo, or try your hand at a whiffle ball home run derby. People filled the streets around the stadium, many lining up to purchase souvenirs before entering.
An Australian dressed as “Dancing Homer” from the classic Simpsons episode showed off his moves to the fans. Meanwhile, a trio of musicians played “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” close to the main gate. It was an hour before game time and already a spectacle. We took it all in, snapped a few pictures and then walked into the stadium.
As we found our seats, a palpable sense of anticipation was in the air. Even as ominous clouds rolled in and a light rain began to fall, the atmosphere of the event could not be dampened. After a short delay, AFL star Adam Goodes strolled proudly towards the mound. The ceremonial first pitch was thrown, the crowd went wild, and it was finally time to play ball.
Most baseball games start off mildly and then build in excitement as the innings go on. This is especially true in LA, where fans are notorious for showing up late. None of this was true for the game in Sydney.
A capacity crowd was on the edge of their seats from the very first pitch. Each swing of the bat, each groundball out, each routine fly ball to the outfield was met with cheers from the fans. When was the last time you heard a crowd loudly applaud a ball fouled back into the stands? Here, it happened multiple times and I couldn’t help but get sucked into the fanfare.
If my focus had been purely on the game, perhaps I could have been fooled into believing I was still in America. However, the people around us constantly reminded me we were on Australian soil. To my right, an elderly man explained various baseball statistics to his grandson. In the front row, a small child continually tried to get fans to do the “Mexican wave” (what we in the US simply refer to as “the wave”).
Behind us, a group of rowdy twenty-somethings encouraged everyone to chug their beers in order to collect their empty plastic cups. They stacked them all on top of each other, a process called “making a snake”. Their cup tower actually got several feet high before security took it away.
The game marched on with little firepower. Los Angeles’ Scott Van Slyke provided the only real moment of offense, crushing a two-run homer into the seats just to our right. Beyond that, pitching carried the day, with Kershaw’s excellence earning a standing ovation when he was lifted for a reliever in the seventh. Even overseas, Kershaw continues to impress.
“Take Me Out To The Ballgame” featured a special video montage, as rugby and AFL stars led fans in the traditional sing-along. Brian Wilson’s cult status has clearly infected both hemispheres, as he received a loud welcome when he entered in the eighth. A quick Kenley Jansen save later and the game was over.
I can honestly say a game has never felt as though it’s gone by faster.
My friends have never understood how I can feel comfortable on different sides of the world. It’s a concept that isn’t easy to explain. Los Angeles has been the greatest surrogate a guy could ask for, but Sydney will always be my home. Bringing these two amazing cities together, united around my favorite sports franchise, was an experience I’ll never forget.
In the grand context of the game it was historical, but for me it was far more personal; at times, even emotional. The world never felt so small and I never felt happier to be on it.
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.