Australia offers up a wild pitch for Diamondbacks and Dodgers

Dating to the mid-19th century, the SCG is one of the world’s most revered cricket venues. The ashes of players, umpires and fans are spread on these grounds.
Mar 21, 2014

 

SYDNEY, Australia — From behind home plate, the architect pointed at the outfield wall in the distance and explained one particular challenge of building a baseball field without desecrating the sacred earth beneath it.

“We had to build all this fencing and not put one stake in the ground,” Scott Eggelton said.

Instead of stakes, Eggelton used 70 one-ton blocks of concrete to fortify the wall, ensuring it would be stable enough to absorb the impact of an outfielder crashing into it at full speed.

Eggelton saw Yasiel Puig last year on a business trip to Arizona and recognizes the Dodgers’ outfielder is a physical marvel. But if Puig and the wall collide, Eggelton has no doubt the wall will win.

“He’ll hurt himself,” Eggelton said. “I hope he doesn’t.”

The construction of the wall was one of several obstacles Eggelton overcame to prepare the Sydney Cricket Ground for Major League Baseball’s season-opening, two-game series between the Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks that starts Saturday.

Chief among the concerns was time. The 38,000-seat venue’s final cricket game of the season was played Feb. 26.

“We started building Feb. 27,” said Murray Cook, MLB’s field and stadium consultant.

Tom Parker said that in his 18 years as the SCG’s curator, he had never undertaken a project that required so much work in so little time.

“It was quite unbelievable,” he said.

Complicating matters, there is only one point at which construction trucks could enter the field. The logistics of when trucks delivered or removed certain material from the grounds had to be carefully coordinated, according to Mark Warwick of the construction company Evergreen Turf.

The architects and construction workers not only had to move quickly, they had to be careful not to disturb the historic venue’s elements.

Dating to the mid-19th century, the SCG is one of the world’s most revered cricket venues. The ashes of players, umpires and fans are spread on these grounds.

The facility doubles as a historical monument. The various seating sections are named after Australian cricket legends. There is even a statue of a popular heckler in one of the stands.

The stadium’s most famous features are down what will be the right-field line — the grandstands known as the Members Stand and the Lady Members Stand.

“It reminds me of Churchill Downs,” Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly said.

Ultimately, the SCG’s history helped convince Parker, the curator, that the temporary renovations should be made.

The SCG has hosted tennis’ Davis Cup. The stadium first hosted an American baseball team in 1888, when the Chicago White Sox stopped on a worldwide tour. This year marked the 100th anniversary of a subsequent visit by the White Sox.

Still, Parker didn’t want the integrity of the SCG to be compromised — particularly the pitch.

Situated in the middle of the ground, the pitch is a strip of hard clay with short grass that measures 90 feet by 90 feet. Most of the action in a cricket match takes place there. The bowler, cricket’s equivalent of a pitcher, stands on one end. The batsman, or hitter, stands on the other.

Compared with the other parts of the ground, the pitch is harder and slightly elevated. Leveling the area was impermissible, according to Parker. In lieu of that, Cook called for the planting of longer grass.

The ground there remains rock-hard, which could present challenges to the center fielders on both teams.

“It’s probably the quickest field I’ve ever seen,” Diamondbacks center fielder A.J. Pollock said. “You go out there and throw a baseball, it just scoots off it.”

Pollock said he might be reluctant to dive for a ball. Not for fear of injury, but for fear of turning a double into an inside-the-park home run.

Building the pitcher’s mound was also problematic. Originally, a mound was constructed using Australian clay. The firmness was similar to that of mounds built with American clay.

However, Cook said, “Their firmness, they couldn’t sustain a lot of wear and tear.”

Clay was imported from Gail Materials, a company based in the Los Angeles area that services the mound at Dodger Stadium, as well as Petco Park in San Diego.

Several other features, including the backstop, dugouts, and clubhouses, had to be built from scratch.

Eggelton, the architect, looked over what will be the Dodgers’ dugout and said, smiling, “The iterations on the drawings of this dugout, you would not believe. It doesn’t look like much to you guys, it looks like a dugout, but no one in this country’s ever built one.”

From an American vantage point, the field has an extraordinary amount of foul territory because of the grounds’ oval shape.

Seeing the field for the first time Tuesday, Dodgers first base coach Davey Lopes remarked that it reminded him of what Dodger Stadium was like when he was a player. He noted that an errant throw could result in a baserunner’s taking two extra bases instead of one.

Of the contemporary stadiums, Mattingly compared it to the home field of the Oakland Athletics, which is also where the Oakland Raiders play football.

“It’s a lot of ground down the lines and back toward the dugouts,” Mattingly said. “You get some easy outs, some cheap outs.”

To counter that effect, Cook placed the foul poles 328 feet from home plate. In most parks, that distance is about 335 feet.

“The pitchers get something, the hitters get something,” Cook said. “Make it even.”

 

The Dodgers noticed the ball traveled easily when they took batting practice Tuesday. Juan Uribe was transformed into Miguel Cabrera, launching balls into the second deck.

“It’s good for offense, for sure,” Mattingly said.

For the grounds crew, the completion of the series between the Dodgers and Diamondbacks will not mark the end of their work.

The crew has another project and, again, it will have to work fast.

The venue will host its first rugby match of the season April 5.

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