Thursday, September 4, 2014

Too Much Sport Is Barely Enough

Sport has always been a big part of our family's life.  Both Helen and I have our earliest memories full of images of our fathers playing cricket in the semi-rural (as it was then) south west of Sydney. Our fathers were also skilled rugby league players but had stopped playing by the time we were brought into the world. I also had the pleasure to watch my grandfather umpiring cricket after decades of playing the game. He was an avid baseball and rugby league player in his day as well. 

Our lives as a family has featured all sorts of sporting endeavours from netball to soccer to cricket to basketball and baseball. If we weren't playing it, we were watching it or even officiating it.

What follows are a couple of stories about watching sport this summer, and watching Australian players in particular.

Out to the Ball Game

One of our favourite summer events is the Little League World Series which is held in South Williamsport Pennsylvania every August. Unlike other events where the term "world champion" is bandied about with great recklessness, this baseball tournament does have participants from all parts of the world. Teams participating have made their way from local competitions through to national and regional tournaments in order to qualify to make the trip to the north east of the United States. 

Lamade Stadium
The tournament is covered by ESPN which broadcasts every game using some of the greats of the game like Nomar Garciaparra. Each game is watched in the club houses (dressing rooms in Aussie speak) of the major league ball clubs.

ESPN and ABC Broadcast Booth
Baseball has reached a level of participation now that Australia has become its own region such that the winner of the national tournament has an automatic spot in the International division of the Little League World Series. This year marked the second year where an Australian team was present and, once again, Perth had provided a team to represent the country. 

Pre-game introductions at Volunteer Stadium
So when the opportunity arose to go and watch some other Aussies in action we were only too happy to make the trip for a second time to Williamsport. It's about a 3.5 to 4 hour drive from Leesburg through some very lovely country.  Festooned in national colours and clothing, there would be no mistaking who we were there to support. In fact we got so many comments and questions between the car park and the stadium entrance, that we gave up explaining we were Aussies living in the US and just let people believe we'd made the long trip for the tournament.

The Fergusons go to the LLWS
The great thing about Little League is that it relies almost exclusively on volunteers. Consequently there's no fee to play, but better still there's no fee to watch. So we were soon ensconced in the stadium on opening day to watch Australia take on the powerhouse team from Puerto Rico who were representing the Caribbean region.

Puerto Rico is a strong side with great hitting and pitching
It was always going to be a hard game. However, given that the team had last played in late June, had only made the 35+ hour trip from Perth a few days before, and the first pitch took place at 5.00 am Perth time it was going to be even harder. 

Play Ball
After causing the scorer no trouble after their turn at bat in the first, the Puerto Rican side took the game by the scruff of the neck by posting 13 runs. We all felt for the Aussie kids who kept their heads up and toughed it out. Their coach was a great leader and motivator, keeping it positive in quite dire circumstances.

Australian Coach keeps the team motivated under fire from the Puerto Rican hitters
The result of the game was never in doubt but after that first inning the boys rallied and performed with great credit to them and their coaches. Unlike last year when it took three games for the Australian team to score, they were able to post 3 runs. One of the highlights was a spectacular diving catch by the young left fielder Carter Dowling which ended up being one of the top rated plays of the entire tournament.

Post game handshakes
Later that week, the team recorded the first ever win at the tournament for an Australian team when they outplayed the team from the Czech Republic. Apart from getting its first win, Javier Pelkonen hit the first home run by an Australian player. 

In subsequent games the team lost a very competitive game against another baseball power, Mexico. In fact, the team led for a substantial portion of the match before going down in a very close game.

Family and friends who'd made the trip from Perth
The expression "great ambassadors for their sport" is a term that suffers from so much use it seems to have lost any meaning. However, in the case of this Australian contingent, I definitely think the description is appropriate. The coaches, players, and parents did the country proud. An especially nice touch was that the team had brought hand painted balls by Aborigines from the Geraldton area to give to the other teams. These were featured in the "Parent Interview" segment during the game against the Czechs.

One of the highlights of the LLWS was watching the coach of the New England side. He is the type of coach every kid should have at least once in their lives. Here is his talk to the team after they lost a very close game that had knocked them out of the tournament.

A Brush with Greatness

Our next outing was to the DC United game against the New York Red Bulls at RFK Stadium in Washington DC. 

After watching the World Cup games while we were back in Australia and getting up at ridiculous times in order to do so, we had the opportunity to see one the Australian stars in action. So, while we'd be supporting the Red and Black, we'd be cheering for Tim Cahill
Tim Cahill
Who did we sing for? Not quite, but at least they're Red and Black

In addition, the New York team is captained by the French great Thiery Henry which made it a double brush with greatness.

Thiery Henry

We made a day of things by packing our esky and tail gating before the game. 

Tail Gating

The weather was perfect though the sun was intense. Fortunately, our row 2 seats were in the shade relatively early in the afternoon.

The game itself was entertaining and while Tim Cahill came close to scoring a couple of times, including a shot off the bar, the DC United team came out on top and moved 4 points ahead in their conference.

Cahill and Henry
Cahill is amazing to watch. The game was played in mid-30 temperatures with barely a breeze blowing. He ran from box to box, sideline to sideline for the 90 minutes he was out there. 

Game Over
Our highlight was post-game when Cahill saw the Aussie flag that we'd brought along with us. It might be easily confused by others but it's like a secret handshake with fellow Aussies. He pointed up to us and motioned Kate andAdam (who were in their Australian soccer shirts), and Ashley (in her Sydney Harbour Bridge cap) to meet him at the fence. 

Cahill just after he spotted some Aussies in the crowd

He then spent the next several minutes talking and signing things. He was one of the only non-DC players to spend time with the fans after the game. As he was leaving the stadium he spotted the NY contingent who'd made the trip down I95 from New York for the game. He climbed the fence and made his way up to thank them, sign autographs, have pictures taken, and give his game shirt to one of the fans. Here is another worthy of the title "ambassador". 
Tim Cahill spending time with the fans after 90 minutes in intense heat