Sunday, 29 December 2013

Off-Season Digressions - Melbourne Aces vs Sydney Blue Sox/Baseball

Proudly brought to you by Penola Catholic College - where 1 part Catholic education meets 99 parts Broadmeadows stupidity.

How boring is the off-season? Yes there's a lot of politics and transfer rumours and uncertainty. And yes, we managed to get out to one meaningless pre-season game featuring the 21s and Selangor. But until things started gradually ramping up when everyone gets back from their holidays in January, there really isn't very much to do. So we decided, for whatever reason, to go to the baseball. Steve from Broady managed to get some free tickets (I don't think they're really that expensive anyway) from one of his contacts at Penola, and me and Gains joined him.

Part of my reasoning for going to the baseball (apart from my usual gimmick sport summer experience) was that as a western suburbs lad, I've driven past the Melbourne Ballpark in Laverton so many times, and never gone in, never seen what it looks like from the inside. It's always seemed to be just a white elephant sitting in the middle of nowhere next to the train line, an unusual landmark visible on your left as you take the shortcut to Merton Street from Kororoit Creek Road, or a little less convenient if the underpass is flooded and you're forced to use the freeway.

The view from along the third base line. The two scoreboards
can be seen in the distance. Photo: Paul Mavroudis
Parking sets me back $5, which is a bit pricey but who's complaining when you get free entry? The venue itself is functional without being anything fancy. The seating - which is limited to the areas behind the plate, and along most of the first and third baselines - is all elevated, with the exception of those areas at the bottom for the corporates. The elevation and hence the sight-lines and viewing angles are quite good, but the protective nets can be annoying, especially as they can make viewing the small electronic scoreboard difficult.

Looking across towards Melbourne Ballpark's 'premium' seating.
Photo: Paul Mavroudis.
Disappointingly, and for reasons which I can't figure out, the roof only extends to those seats behind the plate, those classed as premium seats. The seats themselves seem to be your standard MCG/Great Southern Stand variety, which as has been pointed out by one of our Twitter friends, were the same as used for the old BJS, Knights Stadium, Heidelberg, Preston, etc. So, if you do for some reason end up heading out to a game at Laverton, and aren't willing to stump the extra few dollars for a premium seat, bring your sunscreen, hat and an umbrella, in preparation for whatever Melbourne's weather throws up.

The game
Of course, rocking up to an Australian Baseball league fixture one is well aware that you will not be seeing the creme de la creme of baseball talent. But as an Australian soccer fan who largely ignores what happens above outside our shores, that doesn't really phase me. The teams seem to be made up of some locals (obviously), as well Americans and Japanese dropped down from the major (maybe even minor) leagues for some extra game/development time during the off-season.

Baseball is a weird game in an Australian context. It's been here for a long time, and the Claxton Shield has been played for 100 years in one form or another. While never a really popular spectator sport as far as I can tell, it did have a niche carved out for itself as a participant sport, especially for cricketers in their off-season, with Bill Lawry in particular extolling the virtues of cricketers taking up baseball in their off-season. There was also of course the old Australian Baseball League which went broke in the mid 1990s or whenever it was. These days the ABL seems to be largely funded by Major League Baseball, who presumably benefit from having a low pressure development league in their off-season, as well as being able to tap into the Australian baseball talent pool, which has provided its fair share of exports down the years.

Like cricket, if you're not on the correct angle, it can be difficult to discern the movement of the pitches. Eventually and rather quickly, once you start getting a feel for it you can be pretty sure about whether a pitch was a ball or a strike, but you won't necessarily be able to tell how the ball is moving through the air. However, perhaps this is at least partly due to my very poor eyesight. Like ice hockey and cricket, there is an auditory quality to the game that is present at a live fixture in ways that would be absent on TV. In cricket's case, it's the crack of willow on leather; in ice hockey, the skates on the ice, and the crashing of players into the glass walls; in baseball, it's the smack of the ball into the catcher's glove.

Some of the outfield play left a bit to be desired. the Aces' left-fielder in particular had a bit of a shocker, but according to one of the more knowledgeable fans there, that wasn't his regular position. There didn't appear to be much depth in the pitching stocks for either side, but especially the visitors. A small roster and being the final game of a four game series probably didn't help, as the Aces' managed a late rally with three runs in the bottom of the seventh inning to turn a 2-1 deficit into a 4-2 lead going into the eighth, eventually winning 4-3.

There were of course American accents, and an American flavour to many of the day's proceedings, from the announcements, to the food (see below), to the presentation style. Normally I'd find that kind of thing really off-putting, but the fringe nature of the experience - like they were Christian missionaries in the remotest parts of Darkest Africa - made it seem less gimmicky than the equivalent Melbourne ice hockey experience (albeit I've only had the national team experience there, not the Ice or Mustangs just yet), and I've also never been to a local basteball game to make a valid comparison there either.

The fact that the crowd was very small - I'd say no more than 300 outside of the corporate areas - also gave it a quaint sort of vibe. With an already limited appeal for all sorts of reasons (standard, location, lack of media, cultural obscurity, unfavourable comparisons to cricket), it must also be hard competing directly against the local suburban competitions which run at the same time.

Women In Sport Day
No other sport does pointless fan gimmickry quite like baseball. Of course, in Major League Baseball there's 160 odd games each team has to play, so a crowded schedule means having to find all sorts of ways to get people in off the street, especially if your team ain't doing too well.  At the Aces for example, there's a tradie's day, AFL day, bring your dog to the game day, etc. Two weeks prior to our visit, the Saturday doubleheader was apparently the multicultural/diversity day, during which I believe there was going to be ethnic dancing - how I miss ethnic dancing at Australian sporting contests. Those were the days.

Anyway, the main slant of trying to promote women in sport was the attempt to raise some funds to get the women's softball team to Japan for the world championships or some such endeavour. To that end, they tried auctioning off some Aces' jerseys and signed bats - none of which did very well. There was also money donated when one of the softball girls did the worm from in front of the pitcher's mound to home plate. It kinda made me feel ill seeing female athletes have to beg like that. There was also a tug of war and some kind of bowling pin hitting activity. All pretty low rent, but kinda charming in its own sincere way.

This is where Steve from Broady's food report was supposed to go
Since he had the most food of all of us that day - and used trips to the canteen as an excuse to not watch a game he was obviously not enjoying - I had delegated the task of reviewing the food at Melbourne Ballpark to Steve. Unfortunately, he has failed to come through on this front, so it's up to me to give you the rundown.

The range of food at the venue is pretty ordinary. It's the usual dim sims, hot dogs, chips arrangement, at slightly less extortionist than normal stadium prices. The main difference to your run of the mill stadium food was the fact that, thanks to a recent sponsorship deal with Hormel Foods, for an extra $1 you had the option of adding some Stagg Chili to your chips or hot dog. I decided to pass on that front. Perhaps the most worthwhile item, even at a slightly exorbitant $8 considering the serving size, were the nachos, which were actually pretty good.

Former South fan watch
We managed to spot the ex-SMFC fan known as Strauchnie sitting in the premium seats. Small world and all that.

Would I do it again?
I wouldn't say no. I'll say this - I enjoyed it a lot more than my experience of one day cricket. I can see how drinking would help enhance the experience of watching the game, especially if you were going to watch a double header, but it's hardly necessary. It was a genuinely relaxed day out, with very low expectations, and I actually kinda had fun.

I have the theory that some games are better experienced live in the flesh, some better on TV, and some even work best on radio (especially cricket). For me, baseball is dead boring to watch on TV, would probably work in the background on radio ala cricket, but is a perfectly adequate game watched live - provided you have a decent seat and a couple of mates to talk crap with for three hours.


  1. Going for the first time at Laverton in a couple of days, but went to a few games at the Showgrounds when they played there and really enjoyed it. It was as makeshift as all buggery (the 'bullpen' was just two guys throwing fireballs at each other right next to the fence. Interesting to see close up but high chance of death) but a good place to watch.

    Having said that there was no shelter there at all so I avoided day games like the plague.

    1. Let us know how you found Laverton compared to the Showgrounds.

  2. I used to enjoy going there as a kid. Back then it was called Altona, of course. Gotta love Melbourne re-zoning.
    Was a great ballpark for sightlines, etc. Would get bl00dy cold in the evenings.


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