Bloody Silly, Mate: Opening Day Down Under

Ozzie Smith, still doing verbal backflips at 59, thinks Opening Day of the baseball season should be a national holiday. He’s being paid to say it by the Clydesdale clan — he works for Anheuser-Busch, as he did as a Hall of Fame shortstop with the St. Louis Cardinals — but the grand mission is honorable even as a publicity stunt. By law, the federal government must consider such a petition if Smith’s campaign accrues 100,000 signatures by late March, and the Wizard of Oz insists he’ll deliver.

“Coming from St. Louis, of course being such a baseball town, it’s sort of an unofficial holiday, Opening Day, so they thought it would be a real good idea for Mr. Smith to just take a trip to Washington,” he told the Associated Press.

There’s just one tiny problem with Smith’s crusade.

We don’t do Opening Day in America anymore.

Inclined as ever to think with his business ego rather than peering through a logical lens, the outgoing commssioner, Bud Selig, harbored an exotic whim to grow his sport 9,900 miles from New York and 19 time zones from Los Angeles … in Australia. Never mind that one of the nation’s definitive newspapers, The Australian, writes, “Baseball has never been big in Australia.” The 2014 major-league baseball season will start nonetheless on March 22 at the Sydney Cricket Grounds, with the L.A. Dodgers playing the Arizona Diamonbacks twice in two nights, which is bloody foolish, mate.

I am not opposed to globalizing baseball in viable markets — Asia and Hispanic-speaking nations — and showcasing major-league teams in an exhibition format. But Selig is abandoning tradition, common sense and the most important variable — the fans in America — in turning the sport upside down to launch the regular season Down Under. Having already gutted the public trust with the performance-enhancing-drugs era and allowed the game to grow old in a fast, high-tech world, Selig should be doing everything in his power to appease the paying customers as he exits office. Instead, he thinks money first — MLB owns 75 percent of the Australian Baseball League — while sounding like a carnival barker.

“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,” he said. “We look forward to writing an exciting new chapter in international baseball history.”

He might be the only one. And I congratulate Dodgers pitcher Zack Greinke for seconding my disgust. “I would say there is absolutely zero excitement for it. There just isn’t any excitement to it,” Greinke told ESPNLosAngeles.com the other day. “I can’t think of one reason to be excited for it.”

All of which set off an international incident of sorts, with executives from the Dodgers and MLB forced to reassure miffed Australian officials that both franchises truly want to be there. Greinke, slated to start one of the Sydney Games, is rightfully concerned that his March routine will be disrupted with a start that will come 10-12 days before he usually makes his first regular-season appearance. “Zack has this endearing, contrarian quality to him that we all know and love about him,” Dodgers president Stan Kasten. “He’s famously focused and meticulous about his training regimen. It’s what makes him so good and such a great teammate. This is clearly going to alter his routine. I understand that aspect of it. But my problem right now is trying to make room for all the people that want to go — players, family, front-office people. As an organization, we couldn’t be more excited about this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

The Australian newspaper wasn’t amused. “Greinke is likely to take on the role of pantomime villain and start in one of the matches –possibly to a reception similar to that which greeted England fast bowler Stuart Broad this Ashes summer,” it wrote, not bothering to provide specifics about a fast bowler, Stuart Broad or Ashes summer.

The Aussies won’t be happy to hear about Clayton Kershaw, either. It’s unlikely that the Dodgers ace, the sport’s premier pitcher, will start in Sydney, with the organizational emphasis on arm protection after he was given a seven-year, $215-million contract, the richest deal for a pitcher in baseball history. Yep, those Aussies will be paying top dollar and not seeing the star attraction. Who will pitch? “Everything’s a possibility,” manager Don Mattingly said coyly.

Memo to the next commissioner: Start the season in the home ballpark of the World Series champion, one day or night before the rest of the teams begin. That’s how the NFL handles it, at least waiting a few weeks before satisfying its global fix in London.

Come to think of it, maybe Mattingly will have the batboy pitch.

Would anyone even know the difference Down Under?

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