Why is the baseball season starting in Australia?

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Baseball has long dispensed with the Cincinnati Reds getting the first game of the season at home. I’m generally OK with this. People in Cincinnati complain about it all the time because they claim status as the oldest baseball franchise and thus feel entitled to the first game each year, but the fact is (a) the current Braves franchise has way more of a claim to being the oldest franchise, not the Reds; and (b) how does the fact that baseball has been played elsewhere earlier detract from Opening Day festivities if you’re on the ground in Cincinnati enjoying things?  You still get your parade and your day baseball and your soupy chili, so don’t worry about it.

But the Opening Day grumpiness has spread beyond Cincinnati as baseball has eschewed an American Opening Day more and more in recent years. In 1999 the Rockies and Padres met in Monterrey, Mexico to kick things off. The season began in Puerto Rico in 2001. It kicked off in Japan in 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012. Now, it begins in Australia, with the Dodgers facing the Diamondbacks at 4AM Eastern time tomorrow morning.

Why?

Baseball’s answer is that it wishes to globalize the sport. Here’s Bud Selig in the press release announcing the Australia series last year:

“The globalization of our game continues to be paramount to Major League Baseball, and Australia is an essential part of our long-term efforts to grow the sport.”

Likewise, late MLBPA Executive Director Michael Weiner said that the players “view this series as an important step in furthering their commitment to help increase the global popularity of baseball.”

Popularity and globalization can mean a couple of different, albeit related things. On the one hand there is popularity of the sport within the country. Getting the Australians to like baseball more and play baseball more. To develop little leagues and prep leagues and the like. To boost the importance and quality of Australia’s (already respectable) national team for the WBC and, perhaps one day, the Olympics if baseball is restored as an event. To help support the Australian Baseball League, Australian Baseball Federation and MLB Australian Academy Program. This is the stuff we hear a lot about in connection with this series.

Of course, it’s probably worth noting that the Australians have done quite an excellent job of growing the sport in their country already. Its little league participation is large, trailing only the United States, Canada and Mexico, and recently began competing in the Little League World Series. It has produced multiple major leaguers in recent years, including Grant Balfour, Dave Nilsson, Peter Moylan and Graeme Lloyd. In 2004 Australia won a silver medal at the Athens Olympics.

Given that strong foundation, it’s wrong to think of the Dodgers and Diamondbacks coming to to Australia as some sort of “let’s show Australians what baseball is all about” thing. And it’s certainly wrong to say that Major League Baseball’s trip to Sydney is some silly “The Gods Must Be Crazy” exercise in playing baseball where it isn’t understood, wanted or loved. Australians aren’t baseball fanatics like the Japanese, but there is already considerable knowledge and appreciation for the sport there.

Which leads to the second, less-publicized aspect of Major League Baseball’s visit to Australia: marketing. I don’t think it’s some dirty secret nor do I think anyone associated with Major League Baseball would deny it if asked point blank, but along with growing Australia’s appreciation of baseball, a clear co-motivation for this series is to grow Major League Baseball’s brand in Australia. To give Australian fans a glimpse of baseball played at a significantly higher level than they’re used to seeing and maybe whet their appetites for the MLB product. Maybe it leads to a fledgling broadcasting deal there? Maybe it sells a bunch of Diamondbacks and Dodgers caps? Maybe it sells some MLB.tv subscriptions? Again: nothing wrong with that at all, and not anything I think anyone is hiding or ashamed of. It’s in Major League Baseball’s interests to grow its brand and this presents a good opportunity to do that.

Ultimately, it’s only two games. And ultimately U.S. fans will think of their own team’s Opening Day as the beginning of the baseball season. Even Dodgers and Dbacks fans will likely become more engaged once their teams are back in Los Angeles and Phoenix. The stuff going on tomorrow and Sunday in Sydney will be forgotten here. Which is fine, because it’s not for us. It’s for the Australians and the league.

Brad Ausmus out as Tigers manager

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The Tigers just announced that they will not be bringing Brad Ausmus back as manager in 2018. His contract was going to be up at the end of this season and they have decided not to renew it. Ausmus and his staff will manage the club for the final week of the season.

In the press release announcing the move, Tigers GM Al Avila said “[a]s we transition the ballclub in a new direction, I feel it’s best that we have a new approach and a fresh start with the manager position.” He went on to praise Ausmus for “doing an admirable job under difficult circumstances, especially this season,” a clear reference to the club’s decision at mid-season to blow things up. Justin Verlander and J.D. Martinez were traded in July and August, as were some more minor players. The club is clearly embarking on a lengthy rebuild of which Ausmus, who was brought in four years ago to lead a contending team, will not be a part.

In his four seasons at the helm the Tigers are 312-325. He won 90 games and the AL Central in his first season in 2014, but the Tigers were swept out of the ALDS in three games. In the past three seasons they finished fifth, second and will either finish in fourth or fifth this year. Injuries and poor bullpens have been the biggest problem, but clearly this Tigers team was supposed to win more over the past four years.

It’s unclear what direction the Tigers will take in their managerial search, but it’s clear they’re going to go outside of the organization, as Avila said in his statement that the status of the current coaching staff will be contingent on the wishes of whatever new manager they hire.

Happy trails, Brad Ausmus. Baseball’s Most Handsome Manager is now Baseball’s Most Handsome Unemployed coach.

The Mets are doing something really weird with Noah Syndergaard and Matt Harvey

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Anthony DiComo of MLB.com reports that the Mets are going to give Noah Syndergaard the start for tomorrow’s game. But here’s the hitch: he’ll only get one inning and then Matt Harvey will enter in the second inning and go from there. Harvey was originally scheduled to take the start. Syndergaard, of course, has been out since April. Harvey has been pitching under the loosest definition of the term.

I can see, if they are intent on putting Syndergaard in a real game, having him start one rather than come in out of the bullpen for purposes of preparation and routine. At the same time, however, if he’s only able to throw one inning at this point, with a little over a week left in the season, what’s the point of him pitching at all? As for Harvey relieving: he’s kind of a mess right now. Is he someone whose routine you really want to throw off?

I guess this doesn’t hurt anything — at least as long as Syndergaard doesn’t hurt himself throwing in a meaningless game at the end of the season — but it certainly is odd. It makes me wonder if this is some sort of “Dave” or “Moon Over Parador” situation in which the Mets are just trying to create the impression that Syndergaard is still alive.

Could Kevin Klein pitch an inning? Richard Dreyfuss?