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.

Former U.S. Senator and Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning dies at age 85

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Jim Bunning, Hall of Fame right-handed pitcher and former U.S. Senator, died on Friday at age 85. He suffered a stroke in October 2016 and was in hospice care when he died, according to former Senate chief of staff Jon Deuser.

Bunning rose to prominence in Major League Baseball during his first full season with the Tigers in 1957, recording 14 complete games and a league-leading 20 wins. The following year, Bunning pitched his first career no-hitter against the Red Sox, just the fourth no-hitter in franchise history. During his first season with the Phillies in 1964, Bunning followed up his no-hitter with a perfect game against the Mets, marking the first National League perfecto in the 20th century. By the time he retired in 1971, he boasted seven All-Star nominations, 2,855 strikeouts (maintaining his second-place ranking on the all-time strikeout list from 1967-1971) and a 224-184 record over 17 seasons.

Following a storied major league career, Bunning entered politics at age 46, serving 12 years in the House and eventually getting elected to the Senate at age 67, where he served two terms. The Republican senator was famously outspoken for his opposition to steroids in baseball, illegal immigration and an extension of unemployment benefits, among other issues, and drew criticism within his party for his ornery nature and controversial statements. He declined to run for a third term in 2010, citing a lack of financial support from the National Republican Senatorial Committee and choosing instead to throw his weight behind fellow candidate Rand Paul.

Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred issued a statement following news of Bunning’s death on Saturday:

Jim Bunning led an extraordinary life in the National Pastime and in public service.  He was a consistent winner and workhorse pitcher for the Detroit Tigers and the Philadelphia Phillies.  Jim threw no-hitters in both leagues, pitched a perfect game on Father’s Day in 1964 and, at his retirement, had more strikeouts than any pitcher in history except Walter Johnson.

“In his baseball career, Jim was proud of always taking the ball.  The work ethic that made him a Hall of Famer led him to the House of Representatives and the United Stated Senate.  He served the state of Kentucky for more than two decades and became the only Hall of Famer ever to serve in Congress.

“On behalf of Major League Baseball, I send my deepest condolences to Senator Bunning’s family, friends, constituents and the many fans who admired his career in our game.

Homer Simpson was inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame

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Twenty-five years ago, “Homer at the Bat” became one of the most iconic Simpsons episodes of all time. Legendary talents like Roger Clemens, Wade Boggs, Ozzie Smith, Jose Canseco, Mike Scioscia, Steve Sax, Don Mattingly and Ken Griffey, Jr. lent their talents to the episode while their cartoon doppelgängers were put through the ringer, leaving only Homer Simpson and Darryl Strawberry to clinch the city softball championship for the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant squad. On Saturday, the show’s creators were recognized when Homer Simpson was awarded a long-overdue membership in the Hall of Fame.

The full text from Homer’s honorary plaque is below:

Inept safety inspector turned city-wide softball hero. Right fielder led Springfield nuclear plant to city championship game, then sacrificed his body to win it all. Nearly supplanted by lineup of all-world superstar ringers, came through in a pinch — and came to in time for the next episode. Girthy right-handed hitter powered many a mighty wallop during celebrated 1992 season with “Wonderbat” — his secret weapon. Lack of mobility in the field was no match for moves atop the dugout. Found fame as bush league mascot phenom, parlaying his “elephant walk” into a taste of the majors. Unacquainted with scientific concepts, only isotopes of which he was aware played at Duff Stadium, where uncanny knowledge of southwestern palate exposed team’s impending move to Albuquerque.

“Homer at the Bat” will be enshrined in Cooperstown with a special display, featuring the plaque alongside some of the more memorable moments of the episode.