Western Sluggers Get Wood On Local Bandits In Series Opener At Holloway (Conservationists Declare Bald Eagle Nest in Brisbane’s Inner-North a ‘Miracle’)

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Brisbane Bandits v Perth Heat; Australian Baseball League; Holloway Field; 8/12/2013

“Timing really is everything in a game where one fast-moving curved convex surface meets another, in mid-air.”

Report by Scott Gittoes

Carved into one of Brisbane’s more quintessentially-Queensland suburbs is a rare diamond of Americana.  Home to the Brisbane Bandits Australian Baseball League team, Holloway Field is a ballpark of manicured perfection.  The playing surface – luminous emerald turf intersected by painstakingly-raked ochre dirt – is prepared with a precision reminiscent of Japanese rock gardens or else crop circle phenomena.  A concrete grandstand bearing a newish lick of paint rises ten rows up and back from redbrick dugouts, forming a broad U that bends from third base around home and on to first.  A casual bar runs the skyline of the stand’s mid-section and on either side are boxed rooms filled with dignitary types, what looks to be a mix of injured players, support staff, commentators and statisticians.  Half-circles of red-white-and-blue drapery hang from the stand’s front walls like the flanks of busses on a Presidential campaign trail.  An American accent draws out its vowels over the loudspeakers.  Seated up high with a hot dog and pouch of ‘Big League Chew’ bubblegum, it’s really only the towering gum tree bookending the right field foul line that belies what could otherwise be a classic suburban field somewhere in Midwestern United States.

Tonight is the first of a four-game, weekend-long series between the Bandits and league leaders, the Perth Heat.  The visitors are out there warming up, the ball moving between them like a live grenade.  Their throws track so straight and without any hint of parabola, it’s as though the ball itself is on rails or else has wings.  This ‘hot potato’ exchange is performed by each team between every change and always, without fail, concludes with a final sequence of pitcher to catcher to second baseman.  This must be one of those sport-specific team tics, more routine than logic.  Indeed, here’s a sport that loves it’s mad rituals; tonight, as in near every hit-out staged on planet earth, the crowd sings ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame’ during the seventh inning.

The Australian anthem opens proceedings tonight; players and spectators alike stand, some with hands on hearts, casting their gaze toward the flag flying above the outfield fence.  Before our seats are even warm, the visitors’ third baseman puts one over that very fence.  The apparent ease with which he does this, at the top of the first innings no less, is entirely misleading.  We’ll learn through the course of the evening that, in this sport, meaningful contact with the ball is rare.  (A foul ball or two is almost assured for every batter; most rocket backwards at don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it velocities, hazardous and at times almost certainly lethal projectiles but for the protective netting.  Some clear everything – nets, grandstand, food stalls – arcing skyward, destined for the suburban homes behind.)  Redirecting the ball into fair territory and arriving safely on first base or beyond, understatedly known as a ‘hit’, is rarer yet.  And the immortality bestowed upon America’s prolific sluggers past and present is, by the end of the evening, plainly understood – it’s bloody difficult to hit a home run.

All of this makes perfect sense when viewed through an impartial, scientific lens; the odds are firmly stacked against the batter.  His brief is to take a cylindrical sliver of wood or sometimes metal or else a composite of both and not just make contact with, but purposefully direct between (or over) fielders wearing can’t-fumble-this-sized gloves, a ball of roughly similar diameter – a seed of cork, wrapped tightly with yarn and stitched into leather casing – hurtling in at speeds in excess of one hundred and fifty kilometres an hour with all manner of guile and cunning applied – be it break, cut, curve, screw, slurve, slide – from an elevated mound so close that he would surely be able to see the whites’ of the pitcher’s eyes were they not obscured, as they typically are, by the closely-drawn peak of a cap.  Timing really is everything in a game where one fast-moving curved convex surface meets another, in mid-air.  Unlike its distant English cousin, baseball’s batters face an absolutely limited number of deliveries.  They have no time to scratch around and get their ‘eye in’; competitive tension hangs on every pitch.

Despite there being eight other players on the field during play – the Heat’s first baseman is a standout in the field this evening – this is more or less a contest between two.  Odds, expectation and human frailties being as they are, it’s not the underdog in this duel but the man on the mound that must surely feel the most pressure.  Perth’s starting pitcher tonight, a former Major Leaguer, is having none of that.  He’s of medium-build with a wispy growth of orange-tinged beard.  (Facial hair, typically sculptured in some way around the upper-lip and/or chin, is the rule rather than the exception among players on both teams tonight.  So too is a penchant for chewing on something, presumably gum but maybe in some instances tobacco, I’m simply not close enough to tell.)  It’s the bottom of the fifth and he’s yet to concede a single hit, plying his trade in the seemingly effortless way of any master craftsman.  (For the record, he incurs just three hits and no runs during a seven innings stint tonight).  Before each pitch he lowers his head much like a professor peering over his reading glasses in response to an inane question.  In this case, the reason for doing so is less for effect and more for function; he’s shadowing his eyes from the floodlight under the peak of his cap, intensely focused on the catcher’s signals.  Receipt of the message is acknowledged with the mildest of nods.  If men are on base, which is rare for him tonight, he’ll carefully scan the diamond, head turning ever so slowly, manipulating his grip on the ball behind the curtain of his glove, exuding control and patience – he knows that the game runs to his clock until he chooses to let it rip.  And when he does, his throwing arm is violently twisted and retched. The pitcher seems to be the only player on a baseball team who puts his body under consistent and repetitive strain; the litany of upper-limb injuries endured must be ample enough to form a stand-alone medical textbook.  In the bull-pens there is no shortage of relief pitchers kicking around, bored and waiting for an arm blow-out or late innings call-up when the starter tires.

All of that said, perhaps the hardest job this evening is reserved not for any player but the man behind the catcher.  The umpire is effectively staring down the barrel of a gun and is expected to adjudicate on the bullet’s trajectory as it relates to the ‘strike zone’, an imaginary prism floating over the home plate.  In addition to the potential physical danger he faces, the entire tension of each play rests on this absurdly difficult decision.  Tonight’s umpire is short and stocky, as I suspect many are, and when he calls a strike it sounds nothing like ‘strike’ and far more like a stunted one-syllable gorilla mating call.  In the bottom of the eighth, with Perth’s exceptional starting pitcher resting up in the bullpen, the Brisbane team, presently down three runs to zip, loads the bases.  In a game that has been until now rather lifeless, but for the sponsored entertainment between innings – a handful of contests in which civilians make general fools of themselves, or else brightly coloured American muscle cars parade around the bases – it is right now, with the Heat’s manager out on the mound and the crowd animated (some no doubt matching beers for innings), that a tangible weight of pressure comes to bear on the umpire.  A ‘strike’ that the home supporters consider to be a ‘ball’ (who knows how) elicits a jeering response.  The umpire appears entirely unshaken, squatting back on his haunches for the next delivery; this is probably when he most cherishes the role.  The Bandits can’t convert this golden opportunity into runs and, despite loading the bases up yet again in the bottom of the ninth for a fairy-tale ‘grand-slam’ finish, they can only manage a solitary score.  Runs simply don’t come for free in baseball.

Match Day (Steak) Burger Score: 7.5

MD(S)B Cost: $7.50

MD(S)B Service Atmosphere: 6.5

Score: Perth Heat 3 def. Brisbane Bandits 1

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