Masters boom shows no signs of waning
29 April 2017
While the measured creation of stronger junior pathways, a revamped national competition and robust showings by our teams at international level have all helped raised the profile of Australian baseball in recent years, a somewhat less heralded though socially significant development in the sport has been the burgeoning popularity of Masters baseball.
Although there were a few notable exceptions, thirty years ago it was unusual for any person to stay actively involved as a baseball player after the age of forty, while suiting up into one’s fifties and sixties was a rarity – regarded usually as a somewhat eccentric, quaint oddity.
However, the engagement of a contingent of mature-aged baseball players and Australian-based teams for the World Masters Games in Auckland over the past week again underscores fundamental changes in attitudes towards the place of sport in our lives as increasingly more baseballers choose to play on.
Of the entries across three age groupings in Auckland, three teams were from South Australia (Gunslingers, Aces, Rams) and three from Sydney (Scorpions, Deadstars and Spitting Camels), although there was also a spattering of players turning out for other overseas entries – including former New South Wales Claxton Shield pitcher Dave Rosser, Essendon Life Member Ross Drinkwater and Victorian Masters stalwart Randall Hendrickse - along with six Australian umpires.
Much has been said and written about the genesis of Masters baseball, which fundamentally dates back to the 1980s, when baseball began to take a parallel path with other sports in which people began to question why they should retire from an active involvement in sport and forgo the many personal and social benefits that accrue from playing on.
The Australian Sports Commission was one of the earliest bodies to embrace the Masters sport concept and to promote the idea of mature-aged events in which people meeting certain age requirements could continue to access the benefits of sport – regardless of previous levels of achievement – and enjoy the social engagement, the friendships and greater physical well-being.
While Alice Springs in 1986 hosted the inaugural Central Australian Masters Games – a biennial event (now known as the Alice Springs Masters Games) that will next be held in 2018 – serious impetus was provided to the mature-aged sporting movement by the 1994 World Masters Games, a massive occasion drawing 23,500 people to Brisbane in over thirty sports.
Baseball was one of the team sports, offering competitions in 35 Plus and 40 Plus to participants predominantly from across Australia, but also from South Africa and Guam. Bronze medallist in the 40 Plus group was Ballarat Golddiggers, now more widely known simply as Golddiggers - a durable entity that has contested over forty Masters baseball events since its Brisbane debut.
Due largely to the fine research work, promotion and assistance provided by Ron Burns of Australian Sports Commission, state bodies, associations and clubs progressively became more attuned to embracing the spirit of Masters baseball – which was founded on the principle of active involvement and supportiveness regardless of sporting background or previous level of achievement.
Regardless of the healthy competitiveness that might still remain, the activity placed far greater emphasis on having fun, on maintaining or achieving reasonable levels of fitness, on travelling, spending time with friends, on forging new relationships – and unwittingly, by example, on mentoring the worth of lifelong sporting activity to younger persons.
As community attitudes in general have evolved, far more people are now choosing to maintain an active involvement in sport and to access the range of potential benefits involved – especially in team sport. While some sports – and some disciplines - remain gender-specific, Masters baseball is accessible to both men and women, with minimum age being the only requirement for participation on a team.
Since the nineties, the growth in the popularity of Masters baseball has been extraordinary, although it remains, by and large, publicly unacknowledged by some sporting bodies – unfortunately including Baseball Australia - and by media outlets that are fixated on elite achievement above all else. As with women's baseball in its earlier days, Masters appears to have been regarded by some as an "add on" to the sport - rather than as an integral, viable and valuable component in its own right.
Unfortunately, while mainstream media will see fit to report on a 102 year-old woman completing a one-person 100 metre event for its curiosity value, little if anything is ever made of the thousands of everyday people whose lives continue to be enriched – and quite possibly extended in length - by active involvement in sport as they grow older.
Mature-aged sport offers a veritable wealth of material - including in Masters baseball - that could form the basis of engaging and inspiring feature stories should mainstream media outlets or influential sporting organisations choose to apply their considerable resources to reflect upon a phenomenon that has effectively transformed the importance of participatory sport in so many Australians’ lives over the past quarter of a century.
Most Australian state and territory baseball associations now run Masters competitions, with New South Wales conducting series through both summer and winter, and Victoria – for the 2016/17 summer - building to an impressive total of 36 teams for its Masters season.
After the 1994 blockbuster in Brisbane, the World Masters Games has returned to our shores twice – Melbourne/Geelong in 2002 and Sydney in 2009, with baseball among the leading team sports on both occasions. Scheduled for Kansai region, Japan, the 2021 World Masters is sure to again be strongly supported by Australian sporting interests – including baseball teams.
Conducted each two years alternating with World Masters Games, the Australian Masters Games continues to be a massive event on the Masters calendar, this year to be held in North West Tasmania during late October. It will be the sixteenth staging of the Australian Masters Games, which has rotated between states extremely successfully over its lengthy history.
Established a decade ago as a relatively modest Gold Coast Masters, the Pan Pacific Masters Games is again projected to attract over 13,000 participants – including at least 40 baseball teams - when it is next held in November 2018. Facilities, weather, quality of the competition and overall organisation have consistently placed the Pan Pacs as one of the most desirable of all Masters events – evidenced by its popularity among the baseball fraternity.
Aside from the booming national and international Masters events of which baseball has become a key supporter over many years, there are numerous regional baseball-specific events conducted throughout the land – including at Mount Gambier, Broken Hill and of course the iconic Victorian Masters Baseball Carnival, an annual three-day celebration of the sport that was established in Ballarat twenty-one years ago and that every year draws up to its ceiling of twenty-four teams in groups catering for players from 35 to 70 years of age.
For an aspiring or even established social commentator with an interest in the field, the demographics and the proven benefits of Masters sport over the past twenty-five years would be a fascinating study. It would be especially enlightening to reflect upon the manner in which team sport – especially – has impacted on the lives of participants, on their well-being, their relationships and their ongoing and vital engagement with clubs at grassroots level.
It seems clear, anecdotally and on numbers, that the mature-aged baseball phenomenon has become an increasingly popular and worthwhile activity that shows no sign of losing impetus any time soon. Exhorting us all those years ago to “Play On”, Ron Burns would surely be delighted with the response that has been forthcoming from the Australian baseball community.