By Olde Smiddy

    I have always been interested in the game of baseball, but like many Australians my exposure to what most consider America’s pastime has been limited. As a Melbournian, the general rule of winter and summer sports equates to Australian Rules when it’s cold and cricket when it’s hot.

    My attachment to Australian Rules has come to diminish so much I have abandoned the game financially. I’ll watch a game on free to air occasionally and still enjoy it, but I’ve got to a point where I refuse to “buy into” their “product” anymore. Cricket has just become egg carton boring — unless it’s in the backyard.

    Last year I was out for a run, which took me past the Footscray ballpark at Hanks Reserve off Wembley Avenue. I found myself drawn to taking this circuit more often and would stop for a while and watch the women and men’s teams play on a weekend. Baseball began to seduce me and the genuine character of an amateur club that pays to play the game they love was appealing, particularly when baseball exists on the periphery of more popular codes on the Australian sporting landscape.

    The Footscray Baseball Club (the Bulldogs) was formed in 1925. That’s nearly a century of baseball in Footscray alone.

    A lot of friends are amazed baseball has been established in the west of Melbourne for so long. Not to mention Williamstown Wolves Baseball Club (est.1908), the Newport Rams Baseball Club (est.1928), and Sunshine’s oldest sporting club, the Sunshine Eagles Baseball Club (est.1938).

    I’d never played baseball. But I really wanted to. I made the decision to turn up at training one night late in the winter season. The club was relaxed and encouraging. I was given a few tips and entered the bullpen. I swung the bat. Rather dismally. I did hit one ball. I think. I definitely wanted to play summer league.

    At spring training I spent Sundays with old and new players practicing fielding with a borrowed glove while I waited for mine to arrive from the US. Starting a new game you always have preconceptions about the potential patterns and rhythms of play. Baseball is also infamous for having a lot of rules (I won’t go into the “infield fly” rule here, suffice to say I am still trying to work out the finer details). I was surprised by the dynamic quality of set plays with runners on base and the need to understand the right option to execute.

    I learnt quickly that a catch in the field should not be celebrated when there
are still base runners heading for home. Play is in progress even though the
catch may have been good. Look for the “double play”. Celebrate the catch after you make the throw and try to get the second out. Then celebrate all you want.

    Light-heartedness occurs often during gaps in game time and it is one of the endearing qualities of baseball, but the excitement of that switched-on moment when the pitcher is about to throw and the batter winds up is a rare competitive thrill. Baseball is a game of time, accuracy and dimension. And I’m a qualified doofus when it comes to maths. Baseball is also a forgiving game.

    Gradually, as training extended into the beginning of the summer season I absorbed the very basics and became part of a spirited club on and off the ballpark. Being ready for the first game was not easy. A wayward throw from one newbie to another newbie may have resulted in a broken nose. I may have been one of those newbies.

    I’ll admit I am a little mature. Like, old. Taking up baseball at 42 probably contributed in some part to two hamstrings and a calf strain, which set me back a little. However the endeavour and enthusiasm of the people at Footscray Baseball Club— and the game itself — made it an easy decision to persevere.

    I played my first game for the Footscray Thirds away at Essendon, a club on a different arc than Footscray in terms of finances and resources. As mentioned previously, Footscray Baseball Club has been part of the area since 1925, but Maribyrnong council have yet to assist with outside lighting for the playing field even though local Australian Rules, soccer, hockey, and cricket clubs in the immediate vicinity have all been looked after. No wonder it’s hard to attract juniors (build it and they will come?)

    I took the plate for my first “at bat” facing the Essendon pitcher with a mixture of determined rookie and stunned mullet performance… We didn’t have a great game, but on a personal level I was walked to first base after the pitcher threw four “balls” (I was somewhat overawed which helped, meaning I only swung at one pitch). In the field I began to understand how to take groundballs, fly balls and most importantly where to throw to save bases. What was really evident, and drove the side through the season, was the Footscray player’s ability to always get something out of playing together and finish the game smiling.

    We weren’t expected to win too many. Some more gloomy souls forecast none.

    But by Christmas results were going our way, including a return game to Essendon where the noise from the Footscray dugout sounded like we were the home team. It was one of those magical local sporting moments (for us anyway). I began to get some good hits and my body held up. As a team we were playing some really good baseball. We had fun.

    The summer season has just finished. The Thirds ended up mid table.
I can honestly say Footscray Baseball Club is the best team I have ever been a part of. The support and excitement around spending an afternoon playing was addictive. My glove has worn in and if not for the final game being rained off I would have taken the mound for my first taste of pitching. Further potential broken noses will have to wait for winter.

    For anyone interested in playing, drop down to the club. Young, old, or simply inquisitive you will be welcomed. Sides compete across ages. Even to enjoy watching a local baseball game on the weekend, all Westsiders are gladly received. And if you really get into it, have someone explain to you the “infield fly” rule… But maybe don’t ask me. See you at the ballpark.

    Footscray Baseball Club, Hanks Reserve, Hawkhurst Street, Yarraville


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