Australia is often described (at least within its borders) as a sports mad country. We perform better at the Olympics than our 23 million population really should. Our special brand of football (AFL) makes rabid one-eyed screaming fans out of 80 year old ladies and 5 year old boys. We pack the 100,000 seat Melbourne Cricket Ground four or five times a year, and our highest rating TV shows are always live sporting events.
Growing up in Australia, the hierarchy for a sports-inclined lad would probably line up something like this:
Tier 1: Cricket, AFL, rugby
Tier 2: Soccer, tennis, basketball
Tier 3: Martial arts, athletics, golf, swimming
(girls would generally play netball instead of basketball, but wouldn’t usually play any of the boys’ Tier 1 sports…)
There’s a conspicuous (at least to readers of this site) absence from the above list… if asked to group baseball with other sports of similar popularity I’d guess it would sit alongside such crowd-pullers such as field hockey and table tennis.
I can’t think of a single kid from my primary (elementary) school who played baseball. I didn’t know anyone who played baseball at high school either, until my final year when I joined the school baseball team just for kicks. Note that this was nothing like American high school baseball… our team consisted of maybe 15 cricket players and two guys who had played a bit of local club baseball. The criteria for making the team was "did you show up to the tryouts?" but in spite of this (and not really knowing the rules) we won a few games and went to the state championships where we ran into a team with an actual pitcher and got shutout.
There is a local club baseball scene in Australia, but it’s tiny. Driving around Melbourne you’ll pass countless cricket/AFL grounds but I can only remember seeing four or five baseball fields my entire life (and I’ve lived here 31 years). Against that backdrop, it’s somewhat amazing that Australia has any Major League ballplayers at all.
But then, we do tend to punch above our weight in the sporting arena. Indulge me for a moment while I take you on a short diversion to prove my point.
From time to time sports websites like to rank the greatest sports players of all time. Usually you’ll find a Michael Jordan or a Muhammud Ali or similar at the top of the list. One name you have probably never seen at #1 is Donald Bradman, a country boy from Cootamundra in New South Wales, Australia. That’s unfortunate because I’m about to demonstrate in the space of three graphs why "The Don", as we affectionately call him, was the most dominant sportsman in (recorded) history.
First just a tiny bit (I promise) about cricket to put The Don’s achievements in context.
You win a cricket match by scoring more runs than the other team. Runs are easier to come by than in baseball, with an average Test Match team innings score being maybe 280-320 runs. Each batsman only gets to bat once per innings, but if he’s really good he might be ‘out in the middle’ for hours and amass 100+ runs (the world record for one batsman is 400 runs in one innings).
In contrast to baseball, there’s only one stat that really matters when assessing the quality of a batsman over his career: average runs per innings. If a guy averages over 40 runs per innings across a decent sample size, he will make any team in the world as a specialist batsman. If he averages over 50 runs per innings for his career, he’s the equivalent of a hall of famer. Since the late 1800s and across all Test cricket playing nations, only 35 batsman have ever averaged more than 50 runs per inning for their career (min. 40 innings).
Now that I’ve set the scene, here are the aforementioned graphs:
One of these graphs is not like the others. Michael Jordan is no doubt one of the greatest athletes of all time. Likewise Babe Ruth stands as a giant in the annals of baseball history. But Don Bradman’s career average looks like an anomaly in the data - an impossibility when set in the context of over 100 years of cricket with thousands of players from countries all over the world participating.
Bradman was the very definition of peerless on the cricket field. In a sport where scoring 100 runs (a ‘century’) is considered a great achievement for a batsman, The Don averaged 99.94 runs per innings. Every time he walked out to bat the crowds expected something special, and they got it so often as to be ridiculous. In one of my favourite sporting ironies, the greatest batsman (and sportsman) of all time walked out for his last Test innings needing only four runs to retire with an average of 100. He made zero (a 'duck').
You might be thinking "cricket... how quaint" (to which my response would be this and this) but I couldn't pass up the opportunity to brag just a little about my country, since it's been bestowed with the honour of MLB Opening Day 2014.
Tickets to Saturday's opener start at around $65 USD for the very worst seats in the house and escalate quickly to $450 USD behind home plate. They will still sell 60,000+ because SPORTS. That's the Australian way, and the reason this whole 'travelling to the other side of the world' thing is a great idea for MLB. It will raise the profile of baseball significantly in Australia especially since the opener is live on free-to-air TV. Who knows? With a few more years of growth under our belts we might produce a Don Bradman of baseball and send him over to y'all ;-)