The Victorian Masters Baseball Carnival has its origins in the mid 1990s, when members of the Ballarat Golddiggers presented a proposal for the City of Ballarat to create an annual Masters Games in the city.
Initially the Ballarat Masters Games in 1997, the event evolved into the State Autumn Masters Games and then the Victorian Masters Games before funding issues forced the withdrawal of the City of Ballarat in 2000. Around 30 sports were represented in the Games' four-year history, with baseball being among the more popular team sports.
As the baseball competition had operated largely independently of the Games organisation in the earlier years, it was able to continue as an annual event conducted by the Golddiggers. In 2001 it became formally identified as the Victorian Masters Baseball Carnival and it has continued to grow since.
The 1997 series was contested by Fitzroy, Latrobe Valley, Geelong and Golddiggers, with the local team taking series honours after a tightly-fought four day competition complemented by the enthusiastic partying and wonderful social interaction that have become a hallmark of Masters sport.
The Diggers were successful again in 1998, although new teams in Coburg and Sunshine were among those beginning to issue serious challenges for the mildly coveted "Golddiggers Perpetual Shield". Although winning is of somewhat lesser importance to the Masters fraternity than in their earlier sporting years, the healthy competitiveness and pride in playing performance have remained with most.
Re-scheduled as a three-day event in 1999, the Carnival attracted Bacchus Marsh to its core of regular teams. Having recruited very well off-season, Coburg was impressive in going through undefeated despite close encounters with Fitzroy and Latrobe Valley. This was to be the first of four consecutive titles taken by the Burgers. Notwithstanding this effort, there was another remarkable highlight in 2002 that encapsulated the "feel good" spirit of Masters baseball. With an uneven number of teams entered, organisers created a "Spirit of the Game" Final on the Sunday morning. The game was scheduled between the side currently last in the standings against a composite side of volunteers from all other sides.
The game was a rollicking affair enjoyed immensely by players and spectators, the latter of whom may have bemused by apparent lack of player concern for the final result. On occasions that "What's the score?" might have been asked (if it was at all), asked, the response was unambiguously, "Don't know - don't really care".
Scheduled for ninety minutes, the game went well over time. The cynics might say that this was related to discreetly supplied refreshments in the dugouts (it was a hot day). Others, most certainly in the know, would insist that this was what sport is surely about - playing and having fun with friends.
In 2003, water restrictions in Ballarat forced relocation of the Carnival to the magnificent Geelong complex, with the Guild and Saints clubs playing host. Once again, the series produced some magnificent mature-aged baseball and a host of close results. Runner-up the previous year, Springvale proved just too strong in an outstanding final against a gallant Melbourne in the latter's first Carnival appearance.
With ground/water circumstances unchanged, the Carnival returned to Geelong in 2004 (Friday 2 April - Sunday 4 April). Organisers were delighted to be able to offer two age divisions - 35 plus and 40 plus. With Masters baseball booming in this country, it was no surprise to welcome almost 200 players from eleven squads. Perennial finalist Coburg again took the Golddiggers Perpetual Shield in 40 plus, while local favourite Geelong Saints shook off Ormond Glenhuntly in the 35 plus "junior" series.
2005 saw the entry of Brownsocks (35 plus) and Newport (40 plus) to maintain team numbers from previous years. Again held at the Geelong Baseball Centre, the series was played in perfect weather conditions until a cyclone struck early on the Sunday morning. This was not enough to deter the Masters fraternity, though, with the series played out in its typically competitive, jovial and sociable manner. Coburg continued its dominance with a convincing win over Melbourne in the 40 plus final, while previous runner-up Ormond Glenhuntly wore down Brownsocks for the 35 plus title.
While Carnival growth had been extraordinary in the early years, interest showed no signs of abating and 12 teams (2 age groupings) were offered in 2006, with the series this time being organised and delivered by the Geelong Baseball Association. For the first time, weather conditions were less than ideal for the three days - but this was not enough to curb the enthusiasm of the participants and the competitive spirit in which the series was played. With the wheel now appearing to have turned full circle, a revitalised Diggers unit came from nowhere to thump Coburg and win its first 40 plus title since 1998, with strong competition also provided by Fitzroy, Melbourne, Newport and Ormond Glenhuntly. Entering this time as a 35 plus unit, Springvale took the 35 plus title over a gallant and very well organised Ormond Glenhuntly, with Brownsocks, Saints, Bacchus Marsh and Brumbies filling the placings.
From 2007 onwards, numbers continued to hold up, with thirteen teams entered in two age groupings in 2010. While Goulburn Valley was with us for only one of the years in Geelong, new teams have been attracted to the event - including Tassy Tigers, Waverley and the Werribee "Bees" (surely the most sartorially elegant of any of our participants thus far).
While the Carnival enjoyed a wonderful eight years at Geelong Baseball Centre, there was always a degree of interest in returning the series to its Ballarat home when the drought had eased and ground conditions could be assured. Allied with that was a consensus that the harbor city was probably in need of a break from hosting just about every major event on the Victorian and Australian baseball calendar.
So, in 2011, the Carnival back to where it began all those years ago. Whether it was the return to the Begonia City or for any number of other possible reasons, interested in the event intensified even further - with twenty teams (about the maximum manageable for a three-day event) entered in both 2012 and 2013.
For 2013, Carnival stalwart the Big Cat Tomatoes entered three teams - winning titles in 45 Plus and 35 Plus.
Team numbers are expected to hold up in 2014. Some of the faces might have changed, but the indomitable Masters spirit has never wavered.
Baseball continues to be leader in Masters sport. This remarkable Carnival reminds us that you are only as old as you are.