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Sports In Sydney: An American Impression

The experience and idiosyncrasies of sports in a Land Down Under.

See the people in the stands under the clock? One of those little dots is me.
See the people in the stands under the clock? One of those little dots is me.
Cameron Spencer

People thought I was crazy for going all the way to Australia for a baseball game. After I told a co-worker my plan, she asked why I couldn't save my money and watch the Diamondbacks lose here.

"I could," I answered. "But I'd rather see them lose in Australia." Turned out to be prophetic. Whoops.

Most people thought I was crazy but I figure there are a finite number of adventures in life and since I was fortunate enough to be able to go, I had better take the opportunity while I could. With only five days to spend in Sydney, I decided to go to only the first game against the Dodgers; baseball was the reason for my trip but I didn't want to spend so much time watching an American sport that there wasn't enough time left to enjoy Sydney. And to counterbalance going around the world to watch a team that plays in a stadium half an hour from my house, I wanted to see some Australian sport.

I had the privilege of meeting an internet friend Sydney. If I could make the trip from America, Dee said the least she could do is come up from Melbourne and see the city with me. If I ever meet an international friend here, I hope I can be as friendly and generous host in my country as Dee was in hers. Besides the pleasure of her company, I was also was the beneficiary of an Australian perspective on sports and an explanation into games I didn't understand.

Rugby Union: Melbourne Rebels 8, New South Wales Waratahs 32

It was said over and over again in the explanation of why play baseball in Sydney that Australia is a sports mad country. They play cricket, football, Aussie rules football, and rugby. No idea what the difference between Aussie rule football and regular football is, especially when my friend Dee referred to rugby as football as well. Honestly, I think the Aussies might refer to any game that's played with a ball and isn't cricket as 'football.' Sport in Melbourne is so popular that, according to Dee, that when making small talk the most common question to ask is what team the other person supports. I read an editorial in the Sydney paper that MLB in Sydney was an attempt by Sydney to compete with sports-mad Melbourne.

If the Sydney sports world is still growing compare to Melbourne, low attendance at the games against Team Australia isn't a surprise. There were plenty of open seats at the rugby game. It's possible that the potential crowd was split between baseball and rugby.

Rugby Union was the only Australian sport played while I was there. There are two rugby leagues in Australia: League and Union, where Leage was the working man's rugby and Union was a gentleman's game. League is more similar to American football where the offense has a limited time to keep possession of the ball. It's a safer and more civilized game. The knockdown, dragout rugby that we all think of is Rugby Union. The gentlemen could afford to play dirty as they didn't have to worry about going to work injured.

It's way more fun than traditional football.

Rugby Union only stops when the ball is kicked out of bounds, someone has scored, the teams set up a scrum (that turtle thing rugby players do), or a player is carted off the field - which happened in the game I saw. There are two 40-minutes halves and it's a constant battle as the ball continuously changes hands and dudes tackle each other. And yes, someone did make a comment to me about nancyboy American football players who need to wear pads. At one point, a Rebel stepped on a member of the opposite team and the penalty went against the guy getting stomped into the ground. Rugby doesn't mess around.

"The key to barracking," said Dee, "is that it's perfectly acceptable to shout abuse at your own team but it's unsporting to abuse the opponents." This unspoken rule evolved to keep the peace. And like any other sports event, the fans were full of helpful advice for their team. What is it about hearing an Australian man yell out, "Straight on, that's the way!" that made me giggle? I wish I could remember some of the other things shouted from the stands but they've slipped away.

At halftime, we got a meat pie. This traditional sports food is basically a chicken pot pie filled with Salisbury steak. It wasn't bad - in fact, I prefer it to chicken pot pie. And on a scale of one to Vegemite, sign me up.

The game was close at the half but when play resumed the Waratahs pulled away, quickly scoring two tries (like touchdowns) and putting the game out of reach. Turns out the Rebels aren't a very good team, and the Waratahs ran all over them.

The biggest difference with American sports is the sponsor on the uniforms. I knew that was a thing in British soccer but didn't know it was that common. It would be easy to think the name of the team was the New South Wales Volvos. The name of the team is the smallest thing on the uniform, a small patch below the shoulder. I guess they expect everyone to know what team is playing?

The highlight of the game for me came partway through the first half. The camera caught a couple of observers on the big screen: Josh Collmenter and David Hernandez, standing in one of the tunnels in full uniform and watching the game. I'm pretty sure the Diamondbacks' game against Team Australia started before the rugby match, which means the following conversation pretty much had to happen:

JC: What inning is it? Second? You won't have to do anything for another four innings at least and there's no way I pitch tonight anyway. Want to sneak out the back and check out the rugby next door?

DH: No one will ever notice.

The other highlight was no in-game hosts, no gimmicks, and no crowd contests. Rugby is awesome.

Baseball: Los Angeles Dodgers 3, Arizona Diamondbacks 1

I won't recap the game. We all know how it went and most of us would probably like to forget. Here is what it was like being there.

My seats were in the oldest part of the Cricket Grounds, the stand with the green roof. We were in the Members Pavilion, something Dee was excited about. This is the most exclusive part of the Grounds, restricted as you might guess to Members. Where we have season tickets, Members belong to the stadium itself and can see any even played there. Inside is an expansive lounge and bar, as well as the entrance to the locker rooms. During cricket matches, the team sits in the back row of the stands, behind and alongside the fans there to watch the match. Instead of being hassled as you might expect, the fans leave them alone. Because they're Members, there's a dress code, and some things just aren't done.

The stairs to the upper level have wooden bannisters and spindles and are carpeted in maroon with little flowers. It's like going to sports at your grandma's house except with fewer cats and tea cozies. My seats were in the second row of the balcony next to a woman obsessed with all things American and her husband who looked exactly like 1980s Kirk Gibson. It was quite a mustache. I was happy to see the bunting around the park, pleased that what baseball does for special occasions came over for the game. It was a distinctly American touch in an Australian stadium.

All American traditions were included, including singing of the National Anthem. Dee told me this isn't done in Australian sports and this was the first time she ever heard a stadium of people sing the Australian anthem. The camera showed Ryan Rowland-Smith during the Australian anthem and side note: his parents stayed at my hotel and his mom said hello when she saw my D-Backs shirt. They were friendly and genuinely thrilled that people came all the way from the US for the game. It was lovely chatting with them.

Another unique moment for Australians: singing Take Me Out To The Ball Game. It wouldn't have been so funny, except for the request to root root root for the home team. Turns out root means shag in Aussie slang. So that was a thing that happened.

The stadium was beautiful but putting a diamond in a round stadium made the proportions strange. It took me a few minutes to orient myself. Even though I knew where home plate would be, with the tarp on the field it was hard to place myself in relation to the field. I also had a hard time tracking the ball at first and struggled with judging flies. Something about being in an oval messes with your depth perception.

Not that it mattered to most of the crowd. The highlight for the Australians were the foul balls. No Australian sport lets the fans keep what flies into the stands. Cricket rules are so firm on using the same ball that if it is somehow lost, the umpires must find a replacement in as close to the same condition as possible, down to the scuff marks. Every ball into the stands was a delight, every ball not tossed to the crowd was booed. The game was just a delivery method for free baseballs. Otherwise the Aussies entertained themselves the way they do in cricket and built a beer snake. A section will band together to collect empty beer cups. They stack them together and wave it in the air like a snake. Security confiscated it but the crowd didn't seem to mind. If they were angry, Dee said the crowd would have greeted the security guard with a rousing chorus of "You're a wanker!" Personally, I'm sorry that didn't happen.

There were also beach balls. Some things are universal.

The American crowd was mostly Dodger fans and the devoted ones were in my section. Most of the "Let's go, Dodgers!" chants were started by an LA fan with a blue mohawk across the aisle from me. There were Australian version of Ron and Vanessa as hosts who weren't quite sure how to handle American game gimmicks. They narrated the kiss cam, which was weird. Dee expected more Australian support for the D-backs. "The Dodgers have more money and more fans so the Australian thing to do is support the Diamondbacks." But again: foul balls.

I don't know what lasting impact the games will have. Dee said that even if baseball increases in popularity, athletes who want the honor of representing their country will always play cricket. But this whole thing couldn't have hurt.

Final Impressions

Sydney is a beautiful city where buildings from the early 1900s mix with new glass skyscrapers; unlike Phoenix, the public transportation actually works; and the people are incredibly friendly (fun fact: people don't say "G'day," as it's kind of old-fashioned). Taking a ferry from the Sydney Harbour with the Opera House on one side and the Harbour Bridge on the other with an ocean breeze in my face was perfect. Rugby is tons of fun. But experiencing the game I love in an amazing new place, having an adventure, and meeting a lovely friend are things I will never forget. There's nothing crazy about that.

PS: I was going to talk about watching cricket on television but cricket's an unusual game and none of us have that kind of time.