While most players spend their offseasons training, spending time with friends and family, and on vacation, some players travel throughout the world as ambassadors for Major League Baseball.
MLB International has organized a total of five ambassador trips in four countries this offseason, featuring a host of players and coaches engaging in ambassador tours and elite camps.
Chris Archer, Hensley Meulens, native South African Gift Ngoepe, and Tim Lieper travelled to Johannesburg, South Africa for an elite camp. LaTroy Hawkins, Barry Larkin, and Steve Finley will head to Ibiuna, Brazil for an elite camp. Native Brazilian Andre Rienzo will travel to Brazil on an ambassador tour, Ron Roenicke will visit New Zealand on an ambassador tour, and native Australian Grant Balfour has just finished his ambassador tour in Australia.
These sound nice, but what actually happens during an MLB Ambassador Tour? What are the goals of the tour, and how are those goals realized?
As an intern with MLB International, I had the opportunity to be involved with Grant Balfour’s recent ambassador tour in Australia and will attempt to answer these questions below. Note that my answers are specific to Grant’s tour in Australia and I have not been involved in any of the others.
Goals of the Tour
Broadly speaking, the goal of the tour is to promote the game worldwide. As the game continues to grow throughout the world, ambassadors can help facilitate that growth. They are role models for young baseballers, teachers for players and coaches, and inspirations for those aspiring to similar careers. These players generate excitement about the game in their country through extensive media coverage and interactions with local players, coaches, and fans. Tangibly speaking, specific goals of the tours include increasing youth baseball participation, club participation, and professional and collegiate signings.
Grant’s tour, unlike the others, also included the goal of generating excitement about the Australian Baseball League (ABL). Currently in its fifth season in the new format, the ABL was revitalized as a joint venture between Major League Baseball and Baseball Australia. The league owns all six clubs, and players range from top domestic talent to international imports from Minor League Baseball, Nippon Professional Baseball, the Korean Baseball Organization, and more. For more on the past, present, and future of the ABL, check out my article from a few months ago.
What Happens on the Tour?
The following section is a day-by-day review of the events of the tour.
After a partial day reserved for jet-lag recovery, the first full day of the tour began with a press conference. Set at a Circular Quay hotel with a deck that looks out to the world famous Sydney Opera House, this was used as an opportunity to welcome Grant home and tell the public about the specifics of the tour.
This video includes one of many one on one interviews with Grant from this media event.
Grant’s first public appearance came later that night as the Sydney Blue Sox hosted the Adelaide Bite in Australian Baseball League action. With an autograph session before the game, a first pitch (along with the US Consulate General), and informal mingling with the crowd during the game, his presence was felt at the park that night. Both parties were eager to meet the other, and the first day concluded as a success.
The second day was marred by poor weather that cancelled a Training With the Pros session where Grant was to appear. The scheduled event gave kids the opportunity to meet and train alongside Grant then receive a free ticket to see the Blue Sox take on Adelaide that night. Plan B saw us reschedule the training session for next month but invite the kids to the park anyway to meet Grant, hear a few of his words of wisdom, receive autographs and take pictures. Much to the dismay of the kids, Grant did not instruct them on how to rage properly on the mound, instead telling of the importance of dedication to one’s craft as a baseballer.
Later that night Grant made the short flight down to Canberra to see the hometown Cavalry face the Melbourne Aces. His only appearance in the city was a good one and was documented in this MLB.com video. The video shows Grant meeting the fans and assisting in the presentation of the Ambassador’s Cup. The prize is awarded annually to the ACT (Australian Capital Territory) club that recruits the most new members. This game also featured a pregame autograph session and a Cavalry VIP and Members Event during the game, both with Grant.
The next day may have been the most memorable for both Grant and his father David, who was also present for much of the tour. David is a former General Manager of the Sydney Blue Sox, a valuable contributor to baseball in the Balfours' home state of New South Wales, and the longest known survivor of his type of cancer. As his battle with the terrible sickness rages on, the Sydney baseball community honored David prior to the game in an emotional ceremony.
There was hardly a dry eye in the stadium as the PA announcer read a touching tribute that included many personalized thank you messages from his contemporaries through the years. Even Grant, known to most readers simply as a player and a fiery competitor, shed more than a few tears during the ceremony. This was a fitting tribute to a man who has worked wonders for baseball in New South Wales and left a positive impact on countless contemporaries he has met along the way. This game also featured a VIP and Member Event during the game where the biggest supporters of the Blue Sox were afforded the opportunity to socialize with Grant.
Following the weekend of games, the next day was Grant’s main opportunity to enjoy some time revisiting his hometown. This day, which thankfully was not affected by the siege at a café downtown, began at the National Rugby League’s Wests Tigers training facility. Grant had the opportunity to meet many of the players and coaches and received a full tour of the facility. A Tigers’ fan for over 30 years, presumably due to his father David playing for them in his younger days, Grant was presented with a signed Tigers jersey. In return, he offered Rays’ caps to the players and coaches, who also enjoyed playing a bit of informal baseball. For a few players, that was the first time they had ever picked up a baseball.
Next we headed to the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG), the home of the 2014 Opening Series. As a member of the Rays, Grant did not participate in the series between the Dodgers and the Diamondbacks but was predictably fascinated with the idea of baseball at the SCG. During the tour, a few members of the SCG Trust showed Grant the hallowed members stand and locker rooms before walking down the carpet, as the players do, onto the pitch. As a video showing famous Australian baseballers rolled, Grant walked to the center to the pitch and imagined standing on a mound on this field in front of a packed house a few months earlier. The staff explained how the field was oriented and then showed Grant the Diamondbacks change rooms, which were transformed from a spare room into a world class facility in a very short time.
The day concluded with a water taxi tour of Sydney Harbor, beginning in Rose Bay, going past Shark Island, Fort Denison, the Sydney Opera House, under the Harbor Bridge, and through to Darling Harbor before returning. The beauty of perhaps the world’s most famous harbor reminded Grant, who has a permanent residence in the states, of some of the wonders of his home city.
Footage from throughout this day has been condensed into this video.
The next day the tour headed south to Melbourne in preparation for the ABL All Star Game the next night. To get the word out and the locals excited, Grant made a pair of promotional appearances. First was a signing at a local Levi’s retail outlet, which was the major sponsor of the game. Following this, Grant made an appearance at a member event at a local pub, where Melbourne Aces fans were afforded the opportunity to meet and socialize with Grant in a relaxed setting.
The ABL All-Star Game, one of the league’s marquee events, was the next night. This game pitted native Australian All-Stars against the World All-Stars, and much to the delight of the crowd, Team Australia rallied late and emerged with an 11-8 victory.
The first pitch of this game was a highlight as Grant, a self-described car buff, was driven onto the field in an extremely nice car to deliver the pitch (1961 Corvette sounds right but I'm no car buff and can't exactly remember). Following this, Grant took to the Team Australia dugout where he was able to interact with the players and serve as an honorary captain. He also found time to do a radio interview and to sign autographs for some fans during the game, which was broadcast on MLB Network and ESPN Australia.
From here Grant headed to Brisbane for the final leg to the tour. I was not present during this part of the tour but will still comment on the events that took place.
The first day in Brisbane featured a Training With the Pros Session, where Grant assisted with a clinic for local youth on the Gold Coast (close to Brisbane). That night, Brisbane members were given the opportunity to meet and socialize with him at a local pub, similar to the event two days prior in Melbourne.
The second day in Brisbane began with another Training With the Pros Session, this time at the Bandits’ home ground, Holloway Field. Kids attending this session were treated with the opportunity to train with Grant and other professional baseball players then stick around for the game that night for free. During the game, Grant held an autograph session for all fans and attended a VIP and Member Event.
Grant headed back to Sydney the next morning and enjoyed a full day with his father before boarding a flight for Tampa the following day.
Results of the Tour
With events such as these, results are often difficult to measure. I wrote at the beginning of this piece that the overarching goal of these tours is to promote the game worldwide and listed various tangible sub-goals. Can we accurately measure the effect of Grant’s tour on these sub-goals? If youth participation increases next year, can we attribute that to kids meeting Grant and aspiring to be like him? Could Grant’s tour have an effect on the long-term attendance of the ABL?
I have no answer for these questions, but there is another goal that was met on this tour: fan engagement and appreciation.
Though it is still a marginal sport, baseball is on the rise in Australia. There are small but dedicated fan and player populations that are committed to the game and the promotion of the game, and events like Grant’s tour help keep this population engaged. The tour tells the grassroots baseball community that we appreciate the work they do at the local level and provides a reward for them to enjoy. Everyone in the Australian baseball community knows all about Grant and his career, and bringing Grant down to interact with this community is a great way to deliver the message that their work is meaningful and not overlooked. The fans and grassroots personnel are the most important part of the baseball community in this (and any) market, and we hope that the opportunity to meet arguably Australia’s most decorated baseballer keeps the energy and excitement present.
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With the 2014 Opening Series and Grant’s MLB Ambassador Tour in the same year, Major League Baseball is showing their commitment to the growth of this market. We are confident that these events will help us, as an Australian baseball community, continue to grow. We hope that Grant served as an inspiration and role model for young Australian baseballers and that his presence won a few new and ignited a few old fans for the ABL.
Finally, it is necessary to deliver a public thank you to Grant for taking the time out of his offseason to serve as an MLB Ambassador. This is time that he could have been spending on vacation, but he chose to come back home to give back to the baseball community that helped him become a Major League Baseball player. Commitments like this, where individuals go above and beyond the call of duty for the sake of the game in their area, are greatly appreciated. Grant is one example and there are countless others in New South Wales, all of Australia, and the world. To those fitting this description, thank you.
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The views and opinions offered above are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of MLB International.
Dan Weigel is an intern with MLB International in Sydney, a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score and an Author of Minor League Ball. Follow him on twitter at @DanWiggles38.