SYDNEY — If we were to focus just on the baseball, Opening Day followed a very predictable script. Clayton Kershaw was the best pitcher in the ballpark. The Dodgers’ bullpen followed a predictable order of Chris Perez (⅓ of an inning), Brian Wilson (1 inning) and Kenley Jansen (1 inning) in closing out the game without allowing a run. Paul Goldschmidt didn’t waste a single at-bat but the Dodgers have a deeper lineup, and found a way to score more runs than their opponent. The final score was 3-1 and you can read about the game here.
Also, if we were to focus just on the baseball, we would completely miss the point of staging Opening Day on another continent 12,000 kilometers — about 7,500 miles, if this conversion app is working right — away from Los Angeles.
“No, it didn’t feel like Opening Day,” Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis said. “It felt like a game that we’re playing here trying to bring baseball to Australia. We knew this game counted, and this game could be a difference between us making and not making the playoffs. We had that passion and that energy behind the game. There was a different attitude today in the clubhouse, a different attitude in batting practice. As far as feeling like Opening Day, I can’t honestly say in my experience it totally was like Opening Day.”
Ellis is unique among the Dodger players. He came to Sydney in November of last year, along with Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Patrick Corbin, on a goodwill tour to drum up interest in the two season-opening games in Sydney. It’s fair to say he was more personally invested in the non-baseball aspects of the game than his teammates. Attendance fell short of a sellout by little more than 4,000 fans.
About those fans. As I warned, they weren’t the savviest bunch. They cheered loudly at the sight of the game’s first foul ball, a rare souvenir that means something completely different in baseball than cricket. Thrice a batter fouled a ball atop the roof overhanging the seats behind home plate. On one occasion, the ball remained lodged on the roof; the other two times it fell back toward the waiting hands of the crowd.
When Scott Van Slyke hit the first and only home run of the game — of the season, no less — it landed into a near-empty section of seats just beyond the right-field fence. There were two empty swaths of seats in the outfield, a virtual impossibility in the U.S.
Here, the home run elicited less a reaction than the first foul ball.
“Toronto was like that when we first started going there,” Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said, “but it didn’t take long.”
A few more notes and observations:
• It’s tough to find anything bad to say about the converted Sydney Cricket Ground. There was a coffee bar with an actual barista in the press box! The dimensions are goofy: 328 feet in the corners, with as much foul territory to outside first and third base as Oakland. The green, spired grandstand is gorgeous and emblematic of its colonial heritage. Also, this:
Sydney Cricket Ground (opened 1854) is the oldest known stadium to host an MLB game. Prev: Union Grounds (1862), home of 1876 NY Mutuals.
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 22, 2014
• “The only real complaint I heard,” Ellis said, “was that with the tarp on the field before the game they didn’t get a chance to water things down — which is understandable — so it was playing a little faster than we what we played on the other night.” The Dodgers beat Team Australia 4-2 on Thursday.
• I asked Bud Selig if he would have chosen the two games to count toward the regular-season standings. A report in Saturday’s Financial Times suggested that Jason Moore, who promoted the game here in Sydney, insisted on it — not MLB. Selig’s response did not answer the question directly but affirmed the best reason for making the games count: “If you want to develop interest, and you want to really make an impact, the games have to mean something. If you came just to play a couple exhibition games, half the team comes and half the team doesn’t — here we are, we’re starting with Clayton Kershaw going on the mound today. There’s drama. If you want to really gauge things, this is great. It’s worked out that way.”
• The commissioner touched on some other intriguing points, which I’ll save for a future blog entry, but none were as pertinent to Opening Day.
• I asked Scott Van Slyke if there was a memorbale sight, or sound, that really emphasized the point that this was no ordinary Opening Day. “I noticed that a lot more people have beer in their hands,” he said.
• Mattingly, before the game, on sending Tim Federowicz to the minor leagues: “You’ll see Fed again. I believe it. It’s more of a roster situation than anything else.”
• Yasiel Puig had one good plate appearance, in his final at-bat when he lined out to right-center field. He finished 0 for 5 with three strikeouts and was kept off-balance on most pitches.
• Arguably the only Dodger batter who looked worse was Juan Uribe, and Uribe had more success working the count than Puig. He finished 0 for 4 with two strikeouts.
• The crowd was not anti-Dodgers, as some predicted. It was mostly neutral, with plenty of cheers for the Dodgers and very few boos. It’s hard to comment on the D-Backs’ rooting contingent since they had little to root for.