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MLB hopes to spur interest in Australia during series

AP

Former Boston Red Sox coach Jon Deeble, who’s been around Australian baseball for more than 30 years, figures next weekend’s season-opening, two-game series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks in Sydney will have a “massive impact” on the sport Down Under.

Certainly there’s plenty of room for growth.

Baseball is not among the top 10 or 15 participation sports in Australia, well behind Australian Rules Football, rugby league, rugby union and cricket. Add to that list, among others, tennis, golf, basketball, the women’s sport of netball and, according to government figures, recreational skiing.

Deeble manages the Southern Thunder Australian all-star team that will face the Dodgers on Thursday and the Diamondbacks the following day ahead of regular-season games on March 22 and 23 at the Sydney Cricket Ground. He says having “the best in the world” in Australia will translate into much-needed exposure.

“It will help the Australian Baseball League, kids who play the game, and that will convert hopefully into registrations,” Deeble, who is a Pacific Rim scout for the Red Sox, said in a telephone interview. “It’s also an opportunity for the players to see where they are really at, and something to ascribe to.”

The Dodgers and Diamondbacks will arrive in Sydney on separate charters Tuesday. They’ll hold workouts at the cricket ground over the following two days before the pair of exhibition games against Team Australia. The opening series figures to feature Clayton Kershaw’s fourth consecutive opening-day start for the Dodgers next Saturday, with Patrick Corbin on the mound for Arizona. The Dodgers’ Ryu Hyun-jin is slated to start the second game against Trevor Cahill.

The series marks the first regular-season games in Australia.

Previous MLB season openers were held in Monterrey, Mexico (1999), San Juan, Puerto Rico (2001) and Tokyo (2000, ’04, ’08 and ’12).

While baseball may be not have the interest or participation level of other sports in Australia, it has longevity. Next weekend’s games will mark the 100th anniversary of an exhibition game played by the Chicago White Sox and the New York Giants at the Sydney Cricket Ground, won 5-4 by the White Sox before 10,000 fans on Jan. 3, 1914.

Ben Foster, general manager of the six-team Australian Baseball League that has MLB financial backing, said he noticed a number of positive spinoffs after the series was announced in June.

“We saw an immediate increase in traffic on websites, interest in our players, and that translated into a 20 percent increase in our attendance in the 2013-14 season,” Foster said from Arizona, where he was concluding an eight-day spring training visit to all 30 MLB teams.

Foster said the league’s fourth season saw average attendance increase to 1,400 — “remember, we are going forward from nothing four years ago” — but more importantly is seeing more interest in the ABL from major league teams.

“Our first season, we had four or five clubs send players over,” Foster said of the overseas contingent in the ABL. “This past season it was 13 clubs sending 34 players. So it’s getting better every year.”

Brett Pickett, the chief executive of Baseball Australia, is taking a pragmatic approach to what the series might provide.

“There’s no question it’s going to be huge, but I’m not suggesting for one minute that the series will help us overtake the AFL (Australian Football League) or National Rugby League,” Pickett said. “These two games will not be a panacea for all things baseball. But it will provide a level of exposure for the sport we have never been able to achieve previously. If nothing else, it will put the sport into the minds of some of the sporting public, who, sadly, don’t even know we play baseball in this country.”

Pickett says there are about 60 Australian players under contract this season with major league organizations, and that there’s a good chance four or five of them might be in the majors when the season starts — Grant Balfour (Tampa Bay), Peter Moylan (Houston) and Ryan Rowland-Smith (Diamondbacks) among them.