By Eric Nusbaum
When the Dodgers and Diamondbacks announced that they would be opening the 2014 season in Australia, it was just another in a long line of international conquests for the Dodgers, whose manifest destiny of global brand recognition dates back to the team's days in Brooklyn. (The Dodgers toured Japan after the 1956 season, boarding a flight less than a day after losing game seven of the World Series to the Yankees.) And while Australia is relatively new territory for Major League Baseball, so is Phoenix. The Diamondbacks, who debuted as a franchise in 1998, don't have a brand that rings out across vast oceans like that of the Dodgers or Yankees. And they have not, until now, been thought of as a shining example of baseball's globalist ambitions.
The Arizona front office, however, is aiming to change that. The milestone of playing the first ever regular season big league game in Australia is not an end in itself for the Diamondbacks, but what CEO Derrick Hall hopes will be one of many positive results of his team's expansive overall approach to the worldwide market, which might be described as a simultaneously tactical and idealistic embrace of globalization. The Diamondbacks are certainly not the only baseball team that looked at a world map and saw its own future as a franchise plotted on it. But they have certainly made expanding their global presence a priority.
"The popularity of baseball, not only in Australia but all over the world requires to get out there as much as we can," said Hall.
That is exactly what the Diamondbacks are doing. When Hall says "out there," he means everywhere. Even before the Australia games were scheduled, the team hired Craig Shipley, the first Australian major leaguer, to help set up scouting there. Last August, Hall, general manager Kevin Towers and former outfielder Luis Gonzalez (who is now a special assistant to Hall) spent two weeks touring Japan. (Plans to open the 2011 season against the Giants in Taiwan were scratched.) Just across the border, the team has developed a close partnership with the Naranjeros winter ball team in Hermosillo, Sonora -- even opening a ticket office in Hermosillo.
* * *
For the Diamondbacks, getting out there must begin not only close to home, but at home. In 2010, the team found itself caught in the middle of an international firestorm over Senate Bill 1070, a piece of Arizona legislation that was widely seen as abusing the civil rights of Latino citizens. (The Supreme Court struck down some of the law's key provisions in 2012, but upheld a law enforcement obligation to check immigration statuses during a "lawful stop, detention or arrest.") Amid protests at visiting parks, criticisms from opposing players and an organized effort to boycott that year's All Star Game to be held at Phoenix's Chase Field, Diamondbacks Managing Partner Ken Kendrick, who had donated to Republican candidates supporting the bill, released a statement declaring that he was "personally opposed."
The controversy has blown over, thanks in part to the team's efforts at separating the Diamondbacks brand from Arizona's more contentious political battles. "SB 1070 provided a lot of confusion for people living here, for people living in Mexico obviously. I think now we're really comfortable with it," said Hall, referring not to the legislation itself but to the team's place in the community. "I think one thing we need to do is let them know how welcome our Hispanic fans are here. Open arms."
Open arms extends into Mexico as well, where the Diamondbacks have developed a close professional relationship with the front office of Hermosillo's Naranjeros. In addition to busing fans across the border for games, the Arizona front office consulted on the design of the Naranjeros' new ballpark, Estadio Sonora, which was modeled on the Diamondbacks' spring training facility Salt River Fields. During this year's Serie del Caribe, Arizona sent a delegation to Hermosillo where they toured the new stadium and hosted a youth clinic. Gonzalez and Sr. Vice President Josh Rawitch also found themselves in Mexico City in the spring as part of a Phoenix Chamber of Commerce-sponsored trip. Among other things, they wandered around Mexico City parks handing out Diamondbacks gear to unsuspecting passersby, trying to convert them into fans one at a time. (Mexico City is very much a soccer town.)
"If we're ever fortunate enough to sign a good player in Mexico, it will help increase our presence down there and our fan base here locally," said General Manager Kevin Towers, referencing Erubiel Durazo's stint with the Diamondbacks. He later added: "There's no better marketing tool than Fernando Valenzuela."
But Towers's primary concern is to assemble a winning roster -- not to amplify the team's brand recognition. He has taken an interest in marketing because, for Major League Baseball teams, international marketing is closely tied with scouting and player development. It's a symbiotic relationship: the more well-known the Diamondbacks brand is, the easier it will be to sign international players; if international players are successful for the Diamondbacks, they will help grow the brand in their home countries. With Mexico just next door, the on and off-field implications are self-evident.
* * *
The Diamondbacks, like most big league clubs, have extended their organizational infrastructure to talent-rich countries like the Dominican Republic and Japan. In those already-crowded markets, they are looking for new ways to stand out and become a desirable option for players. (Especially because the new Collective Bargaining Agreements limits spending on international free agents under the age of 23.) After all, attempting to sign established Japanese or Dominican players can only get a team so far.
In Asia, the Diamondbacks turned to Mack Hayashi, a former agent who became the team's Director of Pacific Rim Operations in 2007. Hayashi's responsibilities fall mainly in the realm of scouting, but he says that the secret behind scouting in Japan, Korea, and Taiwan is establishing a respectful presence in each place.
"It's important whether you're scouting in Japan, Korea, or Taiwan that you are being welcome to that country," Hayashi said. "The first thing you do is build relationships with each of the twelve pro teams in Japan, ten teams in Korea, and four teams in Taiwan, because you are stepping into their territory. It's important to have that relationship both ways."
The Diamondbacks' trip to Japan last season was made not only with the intention of exposing the team's brand to fans, but with establishing working relationships with Japanese front offices. In the last two years, team presidents from four different Japanese clubs have visited the Diamondbacks in Phoenix. They've discussed marketing strategies, swapped scouting ideas, and shared organizational best practices. Five Korean front offices have also visited, and the Diamondbacks engaged in negotiations with some of those clubs about sharing spring training facilities for next season -- and perhaps playing some exhibition games.
As of opening day this season, more than ten percent of big league players were born in the Dominican Republic. 28 clubs operate academies in the country. With the new CBA restricting each team's spending on international signings, a team's ability to lure players has become less about wowing talent with cash and more about selling other perks. One way the Diamondbacks aim to sell future signees is through education, said Hall. The team is developing an "academic academy" program to fit in alongside its baseball academy.
The organization aims to provide an English and academic program that continues into the lower levels of the minor leagues in the United States, culminating in a G.E.D. After all, most players don't make the majors. Having the equivalent of a high school diploma could be seen as a tangible benefit of time spent in the pro baseball world -- one that, unlike the money they make, could help them get a job down the line. The academic academy could also be a way for the Diamondbacks to differentiate themselves from other teams when it comes time to sell themselves to young players and their families.
"We can say to the mother or father or grandmother 'we are going to educate your son,'" said Hall. "In these communities, it's not just a matter of stealing away players and residents. We also have to make these communities better places to live."
If Hall sounds like he works at an NGO when it comes to spreading the Diamondbacks brand (an unwritten franchise rule is that employees should wear the team's logo when they are traveling abroad), Towers is more practical about the on-field impact of programs like academic academies: Towers said he thinks a better educational foundation will make players easier to coach, and improve communication throughout the organization. It will also make for smoother transitions from Latin America countries to the United States. He also believes that as the Diamondbacks continue to expand into less familiar territory, players from countries like the Dominican Republic will have a built-in advantage because they grow up immersed in the sport, playing baseball "from sun up to sun down."
But clubs will need to be more patient with talent from fledgling baseball countries like the Netherlands and Australia -- and possibly Brazil. On one hand, the rise of the sport in new places will be universally beneficial (a rising tide lifts all ships). The Dodgers and Diamondbacks opening next season at the Sydney Cricket Grounds will also improve visibility for the Mets, Rockies, Mariners and every other big league club. On the other, baseball is a competitive sport, and teams are fighting a 24-hour, 365-day battle to strengthen their rosters using any advantage possible. For example, the Dodgers' recent signings of Yasiel Puig and Hyun-Jin Ryu exploited their financial position, but have also reflected well on that club's pledge to refocus its efforts on international scouting.
We're in the business of trying to find the best talent we can, not just domestically but internationally as well," said Towers. "We've seen over the last ten or fifteen years the influence that Asian players have had in our game, that Cuban players have had in our game."
To that end, the Diamondbacks have hired Craig Shipley in Australia and Hayashi in Asia. They now have a man on the ground in Brazil, as well. Hayashi said he expects to make his first trip down there this summer, expanding his territory beyond the Pacific Rim. (Baseball has caught on there thanks in part to a large wave of immigration from Japan in the early 20th century; in 2012, Cleveland catcher Yan Gomes became the first major leaguer to have been born in Brazil.)
* * *
Organizing regular season baseball in Sidney was a five-year process, said Paul Archey, MLB's Senior Vice President of International Operations. A number of factors went into deciding which teams would be sent down under, including spring training facility location (Cactus League teams only), the demands of Australian promoters who presented a list of franchises they were interested in and finding two interested clubs in the same division. The Diamondbacks' eagerness to be one of those teams was reflected in their agreeing to give up two Chase Field home games for the sake of the trip. That they employ Shipley only made the decision easier for Major League Baseball. But the Diamondbacks would likely have been knocking on the door even if the game were to be held somewhere else.
"They are a club that's very supportive of our international efforts, and have expressed a willingness to expose their brand," said Archey.
That willingness is rooted in Hall's notions of what makes good baseball business, and Towers' notions of what makes good baseball. But it also comes from somewhere deep inside of the people making decisions for the club. The Diamondbacks hosted World Baseball Classic events in 2006 and 2013. Hayashi, for example, lived and worked in Japan for years before he went to work for the Diamondbacks. Hall learned to take the internationalization of the game seriously when he was starting out in the Dodger organization under Peter O'Malley. And Towers, who was drafted by the Padres in 1982, spent his bonus money on a plane ticket to Amsterdam and a Eurail train pass.
"Most people bought cars," he said.
* * *
Eric Nusbaum lives in Mexico City. His writing has appeared in Slate, Deadspin, The Daily Beast and The Best American Sports Writing. He is a staffer at The Classical. You can check out his work on ericnus.com.