Dodgers, D-backs enjoy a historic venue

Sydney Cricket Ground, where the Dodgers open the season, is "sacred" to Australian sports fans. AP Photo/Rick Rycroft

SYDNEY -- They’ve got the bunting up in time for Opening Day as usual. The red-white-and-blue cloth, in this case, is decked out along the railings of a building that was almost 50 years old the day Wrigley Field opened its gates.

“This is sacred ground,” says Scott Egelton, the director of the Sydney Cricket Ground.

It might be sacred, but some of it is now foul ground -- and there's a lot of it. Major League Baseball, for the next week, is taking over the most historic sporting venue in Australia.

British troops played cricket at this spot in the 1850s. What’s known today as the Sydney Cricket Ground opened its doors in the 1880s, and two of the original buildings are still standing. They’re wood with pale green pillars.

One of them is the Members Pavilion and next to it is the Ladies Pavilion, where, until the 1970s, women were segregated from their husbands. Some people have chosen to have their ashes scattered on the pitch, and their names are commemorated on little silver plaques that line a white picket fence.

Major League Baseball sent Murray Cook here weeks ago. His expertise is carving out baseball fields out of non-baseball playing lands. He has built baseball fields in Beijing, Frankfurt, Germany, and here in Sydney for the 2000 Olympics. He and his crew got the field in working order using the materials on hand, though they had to import a few hundred tons of clay from Southern California to make a proper infield.

The field looks like most any other major league field. The foul ground is more generous than most -- though not quite as expansive as it is in Oakland -- and, to avoid making it such a pitchers' park, Cook pinched the corners. You only have to hit it 328 feet down the lines for a home run.

The builders had to build dugouts where there were none. They are smaller than most. The steps were so steep, Arizona coach Mark Grace muttered, “Good Lord, don’t they know how un-athletic we ballplayers are?” as he struggled to make his way down them at Tuesday’s workout.

“Yeah, I like it. It looks like a pitchers’ park, a lot of foul ground,” said Arizona pitcher Wade Miley, who will throw the first pitch of the first major league game to be played here.

Miley wasn’t even planning to be in Australia. He would have stayed behind when the Diamondbacks embarked on the 15-hour flight to Sydney, instead pitching in minor-league spring-training games, but the Diamondbacks’ young ace, Patrick Corbin, injured his elbow. The team told Miley he would pitch Game 1 on Saturday night. He packed up hastily.

“I’m the first pitcher of the 2014 baseball season. That’s special,” Miley said.

Major League Baseball official John Blundell was here in January and took in a couple of games played by the local cricket team, the Sydney Sixers.

“I knew nothing, just like they’re going to know nothing about our game,” Blundell said.

Soon, they might know a little bit more. About 80,000 fans will get to see some of the best players in the world -- pitchers such as Clayton Kershaw and sluggers such as Paul Goldschmidt -- but the legends this place reveres compete in a different arena. Above center field, a sign reads, “Victor Trumper Stand.” Trumper scored 214 points against South Africa in 1910-11. Above right field, a sign reads, “Clive Churchill Stand.” Churchill was a fullback, one of the greatest Australian rugby players of all time.

And then there’s Stephen “Yabba” Gascoigne. He’s the fan who heckled the English cricket team so mercilessly, he became an icon. They built a bronze statue of him. If you look closely while the Dodgers and Diamondbacks play, you might be able to make it out. He’s in the second row sitting in left-center field, his hands cupping his mouth, a bottle nearby.