By Matt Siegel
SYDNEY (Reuters) - While your average Australian may be surprised to hear that the Arizona Diamondbacks and Los Angeles Dodgers are kicking off the 2014 Major League Baseball season in Sydney, history shows that they really should be anything but.
Although Australia is sports mad - cricket is the closest thing it has to a national religion - baseball these days exists almost exclusively as source material for teasing any visiting American foolish enough to mention sports in a pub.
But America's national pastime has actually been bringing together impressive crowds Down Under for more than 150 years, and not just of foreigners.
"A correspondent requests us to call attention to the practice of a number of boys and young men who congregate in Mr. Wilkinson's paddock... on Sunday afternoons, for playing at cricket, base-ball, making a great noise, and offending the eyes and ears of persons of moral and religious feeling," Hobart's Colonial Times newspaper wrote on September 22, 1855.
The storied Sydney Cricket Ground, where the D-Backs and Dodgers will launch their seasons with back-to-back games on Saturday and Sunday, is itself home to more than 100 years of baseball lore.
It was on those hallowed grounds that sporting goods tycoon Arthur Spalding kicked off his barnstorming 1888 Australian Tour with a game between his Chicago White Stockings and the All America's, an All-Star team slapped together for the tour.
The troupe was met triumphantly in Sydney Harbour by a flotilla swaddled in red, white and blue. More than 5,000 spectators turned to watch the ballclubs play in Sydney, which was a pretty good turnout by 19th century standards.
Many baseball historians believe that the sport evolved from one of two British antecedents - either cricket or rounders - and Spalding may have picked Australia in the hope that lightning would strike twice, says Rick Burton, the David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University.
"If it could be done in the United States from England, it could be done in Australia," he told Reuters.
APPETITE FOR BASEBALL
That long ago idea seems very similar to the one currently animating MLB to hold its season opener 12,000 kilometers (7,500 miles) away from Dodgers Stadium in Los Angeles.
With basketball and American football benefiting hugely from overseas games of their own, baseball wants to use the Australia trip to continue to build on its successes in the Japanese and Latin American markets.
"Baseball has been played in Australia for 100 years so there is an appetite for this sport. Growing a base in this sporting landscape is not easy," Craig Shipley, an Australian-born journeyman infielder and now assistant to the D-Back's general manager, told reporters in Sydney.
"But there is a place for baseball, it's been here a long time and I think we can begin to make inroads and this series will be a great focal point to drive that participation."
Baseball first arrived in Australia in the 1850s, when young American miners chasing a quick fortune in the gold fields of Ballarat - a gold rush town outside of Melbourne - would play pick up games to feel a bit closer to home.
By the late 1870s, Australians had already begun staging their own competitive baseball games, and 28 Australians have gone on to play pro ball, according to the league's official historian, John Thorn.
All of that history is to say that these are not the first Major League executives to take a shot at cracking the Australian market. They have, however, to be hoping to fare better than the first of their kind to have tried.
Spalding left behind in Australia a young aide called Harry Simpson when he left, charging him with building on the good will garnered by the 1888 tour.
Simpson died of Typhus in 1891 after establishing the New South Wales Baseball League.
(Editing by John O'Brien)