Cricket legend has love for America's pastime

Cricket legend has love for America's pastime

SYDNEY, Australia – Greg Chappell, at 65, is lean and gray. Powerful through his forearms and narrow in his shoulders, he moves like a much younger man.

He walked Wednesday morning from the parking lot at Sydney Cricket Ground, through a large tunnel that narrowed and led to the field and into the sunlight.

This place, it's different. Like Fenway Park, had Fenway Park opened more than six decades earlier.

"You can feel the ghosts of the past," he said.

He's one of them.

"It's a lifetime ago," Chappell said. "Like someone else did it. Like it wasn't me."

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Chappell is a legendary Australian cricketer, the kind they name parts of stadiums after. Adelaide Oval's Chappell Stands, for one, honor Greg and his two brothers, also notable cricketers. The SCG was – is – one of his favorites. He did things here that not many have.

On this field, in the shadow of Don Bradman Stand (Bradman to cricket as Michael Jordan is to basketball), Chappell rested his forearms on that greatest of American inventions, the batting cage, and considered the beast that had arrived and put up its feet on the sacred Members Pavilion. You'd understand if the Aussies viewed the diamond, the temporary fences, the warning tracks, the dugouts, all this baseball, as something like an intruder. The game has its place here, on the fringes of a population that loves its games but seems to have little room for baseball. Yet, here it is, and no one has uttered a word about desecrating the grounds, which makes sense given the number of rugby and Australian rules football games that stomp across that pitch. Besides, everyone seems to like the idea.

"I think it's just sensational," Chappell said. "Anytime you get elite athletes from any sport, it's fantastic."

"This," and he drew his hand across the reworked grounds, the players, the drumbeat of batting practice, "will capture the sporting imagination of Australia."

On a week in which baseball and cricket will intersect like never before – regular-season Major League Baseball games on a historic cricket field – Chappell is the former cricketer whose grandfather and father played baseball, whose son, Jon, was a catcher in the Toronto Blue Jays' organization, whose brother Ian was a masters league catcher into his 60's, who himself played and adored the game, who as a child idolized Mickey Mantle, and who, some 35 years ago, played a cricket match on the somewhat hallowed grounds of Shea Stadium.

(On the topic of very little cricket in the U.S., he said, "You guys tried to divorce yourselves from everything that was English. So cricket fell off the map.")

Chappell owns four autographs. One is Joe DiMaggio's.

Around the time of the Shea Stadium event, Chappell and three other cricket players – two South Africans and an Englishman – were passing the time in a New York City bar. Chappell knew the DiMaggio profile immediately.

"There's Joe DiMaggio," he announced to the table.

"Who's Joe DiMaggio?" one asked.

"You know," Chappell said. "Joe DiMaggio. Yankees. Joltin' Joe."

Blank stares.

"Marilyn Monroe."

"Oh, yes, then. Right-o."

Chappell introduced himself at the bar, and DiMaggio joined the four of them. Years later, Chappell met Ted Williams. He once met Hank Aaron. He sat in the bleachers of old Yankee Stadium one early evening and watched Reggie Jackson hit batting-practice fastball after batting-practice fastball into the right-field bleachers, and in the first inning that very night saw him hit a real fastball into the right-field bleachers. "I coulda walked it right in," he said, still happy at the memory.

They were, without much of a stretch, peers of his. People who saw him play, who tend to such things, call Chappell an elegant batsman, the same way Chappell described Williams, as anyone would. "Languid," he said of Williams. "So well balanced."

The games collide in that way, in the hiss of the pitch and the heart rate of the hitter and the randomness of what comes next, so perhaps it is not so strange they'd share a plot for a few days, share a city's psyche and a bit of its soul. That can work, right?

In a different era, in a place where baseball had a foothold, where it was an option, maybe Greg Chappell becomes one of the great ballplayers instead. If nothing else, it could have been a choice. That, perhaps, is what baseball is after here. To make its money, sure. To sell more subscriptions to baseball on TV, and sell more jerseys.

But maybe the game stirs enough interest to build a proper ballpark in Sydney, and a few of those 10-year-old Little Leaguers who Dodgers players met at Bondi Beach on Wednesday morning find a way into it, and people like it, and this here becomes a ghost of the future.

Baseball, for better or worse, has this way of feeling responsible for things like that.

Chappell disengaged from the batting cage and had another look around. The old place, it does feel a little different, and it will for another few days, and for the moment he'd leave it at that.

"I was excited," he said, "just to see it as a baseball field."

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