The Blue Sox: A neighbourhood gem in Blacktown

It’s a neighbourhood gem, with great pizza and cold beer at excellent value, friendly service, terrific atmosphere and superb entertainment. And, it’s located at Blacktown in Sydney’s sometimes maligned western suburbs.
No, this is not a restaurant, but the Blacktown International Sportspark where the entertainment is good quality baseball.
You don’t have to take that from me, but a real expert, Bob Turner, who happens to be the Chairman of the Sydney Blue Sox, as well as the former coach, general manager, managing director and part-owner of four National Basketball League teams, including most recently, the man behind the resurrection of the Sydney Kings.
I was sitting next to Bob at the Blue Sox-Perth Heat game on Saturday night and he told me: “I came here four years ago, and watched the games and said, this is good baseball.” I agreed with him, of course, then he pointed out the Sox third baseman, Zach Shepherd, who’s only 19, and played this year with the Detroit Tigers’ minor league team, the Gulf Coast Tigers. A real Major League Baseball prospect, like a number of others, he mentioned, like Tim and Matt and Sam Kennelly, all brothers who play for Perth Heat.
I wound up in Blacktown after a long-time colleague and friend, Laurie Patton, chairman of the marketing committee of the Blue Sox, promised to take me to a match after we chatted at the Los Angeles Dodgers-Arizona Diamondbacks game back in March at the Sydney Cricket Ground. I wrote a post about the two MLB Opening Series games between the Dodgers and Diamondbacks, watched by 80 thousand spectators at the SCG http://wp.me/p1Ytmx-go, and shown live around the world. It was a significant event, and Bob Turner said the historic games had a good impact on the Australian Baseball League, “adding another layer of credibility.”
In fact, the MLB Opening Series won three major prizes at the 2014 Australian Event Awards: the Australian Event of the Year, the Best Sporting Event and the Best New Event. They are the events industry’s pinnacle awards, so it was quite an achievement for baseball in Australia.
So did the Dodgers-Diamondbacks game translate into “bums on seats” for the ABL, and the Sydney Blue Sox, in particular? Well, I’ve only been to one game, but there were about 1200 spectators at Blacktown last night in a ballpark that has a capacity of about 2000, and judging by the noise, they were all having a good time.
Let’s be honest. The Blacktown International Sportspark is a lovely venue, but it’s not the SCG, and it’s a long way from the city. No one disagreed with me when I suggested the club needed a stadium with greater seating capacity and to be closer to Sydney. Bob Turner said the board had some meetings where they discussed a bigger facility and even moving to Spotless Stadium, which is the home of the AFL’s Greater Western Sydney Giants at Homebush. They had discussed it with the NSW Premier Mike Baird, who played baseball when he lived in New York in the late seventies, and is a great fan of the legendary New York Yankees. Baird was an active member of the board of the Blue Sox, until he became premier, but he remains a Sox supporter. The NSW Sports Minister, Stuart Ayres, who’s the Member for Penrith in the Western Suburbs, has also attended a Blue Sox game, so baseball in Sydney certainly has some government support.
It would attract more spectators, even if it were only a bit closer to the action, like Parramatta, which is starting to rival Sydney as the premier regional city in the metropolitan area. The manager of Sydney Blue Sox, Jason Pospishil, was honest about the need for more fans in a post-match interview with Michael Crossland, live streamed on ABL.tv: “We need this to become a more permanent fixture and the guys really appreciate the support. In the long run, this league’s not going to survive unless people come to watch the game. I think it’s like any other sporting team in Australia, if you are winning and play well, people will come and watch you.”
Well, the Blue Sox are winning. They are 11 and 8 after Saturday night’s big 7-1 win over Perth and Sunday’s rain-delayed suspended game, which was halted by a 4.15 curfew when the Heat had to catch a 7pm flight back to Perth. The live stream was hampered by lightning, which knocked out two of the cameras. They played the last of the seventh like it was the bottom of the ninth. The game ended in the top of the eighth at 4.15pm, with Perth Heat up 2 to nil. The final result is under league review.
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The baseball was good: On Saturday night, Blue Sox pitcher Luke Wilkins gave up only one run on six hits in his seven innings, and Alex Glenn (photo at the top by Joe Vella SMP Images/ ABL Media) batted in three of his team’s seven runs. On Sunday, the Heat’s Ben Shorto (pictured above and a footnote, the 19-year-old has been fighting leukemia for the last two years http://bit.ly/1v0GgYG) allowed only one hit and no runs to the Blue Sox, with 17-year-old Lachlan Wells giving up six hits and two runs, while walking four. The Sox won 2 of the four games against the Heat, with the final game result pending. Here’s a link to yesterday’s match: http://bit.ly/1zGRsOq
Will I go back to watch the Blue Sox? I will, as it was a lot of fun. To be honest, I would not enjoy the trip back and forth to Blacktown, from the North Shore, especially on a bad traffic day. But to return to my restaurant analogy, the food and grog (entrees) were good, the atmosphere (stands and fans) was great, and the main course (baseball) was entertaining.
I was especially taken with the way the club looked after their guests, like the Hastings Baseball Club and the Clay Valley Juniors. Each of the players went to their positions with the juniors dressed up in their uniforms to stand and listen to the National Anthem. Here’s a link to the video of that and the rest of the game if you’d like to watch the replay: http://bit.ly/15L74YE Near the end, you can see another one of the highlights, the “running the bases,” where 100 plus kids, ranging in age from 16 years to 16 months (okay, this one was being walked by his Dad), ran around the bases. The kids loved it. Another funny moment was a seven year old boy singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” during the seventh-inning stretch, the way they do it in the US.
Beer and baseball go together, and the newly installed beer garden looked particularly inviting, but at my seat behind home plate, I only had one beer, a Samuel Adams, for $5 (bought by my mate), which was good value, and a small special pizza, delivered to my seat. About the fourth or fifth inning we were escorted by Blue Sox CEO Mark Marino, a former minor league player with the California Angels, to the function room, where I met some of Australian baseball’s elite, and had a second beer, a Coors.
Among the Australian baseballers reminiscing about the old days were President of Baseball Australia, David Hynes, who played baseball for 15 years in the US; the “Babe Ruth of Australian Baseball,” Lionel Harris, an Australian Baseball Hall of Fame member, who’s now the executive officer of the Blue Sox; and another Hall of Famer, Gary White, who played for the Philadelphia Phillies in the Major Leagues, and a 10-year veteran with the Sydney Blues/Storm in the Australian National League. They all love baseball, and sat around exchanging tall tales, most of them true, I’m sure, while keeping one eye on the Blue Sox game.
Lionel Harris, who was a Claxton Shield All-Star for four seasons in the early eighties, and hit 6 six home runs in 33 games for the Parramatta Patriots in 1989-90 and was fourth in the ABL in slugging, said: “Baseball is my life since I retired.” Given all that he does for the Blue Sox, he doesn’t seem to be the retiring type.
Also upstairs was the CEO of the Australian Baseball League, Peter Wermuth, who was born in Germany, and played baseball for Pomona College in California. He has two decades of coaching experience under his belt, including guiding the German national team to historic wins over Team USA and Team Canada. Laurie Patton made an interesting observation: “Peter grew up in Germany, but he never thought of baseball as an American game.” Wermuth’s role as an international ambassador for baseball augurs well for the future of the ABL.
And for those who watch the Sydney Blue Sox on ABL.tv livestream, there’s another ambassador for baseball, an inspirational one. Michael Crossland is an inspirational speaker who has told his amazing story of surviving cancer to various organisations, schools, companies around the world http://michaelcrossland.com/, and the Blue Sox are lucky to have him as a commentator on their YouTube videos.
If you are just learning what baseball is all about, watching and listening to Michael and his sometime commentator partner, Chris Hauso, is informative and fun. And for those who know their baseball, Michael and Chris are still valued commentators.
Michael may even inspire you to make that trip to Blacktown, no matter where you live in Sydney. And don’t forget the pizza and beer.
UPDATE: If you’ve read the post above and are interested in seeing for yourself the standard of baseball in Australia, the 2014 Australian Baseball League All-Star Game will be broadcast live in Australia and New Zealand on ESPN tomorrow (Wednesday, Dec 17) starting at 7.30pm (Aust Daylight Saving Time). The game will be played between Team Australia, consisting of ABL’s Aussie stars, and the World All-Stars, the ABL’s best-performing international players this season from six baseball nations, including the United States, Canada, Taiwan and Korea. The match will also be broadcast on delay to over 70 million households in the US via the MLB Network, and seen in over 30 Asia countries on Fox Sports Asia.

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