Heading Down Under, season almost underway
D-backs, Dodgers take off for Australia, where Opening Series awaits in Sydney
PHOENIX -- They're traveling a long way, but soon the D-backs and Dodgers and the regular season of Major League Baseball will be saying "G'day."
The two National League West rivals were jetting from Sky Harbor to Sydney Harbour, lifting off in charter flights from Phoenix's airport on Sunday night, spending St. Patrick's Day somewhere over the Pacific, and touching down on what will be early Tuesday morning in Australia's biggest city.
A gorgeous, bustling, thriving, modern metropolis, surrounded by water and featuring iconic architectural wonders such as the Opera House and Harbour Bridge, will await them, but both teams know that this trip is worth a lot more than that.
After two days of workouts and two days of exhibition games at the famed Sydney Cricket Ground, which has been converted for baseball, Opening Series 2014 will begin in earnest, with Games 1 and 2 of the upcoming Major League season being played in front of a sellout crowd of about 45,000.
"We want to win," D-backs manager Kirk Gibson said. "That's No. 1. We're all taking a guest. We're going to have some time to enjoy Australia and enjoy the culture and the people. But at the same time, we're there for baseball."
That's what the main focus will be for both teams and for the fans that will pack into a venue that hasn't seen a Major League team since early January, 1914, when the Chicago White Sox played an exhibition there.
Murray Cook, MLB's field guru, has been working with local curator Tom Parker and their crews have put together what will be a sparkling big league field on a legendary cricket oval.
For the D-backs, who will be the home team in Sydney, a possibly season-ending elbow injury to their No. 1 starter, Patrick Corbin, will force the ball into the left hand of Wade Miley when the teams officially open the season for a 7 p.m. local starting time (4 a.m. ET) on Saturday. He will be opposed by reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw. The next day's game, a 1 p.m. Sydney time (Saturday, 10 p.m. ET) getaway, will pit D-backs righty Trevor Cahill against Dodgers lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu.
"I'm looking forward to the whole experience, seeing how the people react to us, and I'm hoping it'll be craziness," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "I hope it's a good experience for everybody. It would be great if we had really good games and we won both of them. And if we can't win, I hope the Diamondbacks do."
Mattingly seems to have it all figured out -- even the travel situation. Seventeen hours in the air is a daunting situation for anyone, particularly professional athletes who are going to be working out for games as soon as they arrive, but the players and staffs have been preparing themselves.
Mattingly, for example, was wearing a watch called a Basis Fitness Tracker that he said was issued to him and some players in order to track their biorhythms and help aid in the battle against jet lag that could creep in.
"They're going to test it," Mattingly said. "It's going into some computer when we get over there and we'll see [where] my heart rate [is]. Part of our top-secret experiment."
The D-backs, meanwhile, have a secret weapon of their own when it comes to acclimating to life in the country known as Oz, where late March means early autumn and the temperatures should check in at sunny and somewhere in the 70s. Veteran left-hander Ryan Rowland-Smith, who is trying to make the big club as a reliever, is a native Australian, born and raised in nearby Newcastle. He will pitch for the Aussie national team in Thursday's exhibition against the Dodgers, then will suit up for the D-backs against his homeland on Friday.
Before that, he'll serve as a tour guide and ambassador of sorts, and part of that will be advice on how to handle the jump across the Pacific, which he estimated he's done (from Los Angeles) at least 40 times. The winning strategy, he says, is to stay hydrated on the flight, try to go to sleep during the second half of the trip so you wake up in the morning on Sydney time, stay awake all day Tuesday to get as synced up with local time as possible, and have fun.
For Rowland-Smith, who will be greeted by family and friends and a host of dignitaries of Australian baseball serving as national team coaches or just heading to the games to witness the fanfare of the first real Major League games ever played in their country, it's a dream realized.
"Coming over there and being overwhelmed by what baseball is in the U.S., to have that 13 years later, to come back and play in my backyard ... it will be an overwhelming experience for me," Rowland-Smith said. "Especially to play in front of a sellout crowd in Sydney, which I never would have imagined.
"The baseball community in Australia is very excited. It's going to be a huge deal. Not so much that baseball needs to boost its profile. .. I just think the non-baseball fan, that's the biggest thing for me. …These are real games."
Rowland-Smith admitted that baseball is far from the most popular sport in Australia. Rugby, cricket, Australian Rules Football, swimming and horse racing have more fans, and that's nothing new. But the idea that a series like this could open more eyes Down Under to baseball is intriguing. He saw it firsthand once the games were announced and he started getting calls from out of the woodwork from people asking him for tickets.
"[I heard from a] cousin I hadn't spoken to for years," Rowland-Smith said. "He said, 'I heard the Razorbacks are coming to Australia. Any chance they're coming to Brisbane? I'd bring my kids over.'
"No problem," Rowland-Smith said jokingly. "Not like it's sold out or anything."
But before the teams set foot on the baseball "pitch" or "wicket," if you like, they will make time to see some of the sights and soak in some of the culture.
Rowland-Smith has been touting Bondi Beach and other North Sydney shorefronts as among the best in the world. Harbour cruises are planned for the clubs and their guests, there will be mornings to sight-see near the team hotel, which is near hotspots such as Circular Quay, The Rocks and Darling Harbour, and there will be scheduled day trips for publicity and goodwill.
Dodgers catcher Tim Federowicz said he doesn't quite know what to expect but that he's excited for real games to start and eager to possibly encounter some local wildlife.
"I want to see a kangaroo or a koala bear," Federowicz said.
At least D-backs first baseman Paul Goldschmidt will get a chance to do that when he makes an appearance at the Taronga Zoo, a Sydney landmark. Goldschmidt has already seen the city and the Cricket Ground, having traveled with a few D-backs teammates and club officials in November shortly after Opening Series 2014 was first announced.
"It'll be fun, being in Sydnbey, being in a different part of the world, breaking up Spring Training a little bit, and then we have to come back and be ready," Goldschmidt said. "The season starts out tough, but it should be fun."
One of the reasons the teams signed on was to promote baseball all around the world. The Dodgers have been doing it for years and were the first team to scout Australia and sign an Australian-born player in the modern era. That player, former infielder Craig Shipley, is now a special assistant to the general manager ... of the D-backs.
"For the baseball community and the community in general, MLB going to play an opening series outside of the country is a big deal," Shipley said. "This one will be very special. It's a historic, iconic facility. It's getting a ton of media attention. And it's great for baseball."
"Guys will see the Australian culture, they'll see that everyone is smiling there," said Dodgers reliever Brian Wilson, who has spent time in Australia. "There's a social community and a lot of outdoor activity. The weather's beautiful."
So is the outlook for Opening Series 2014 and the upcoming Major League Baseball season.
"I know everyone in here is pumped," D-backs second baseman Aaron Hill said. "I know it's a long flight, but we have plenty of time to get acclimated over there and we're hearing a lot of good things from Australia. It will be fun. It's going to be a blast for them.
"Obviously for us to bring a Major League ballgame over there it's going to be fun to see how they embrace it. I hear the fans there can get a little rowdy at some games, so I'm looking forward to seeing that, too."
In other words, once all the flying is over, the great baseball, great times and lasting memories will begin. And as far as all that is concerned, to borrow an Australian phrase, there will be no worries. No worries at all, mate.
"I've been doing this and flying home for 13 years, and every time I fly in, it just puts a smile on my face," the Sydneysider Rowland-Smith said.
"It's unique. It's beautiful."