I went to the baseball. In Altona. The last time I crossed the Bridge for a sports game was in late August with @4boat and he was a little over a month away from making his already iconic – at least amongst Richmond fans – ‘Tigers Together’ design. We had visited the Whitten Oval and seen what had become of the Bulldogs’ premiership euphoria – disappointment and disenchantment – in the VFL too. No matter: we had found a park right out the front of the Oval and entered for free. Like the Western/Whitten Oval, this game too, would be taking place outside of Melbourne’s premier sporting precinct. I’d be journeying from the centre to the relative periphery. My slow groundhopping hobby continues, this time via a new sport.
I was going to the second game of a double-header: Sydney Blue Sox @ Melbourne Aces. Google estimated my travel time of 36 minutes. I hadn’t been to the Melbourne Baseball Park before and so I conservatively added another 20 minutes. The game was scheduled for 7:30 and I was leaving at 7:00 – my domestic duties were done for the evening. I placed little value in getting to the game on time – given the stretchy nature of baseball games: what was important for me was to be there long enough to get a sense of the game, the moods of the crowd, and hopefully see something worthy of being regarded as action or drama. Hopefully, I would feel some tension.
My interest in baseball comes via the ballparks of North America. Daniel Rosensweig’s book, Retro Ballparks, introduced me to Camden Yards, which is exemplary of the new-old design of numerous baseball stadia. The relative high turn-over of stadia building and replacement is probably a sporting luxury that Australia misses. Stadia fashions pass quickly in the States, it seems. I searched for Camden Yards and came across videos by a pleasant and engaging New Yorker, Zack Hample. His videos gave brief histories of the stadia he visited and where he practiced his hobby of ballhawking. Although I had never heard of ‘ballhawking’ I quickly realised Zack was a legend: his videos are watched by tens of thousands of people (now hundreds of thousands), and, although his hobby seemed frivolous, he inspired hate amongst some fans and fellow ballhawks. Zack’s succinct overviews and analyses of stadia architecture and how he masters each stadia in order to catch baseballs in the bleachers gave me a fan’s perspective on the game, before I had even learned to enjoy the game itself. I was learning the game through Zack’s eyes.
Up until my Altona trip I had only visited suburban baseball parks: in Fitzroy, Malvern, St.Kilda and Port Melbourne. Quaint fields indeed. I had watched games in passing; sometimes while coming back from a run. ‘Baseball’ for me, except for these brief engagements was, virtually entirely mediated: Zack’s videos and numerous books – all to do with baseball in the States. Despite the ubiquity of Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers hats on the streets of Melbourne, my hunch has largely been that these are fashion items rather than indicative of any allegiance to a particular team. Seeing the occasional passerby wearing a Yankees hat and a Red Sox t-shirt, or other such combination, generally confirms my suspicion. But, maybe I’m wrong: it could be a sign that they’re ‘baseball fans’, rather than fans of a particular team. I feel I’m one of those, too, but I always wear a SF (Giants) cap, even if I’m ambivalent about the team itself.
The field is in a barren industrial zone off the M1 on the way to Geelong. The stadium is visible from the highway, but the exit to it, is a couple of kilometres earlier. Signs point the direction to the ground: it’s not a difficult route, but no doubt it is unfamiliar to many of its visitors: me too. Having a purpose-built stadium means there is a compromise on location, but less on baseballness. Here, us visitors, can watch the game without being encumbered by the memories having watched x number of Australian rules or cricket games in the same venue. A kind of clean slate for the memory bank. Punt Road Oval had even at one point been an option: a central and convenient location and a possibility for the Richmond Football Club to earn some summer cash. But it either wasn’t feasible or sufficiently attractive in the long run. Adelaide too, has its own recently built baseball park, after a move away from the quaint Parade in Norwood. Here, at such a purpose built stadium, at least fans will feel like their experience of the game is not compromised by the facilities: something which can’t be said for watching a soccer game at Docklands, or even a footy game there. Docklands, in its quest to be any sports’ home, always ends up being compromised for all kinds. At least the Altona baseball park feels baseballish and the fans are close to the game.
The ABL fits into Melbourne sportscape as a second tier sport. In some ways it is comparable with the A-League in that although it is a standard beneath the absolute elite (Europe for soccer, US for baseball), it is the best of the local product. Fans at the game mix up their supporter gear: a jersey of the distant team of their choice, matched with a hat of their local team. Fans not only have a range of loyalties, but also a range of ways of engaging with the game. Ballhawking, commenting on livestreams, blogging are these standard expressions of fandom. And, in the increasingly intense ‘attention economy’, local clubs must compete against domestic and international rivals in all manner of sports: cricket and soccer in particular. The season is short and the few teams have little history. Second tier it may be; but, it has its virtues and pleasures.
The ABL, however, is supported by the MLB and Australian clubs have relationships with MLB franchises. Taking place during the MLB off-season, the ABL provides rising major league candidates the opportunity for competition and to assert their credentials. The ABL differs from the A-League, however, in that it is more deeply engaged with Asian audiences and professional players. In this case, ‘Asia’ largely means Taiwan, Korea and Japan. Perhaps this is out of necessity, but, a stronger Asian engagement could increase the vitality of the A-League, when so many players and coaching staff are recycled. The live-streaming of ABL games have audiences of around 400-500, and comments are often in Mandarin. Although the geography of the user is not known, this suggests an audience that cricket or the A-League may not be reaching. The ABL’s growth it seems is inextricably linked to a stronger engagement with Asian audiences: the possibility of an Australian team in the Taiwanese league is further evidence of this Asian-turn. Although A-League clubs have Asian owners, there are only a handful of Asian players in the A-League.
I moved around the grand-stand looking for the best place to sit: I gravitated from half-way-up, behind home-plate, to the left field, then to the right field, and finally took my seat, half-way up, roughly half-way to second base. There were many empty seats, and I was seated just beneath the rather ambitiously named ‘party deck’, where there was a rather idle dj. In my aisle was a large man with his likely girlfriend. Regrettably, they looked a touch bored and conversation was slow. He had a baseball glove resting on his knee, and when the Aces batted, he put it on in hope of catching a foul ball. Even if adult ballhawks may be the object of ridicule for some, I knew what he was up to and respected him for it. Nonetheless, we didn’t break out into spontaneous baseball-enthusiast chit-chat. After all, here at the stadium, it was taken for granted that we’re all enthusiasts.
Much to my chagrin, a foul ball came flying my way. It was high, very high, and was coming my way. I was struck with a fear that I hadn’t felt since fielding on the boundary in Under 12s cricket and seeing a lobbed ball heading, regrettably, my way. I had not caught a cricket ball in 25 years nor ever a baseball: I would as likely break a finger as I would catch the thing. Needing my fingers to control the steering wheel for the trip home, I let the ball bounce less than a foot away from me; knowing that if I had been wearing a glove, I would have made my debut as a ballhawk. The ball ricocheted and was snagged by a youngster who gloated to his friends and perhaps his mother. It was his fourth for the day. I felt relieved that my insipidness had provided someone else with some minor glee. Go forth, youngster, hawk and hawk some more.
The pace of a baseball game is slow enough to allow for the presence of sonic interventions over loudspeakers. Somewhere, up the back of the main stand, I guess, was a dj managing the game’s soundscape. Fragments, riffs and choruses of pop songs from the 70s, 80s and 90s played over the constant hum of the lights. Each batter too had his own signature tune that was played he made his way to the plate. And, unlike any sport I’ve seen (perhaps horseracing is an exception) there was live commentary. The commentator introduced the players, stated what was at stake, and in the absence of a video scoreboard, explained what had just happened for whoever had missed out on the specifics. Very useful. Watching alone, I was happy to have this extra element to the live-action. Er, and needless to state, there is no live-commentary available on any radio station. The commentator also mentioned the kind of train that was passing in the distance. Nice touch.
This was no place for the America-phobe, with the Americanisms running thick and fast. This was to be expected, rather than chafed against, as say at the cricket or the footy or soccer (!). There were few signs of any attempts to Australianise the game’s accoutrements. There were the organ melodies, coming from a sampler no doubt, the playing of Take me out to the ballgame and Sweet Caroline* during the Seventh Innings Stretch, the singing of the national anthem pre-game** and referring to young children as ‘tikes’. NY, LA, SF or B caps were all over the place. I realised though, that unlike at a footy game, there was – if I remember correctly – a total lack of gambling advertisements. The soundscape too was (I think) pretty much free of advertisements. It was kitsch for sure, but kitsch without gambling advertisements was quite the novelty.
Sydney took an unassailable lead; I checked my watch and the wind grew colder. I’d been here for two hours and I made my way to the exit. The stalls were closing and other early leavers were on their way to their cars too. Perhaps though, they were real fans and had been at the game since the afternoon. I didn’t check the final score until the following day: it had remained as I had left it. Watching the ABL games live on YouTube, in half-an-hour slots, has somehow got me as a semi-fan of the league. I drove back over the Bridge and felt somehow quite convinced they’ve got a neat little product: squeezing it into a tight market between the Test cricket, A-League, BBL, the W-League and the AFLW. Driving past the Caterpillar Stadium (aka AAMI Park) I thought of the apparently stagnating A-League once more. For the ABL, the engagement with Taiwan, Korea and Japan players and audiences holds the key to its progress and point of difference. Follow the ABL’s lead, A-League.
*Could have been replaced with some Archie Roach
**Hearing a tike sing this abominable tune was one of the few times I’ve enjoyed the so-called anthem. The other time was hearing a tike hiccup his way through his singing of it.