Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke might not even pitch for the Dodgers in the two-game series against the Diamondbacks. (Dilip Vishwanat / Getty Images)
Baseball 2014 starts with a version of “I Love a Mystery.” The season starts earlier than usual with – perhaps – a lame-duck commissioner. It starts with Major League Baseball taking its most acute brand of warfare and aggression overseas.
The season starts unlike any other season in the 138-year history of celebrating Opening Days, at least in this well-stretched memory.
Part of the mystery is whether this really will be Bud Selig’s swansong in his autocratic position of lord-high commissioner. He has said that this time he means to keep his retirement promise. Absolutely. Positively.
And another part is Bud’s inscrutable decision to send baseball’s nastiest enemies on an ambassadorial assignment to Australia for real games that count.
Beyond the March Australia venture is the mystery whether MLB’s new video replay check system will actually work – and keep three-hour ballgames from dragging past midnight.
But it is the Australia junket that is the most confounding.
The Dodgers vs. the Diamondbacks is not the baseball rivalry comparable to, say ESPN’s pet favorite, the Yankees vs. the Red Sox.
Bud’s latest bright idea is, theoretically, designed to provide international goodwill as well as enhance the global comprehension of America’s erstwhile national pastime.
The Tigers vs. the White Sox, the Braves vs. the Giants, might satisfy that mission.
But the Dodgers and the Diamondbacks? They have a holdover hatred for each other. And the word hatred is used in its most venomous sense.
1. The two ballclubs staged the most vicious dugout-clearing brawling in recent seasons last June in Los Angeles.
2. Later, in September, the Dodgers celebrated their clinching of their NL West title in an embattled race by frolicking in Kirk Gibson’s house. To wit, they all jumped it the swimming pool located in the outfield of Arizona’s Chase Field.
The Diamondbacks were outspokenly insulted by the visitors’ pool party. The Dodgers responded by saying that they were just a bunch of guys having some fun.
This after the ugly hit-batsman battle on the punching ground at Dodger Stadium June 12 after Dodgers rookie Yasail Puig was nailed in the nose by a too-high errant pitch from Ian Kennedy. Errant? Hah!
The aftermath turned into a series of pitched battles.
Dodgers pitcher Zack Greinke drilled D-Backs catcher Miguel Montero in the back in retaliation. Kennedy next hit Greinke in the shoulder, too close to the head. Twice the dugouts emptied and combatants spilled onto the fighting turf. Mark McGwire grabbed a Diamondback player by the shirt. Gibson grabbed McGwire by the jacket back and yanked.
For a moment there was a truce, then Puig went dashing into the fray and the battle resumed. Both managers, Gibson and the Dodgers’ Don Mattingly, had words that nearly flashed into a fight.
The net result was six ejections that night, then eight suspensions to players, coaches and both managers, Gibson and Mattingly. Selig’s acolytes dealt out harsh punishment.
Kennedy, who ignited the melee by hitting Puig and then Greinke, was suspended for 10 games. The Diamondbacks soon dumped Kennedy in a deal with the Padres.
Now Australians appreciate a good brawl any day. They lap up their beer with nationalistic fervor. And they are passionate water people. Aussies have provided international swimming events with a multitude of international champions.
But baseball is not just – forgive me – their cup of tea.
Plus, some of the guys on the Dodgers are not so very keen about making the 7,494-mile plane ride all the way to Australia, then play, prematurely, two games on March 22-23 at a stadium designed for cricket. Then have to fly the 7,494 miles back to Los Angeles. And then resume spring training with more exhibition games – and the incoherence of jetlag.
“I would say there is absolutely zero excitement for it,” the famed world diplomat Greinke was quoted as saying in various media outlets, including the Sydney Morning Herald.
“I can’t think of one reason to be excited for it.”
Greinke also toils as the Dodgers’ No. 2 starting pitcher as well as No. 1 practitioner of inside pitches.
His comment this past week in Arizona had a postscript. Word from there is that the Dodgers might not pitch ace Clayton Kershaw in one of the two games in Sydney. There are theories that Mattingly is saving Kershaw, the NL’s reigning Cy Young trophy holder, for opening day opportunities back in the States. There are additional theories that Greinke also will not be available in Sydney due a calf injury suffered in spring training.
I’m sure the Aussies are overjoyed about seeing the Dodgers and Diamondbacks renew hostilities at the Sydney Cricket Grounds. With down-the-rotation pitchers.
The Australians thrive in golf; they are avid about rugby, the bloodier the better; they play superior tennis; and they appreciate Australian Rules Football, once the programming staple of ESPN in its infancy. They contend for world championships in cricket, and they understand all about that unfathomable sport.
But chant a chorus of “Take Me Out To The Ballgame,” and they would be amused at what all the fuss is about. This realization is from personal experience.
Last spring I had the joy of serving as a sports speaker aboard a ship making a Pacific Ocean junket from Sydney to Honolulu. Some two-thirds to a quarter of the 5,000 passengers, naturally, were Aussies.
They clogged the room when I talked about golf on the opening day of the Masters. That day Australian Marc Leishman led the tournament. The Aussies were deservedly ecstatic. They plied me with questions – some of which I could answer – when we reached the mock-press conference portion of my daily adventure. They were more ecstatic three days later at sea in the south Pacific when Adam Scott became the first Australian to win the Masters,
Aware that there have been a few Australians in Major League Baseball – David Nillson was the best and Grant Balfour, another brush-back artist, is currently a top relief pitcher – I switched subject matter to what an American knows best.
Baseball was the next topic.
The audience dwindled by, I estimated, 95 percent.
There were a bunch of Yanks in the salon – and one renegade Aussie, who admitted he actually digs and understands baseball.