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Sydney Cricket Ground welcomes America's pastime

Australia's historic sports venue wows with pristine ballfield for Opening Series

SYDNEY -- Attention, cricket-crazy and soon-to-be-baseball-loving fans who will pack the legendary Sydney Cricket Ground when the Major League season begins here Friday night with the Arizona Diamondbacks and Los Angeles Dodgers playing the first of two games in the Opening Series.

If a baseball flies into the stands and you're lucky enough to pick it up, keep it. Seriously. Please keep it.

"One of the things about cricket is that they use the same ball for 90 overs, which is almost a full day," said Scott Egelton of Moore Sports, who has been serving as stadium operation manager, working hand in hand with Major League Baseball field and facilities coordinator Murray Cook to transform this iconic sporting venue into a big league field.

"If the fans here don't realize how it works in baseball, the field might be showered with the balls that they throw back onto the field," Egelton said.

Yes, there might be a bit of a learning curve as the baseball action begins in earnest on Thursday, when the Dodgers take on the Australian national team at 7 p.m. Sydney time (4 a.m. ET), but local fans are accustomed to sitting in the stands at the country's most famous oval to watch cricket and Australian rules football and rugby at the Allianz Stadium next door. Now they'll get to watch Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw pitch to D-backs slugger Paul Goldschmidt and Arizona southpaw Wade Miley up against Los Angeles' dynamic outfielder Yasiel Puig, and they'll have vendors bringing hot dogs to their seats.

No wonder both games are sold out. And no wonder Sydney Cricket Ground has already wowed early onlookers as quite a place to play America's national pastime.

"I think we're set to go," said Cook, who, along with SCG curator Tom Parker, has overseen the conversion of the monstrous oval "pitch" that has featured top-level Aussie cricket since the 1850s and actually hosted an exhibition with the Chicago White Sox in 1914. "We'll get the guys out here in the exhibitions, see how she plays, and we'll see if they want it a little softer or a little harder. We'll do what we've got to do to get it ready."

So far, they've done plenty.

Crews removed all the grass and put in clay for the basepaths and home plate. The clay, all 200 tons of it, came into Sydney Harbour from California on a cargo ship labeled "quarried material," and has the reddish hue of any storied big league park. New dugouts were built, outfield fencing, a batter's eye, a warning track, foul territory fencing, foul poles screwed into large wooden boxes, batting tunnels and a backstop were added. This took 16 days.

The players who filtered onto the field for the D-backs' early workout -- the Dodgers arrived later in the afternoon -- seemed blown away by what they saw.

One of them, pitcher Ryan Rowland-Smith, grew up in Australia and had been tracking the progress of Cook and Parker and crew online. He was all smiles when he finally witnessed the real thing.

"Stepping out here to see it firsthand is so much better than what I saw in the photos," Rowland-Smith said. "It looks unbelievable. I'd been here as a kid. I would walk out here and just admire how big it was. And the fact that they've kept the pavilion, the heritage side of the SCG, is awesome."

That pavilion is a green-roofed gem of Victorian architecture preserved as it originally appeared, with the more modern decks and sections of the stadium built around it. During cricket season, it's reserved for members, and inside, the gathering areas between the old locker rooms, which will house the big league umpires this week, its history rings out from every corner.

There are stately pressed-tin ceilings, arched stained-glass windows, elaborate wooden bars and photos and mementos from the various eras of Australian cricket.

But there are lifetimes of memories in every seating section at the SCG, with more to come courtesy of the first regular-season Major League games to be played Down Under.

Out beyond what is serving as the left-center-field wall this week, there's a bronze statue behind a front-row stall. It's the likeness of legendary SCG fan Stephen Harold Gascoigne, better known as "Yabba," who enjoyed heckling the British team. He's in full scream, with a bottle of beer to his right. The inscription on the plaque reads, "A tribute by the Sydney Cricket Ground Trust to every spectator who has ever come to these Grounds."

Upwards of 45,000 spectators per game are expected for each game of the Opening Series, and baseball will be showcased. It's been a long time coming for the small but passionate fraternity of big leaguers who grew up in this country, and D-backs special assistant Craig Shipley, who was the first native Aussie to make it to The Show in the modern era, could sense the excitement as soon as he arrived here a few days ahead of his club's traveling party.

"It's amazing," Shipley said. "It's a special, special venue for a baseball field, and it looks perfect."

Doug Miller is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @DougMillerMLB.

Los Angeles Dodgers, Arizona Diamondbacks