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Here's the pitch: Park takes shape for Opening Series

'Field Guru' Cook leads transformation of historic Sydney Cricket Ground

Murray Cook is getting excited again, and when that happens, big-time baseball games can't be far away.

Cook, Major League Baseball's field and facilities coordinator, or, as most people within the game know him, "The Field Guru," is in the midst of one of his most exciting, challenging and fulfilling projects in years: turning the historic Sydney Cricket Ground into the venue that will host the first two games of the 2014 MLB season.

Opening Series 2014 hits Australia's biggest metropolis on March 22-23, when the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks renew their National League West rivalry. And Sydney Cricket Ground, one of the most revered stadiums in the country and a staple since the mid-1800s, will transform from the lush oval pitch, or "wicket," into a big league diamond worthy of the first pitch and fanfare of the coming 162-game season.

"It's got the flair of an older park, like a Fenway," said Cook of SCG, which actually hosted baseball a few times but only on the big league level 100 years ago, when the 1914 Chicago White Sox played exhibition games in the view of the gorgeous Victorian grandstand. These days, that grandstand is surrounded by more modern stadium accoutrements, but the old-time feel lingers.

"The cricket umpires have their changing quarters, and our umpires will use them, too. There's so much nostalgia here. It's just great. Already I've seen pictures of a field roller that they used to pull with a horse, with padding on his hooves so not to tear up the wicket turf. But we're not going to use him. We're not using a horse."

The dimensions will be 328 feet down the lines and 400 to center.

What Cook and his crew are using, along with SCG curator Tom Parker and his workers, is knowledge, moxie, experience and the motivation of only having a few more weeks to turn a cricket paradise into a baseball lover's haven.

The punch list is a bit overwhelming if you're not as well-versed in these areas as Cook. The infield diamond is coming in nicely after the crews removed all the grass and put in the clay for the basepaths and home plate. Everything has been considered, from full construction of dugouts, foul poles, a batter's eye, a warning track, an entire outfield fence, foul territory fencing, batting tunnels and a backstop.

"Everything in 16 days," Cook said. "And I couldn't have asked for better cooperation, a better relationship. What's so cool about this is that cricket and baseball have a lot of similarities, from the tarps to cover the wicket to the guys in spikes.

"We're talking the same language about soil content and height of grass. And it's such a great country and great city. Everybody's having a lot of fun."

Cook said when the field is complete, it will be as legitimate as a Major League park can get. It'll be 328 feet down the lines and 400 feet to the center-field fence. When the park is full -- and it will be, with the tickets already nearing sellout status -- it will hold almost 45,000 fans.

Then more history will be made at a very historic place. "We've been working on this project for 16 months," Cook said. "That's logistical planning, reviews, meetings with contractors, devising the outfield fence structure, bringing in over 100 tons of counterweights to support the structure of fence in one-ton stone blocks, and more.

"People here are really looking forward to the games," Cook said.

"These are hallowed grounds and the cricket guys are probably going, 'What are they doing to our pitch, mate?' But it'll be worth it. People here are really looking forward to the games."

And Cook is looking forward to being able to sit back and catch the action on that field before the teams head back to the United States and local officials take it all apart, with rugby and cricket events planned for the near future.

He also said he's hoping to enjoy more of the sights in Sydney, although he's definitely not going to be one of the adventure tourists climbing to the top of the city's famed Harbour Bridge.

"That won't happen," Cook said with a laugh. "The only bridge I'm climbing is the one that goes to the pitcher's mound."

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