Alex Braae heads to North Harbour Stadium to watch the Auckland baseball team play a crunch game before a wild, Baby Shark-chanting crowd.
By rights, the Auckland Tuatara shouldn’t be a big deal. They’ve been around just two years, playing a sport that almost nobody in New Zealand bothers with, in a competition largely unheralded on the world stage.
And yet, on a weekend full of big ticket sporting events, it was the Tuatara who captured the imagination more than any other. North Harbour Stadium spends most of the year empty, whether there’s a game on or not. And baseball can be a soporifically dull sport. But on a sweltering Saturday night with their season on the line against the Melbourne Aces, the Tuatara had it rocking.
It was the biggest home crowd they had ever seen, and the culmination of a remarkably fast rise. When they joined the Australian Baseball League in 2018, the Tuatara didn’t have a stadium to play in, so much as a park in Te Atatu with some makeshift fences. The results rarely went their way, even if there were some promising moments.
Everything changed this season. A rampant run through the regular season saw them top the Northeast Division. To put that achievement in context, no New Zealand franchise in an Australian competition has ever made it to the finals in so few seasons. It took the Wellington Phoenix three years to make the post-season, the Breakers five, and the Warriors even longer.
To get there, the Tuatara have had to blend several sporting cultures together. There were the obvious nods to Americana, like the organ stings being piped over the PA system, and the concept of a designated “donut boy” from the opposition. That’s a player who if struck out would earn everyone in the crowd donut vouchers.
But judging by the flags around the ground, there has also been huge support for the Tuatara from the South Korean and Taiwanese communities in particular. Neither community sees much, if any, representation in the ranks of New Zealand’s professional sports teams. The Tuatara have a player from each, along with several from Japan. Baseball is a genuinely global game, and is huge in East Asian countries that have seen the influence of American culture.
In South Korea, the crowds are hugely enthusiastic participants in the game. Strange as it may seem to a fan in New Zealand, the cheerleaders at baseball in South Korea actually lead cheers. And the cohorts of fans being led in surprisingly complicated song and dance routines are thousands strong – whole walls of the stadium take part in them.
Something very similar threatened to break out at North Harbour Stadium on Saturday. It was the Tuatara’s first innings at bat, and they had just got off the mark with two runs. The crowd got on their feet to welcome Kim “Kiwi” Won-Seok to the plate. It seemed like everyone knew what to do.
The Baby Shark song started blasting. Hundreds of pairs of arms started snapping together in unison, like giant pairs of jaws. As a moment, it could have been corny as hell. But it absolutely went off. While the novelty wore off a bit when the bit was repeated later on, the first one had the sort of collective enthusiasm that can sweep people up, and it’s almost impossible to manufacture or fake.
Consider the other major sports the Tuatara were up against this weekend for attention. The night before, the Super Rugby season had started, in bloody January. And the Black Caps lost yet another T20 in a row, in a series where the games have been scheduled late into the night entirely to appease the Indian television market. If you were a casual and agnostic sports fan, what story is going to grab you more? Two deeply entrenched sports where it feels like content is scheduled simply to feed the beast, or a scrappy local underdog forcing their way onto the agenda through the strength of their performances?
In the end, it wasn’t to be. The two runs in the first innings were the only ones the Tuatara picked up. A disastrous fifth innings saw the Aces pick up six runs, calmly loading up the bases and then running batters home one by one. And there, the scores stayed for the rest of the game. Right up to the bottom of the ninth, a miracle still looked possible. But the Aces, after being sloppy early on in the field, turned the screws and closed it out with brutal efficiency.
The season is now over for the Tuatara, and it could be a long offseason. Some of their players will be back, but others will undoubtedly be eyeing a chance at playing in a bigger league. Such is the lot of a small market team, as any fan of the Wellington Phoenix will be able to attest to.
But there is plenty there for the Tuatara to build from. The crowd that turned out was the second largest in ABL history, with more than 4000 coming through the gates. And the merchandise stand did a roaring trade all night, even selling out of playoff themed t-shirts, so it’s a certainty that the Tuatara’s distinctive shade of teal will be seen more around Auckland.
Perhaps it’s a case of “build it and they’ll come”, to paraphrase the iconic baseball film Field of Dreams. After playing in front of hundreds, if not dozens of people at some of their earlier games, the Tuatara repeatedly set attendance records this season. And with eight years still to go on their lease for North Harbour Stadium, there’s plenty of time to build further.
But it was a small moment before the game even started which showed why baseball now has a real chance of taking off in New Zealand. The Tuatara players were warming up with some throws in front of the stands, and some kids ran down to the rail to get a closer look. One had a mitt on, and a Tuatara player grinned at him and spent a minute throwing it to him instead. The kid looked elated afterwards, and will probably remember it for a long time to come. It’s those sorts of moments that give smaller sports a chance to plan for a much bigger future.