Tuesday 21 May 2019

Irish people are finally stepping up to the plate

Baseball is growing in appeal for youth and adult players, writes Patrick McEllin

To the casual observer, baseball may seem like a relatively simple game. Hit the ball, run around, score. It's hard to see what gets the fans so excited.

Perhaps it is another pointless American tradition, like gaudy showings of nationalistic pride or the right to bear arms. People wonder why they hold it so close to their hearts or why any criticism of it borders on blasphemy, but by God it's American and they love it.

However, baseball is far more than an American flight of fancy. It is a sport that combines athleticism and intelligence like few others. The tactical nous and game-planning skills required for a sport which appears so simple is quite staggering. As Albert Einstein remarked: "You teach me baseball and I'll teach you relativity. No, we must not. You will learn about relativity faster than I learn baseball."

Baseball in Ireland has been developing steadily since the organisation of a proper league system in 1995. The transition from a recreational softball league to a more competitive baseball league was aided by Major League Baseball International who provided coaches to instruct the fledgling players. Peter O'Malley, a prominent Irish American and former president of the Los Angeles Dodgers Major League Baseball team, provided $140,000 for a purpose-built baseball field in Corcagh Park, Clondalkin in Dublin.

The A league in Ireland now consists of six teams. Three from Dublin, one from Bray, one from Belfast and a Munster team which is an amalgamation of two teams from Limerick and Cork.

The league is played at a high standard. David Dillworth, an American umpire who has officiated at all levels in the States apart from the Major League, claims: "Most of these guys could play Double A baseball in the United States and some of them could even play Triple A." (Triple A is the level below Major League).

"In the A League we play to win," says Darron O'Connor, captain of the Spartans, the league's most successful team.

The majority of the 'A' league teams consist of a mixture of Irish players who came to the sport for a range of different reasons and expatriates of nations where baseball is more widely played. The Spartans' playing squad includes several Americans, a Venezuelan, an Italian, two Romanians and a healthy sprinkling of Irish players.

O'Connor has been there since the early days. He began playing softball in the scouts and was there in 1995 when the league began. Ed Riordon, meanwhile, got his beak wet during a J1 stint in Toronto. "We had nothing to do during the day, so we went to baseball games. It took me a while to appreciate it for what it is," he says. "When I got back to Ireland, I kept following baseball and got more interested, though it took me two years to start playing."

According to O'Connor, Riordon's route to baseball is a common one for Irish players. "A lot of Irish students on J1s develop an interest while they're away," he says.

Some players' introductions to the sport are more pedestrian. Alan Fox, formerly on the books of Kildare County in the League of Ireland, started playing baseball two years ago. "I watched it on Setanta and ESPN and liked it," he says. "I thought I'd like to give it a go." Fox, a natural athlete, is now part of the Irish baseball team. He speaks warmly of the camaraderie in the team: "We're a diverse group of people, but they're very welcoming in the baseball circle."

Most of the players speak enthusiastically about the team spirit and friendship among the players. In baseball, everyone gets to play and perhaps this adds to the team spirit as there is no competition amongst the players within the squad which can lead to tensions in other sports. Even at the games, though the teams play with competitive spirit, the atmosphere is far more relaxed than at other sports at this level. The B league operates at a lower standard, particularly for people who may only be starting out in the sport.

Youth baseball in Ireland is enjoying a huge surge in popularity. Unlike senior baseball which is mostly confined to urban areas, youth clubs are cropping up in places such as Cavan and Mayo. At the moment there are twice as many youth players as adult players in the country.

Baseball Ireland, the governing body, says the biggest challenge they have in relation to youth baseball is providing enough coaches for the players. Will Beglane, its president, feels the inclusiveness of the sport has a big part to play in its rise in popularity amongst youths. "Every kid gets to play -- it gives parents reassurance."

Ireland has had a national baseball team since 1996. They compete in Pool B of the European championships. In 2006, they won a silver medal, losing out on gold to favourites Croatia.

The national team has just returned from Rhode Island in America where they played college teams and independent leagues' all star selections. They won two and lost three by small margins. A big part of the tour was to let the players and indeed coaches get firsthand experience of the high level of coaching and facilities in the States.

It may not be a mainstream sport in Ireland but its popularity is definitely on the rise. It's unlikely to become 'The great Irish pastime', but for those who have been turned onto the sport it's a great way to spend a Saturday morning.

Sunday Independent

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