Saturday, March 17, 2012

Baseball in Ireland

"Anything up to the level of 'Holy crap, I'm getting soaked' is playable." - Cormac Eklof, pitcher for the Irish National Baseball Team

You didn't see them in the World Baseball Classic, but the Irish National Baseball Team exists. Indeed, they've been playing the American pastime on the Emerald Isle, since an Irish-American from St. Louis noticed a bumper sticker promoting an Irish softball recreational league in Dublin. Mike Kindle knocked on the window of the startled driver to get some info on the league, and Baseball Ireland was born.

The Emerald Diamond, a documentary directed and produced by baseball worshipper John J. Fitzgerald, chronicles the development of baseball in Ireland from that bumper sticker to the national team's bronze medal in the 2004 European Pool B Championship. The film screened Tuesday at the E Street Theater in DC as part of a nationwide tour of 20 major US cities. (The DVD will be out later this year, and I highly recommend it.) In the traditional Irish fashion, the after party was announced before the start of the movie, and that's where I spoke with Fitzgerald about the film over Guinness and Boru Vodka, the film's sponsor.

Donning a Padres cap, Fitzgerald is a Mets fan by birth whose eyes burn with a passion for baseball, and his affable manner and love of the game was such that I could have talked to him all night about the baseball religion. He would have played for the national team, but his grandmother was born in New York, rendering him inelligible. Rather than moping about it, he made a great film about the team. We discussed team loyalties, Soriwhino, and players like David Wright, guys who just love to put on the uniform and don't complain or cause problems in the clubhouse. I asked him questions about the film and Irish baseball in general.

In the film, we get a history of Irish competition, or in the early years, the lack of it in the European Pool B Championship. Team Ireland's very first game against the Czech Republic resulted in a 23-2 loss, but hey, at least they scored, right? The team grabbed its first victory in international competition when it defeated Yugoslavia in the tournament. They ended the tournament outscored by a margin of 77-18 with 35 errors, but the film gave us a sense of that positive outlook on negative things with which the Irish are blessed and the wit of a people who gave us Oscar Wilde.

The Irish celebrated July 4, 1998 in a truly American fashion by officially opening their first baseball field, O'Malley Field, whose namesake Peter O'Malley, Dodgers owner, had financed. Until then, the team had practiced on patches of swampy grass, using whatever materials they could find or "borrow" from construction sites as backstops.

Murphy's Law was enforced on their way to Zaghreb for the 2000 European Pool B Championship as the team watched its equipment being unloaded through the window of the plane on which they sat in Dublin before take off, but the team was in good spirits as they took the field for the opening ceremonies in the clothes on their backs. Some Irish luck graced them when almost all of their equipment arrived in time for the first game. The 2002 tournament saw closer games and allowed bronze medal thoughts to tease their minds until they were walloped by the Croatians. Even though they had to play a good Hungarian team the next day, the team reacted to the loss in the way the Irish react to everything - drink. They weren't feeling too well when they took the field the next day, but this "unique strategy," as catcher Sean Mitchell put it, paid off - the team defeated Hungary. They finished fourth.

Through the tournament, the Croatioan surroundings were never lost on the Irish players, who know a thing or two about conflict. Fitzgerald did a good job of capturing the idea that although baseball seems like it is life, it is just a game, and the real world is always lurking behind a dugout or an outfield fence. I think for a lot of us baseball worshippers, the game provides us with a respite from the harsh realities that plague our planet, and the ballpark is a little taste of Heaven, a place that offers refuge from the evil that causes humanity to rip itself to shreds with bullets and bombs. The film talked about the Belfast league where players from both sides came to play baseball together, leaving the Troubles outside of the park. As one player in the film said, "I just want to play baseball." Maybe baseball can save the world...

2004 was a thrilling year for the Irish National Team. Some of the original guys hung up their spikes, and some new blood pumped fresh talent into the team. One of the exciting developments in Irish baseball came in the form of a catcher called Rory Murphy, the first homegrown player that has caught the eye of Major League scouts. He has a sweet swing, speed, and natural talent that has all of Ireland, at least its baseball fans, hoping he can make the Majors, which would make Irish baseball explode in popularity, according to Fitzgerald. There is one potential problem, however, that was not mentioned in the film. Rory Murphy is also a skilled rugby player. Will he choose the quick route to Irish rugby fame or the slow journey through college and minor league ball to play in the Show?

Other additions to the 2004 roster were several Americans. Fitzgerald says that without the American pitching, the team could not compete. See, the thing is that the Irish play lots of sports with bats, but none of their sports involve throwing. About 25% of the Irish team is American born players, thanks to the grandmother rule on citizenship.

If the World Baseball Classic taught us anything, it is that small ball wins championships. Ireland has no sluggers, so they have to win with small ball. Fitzgerald estimates that it will be at least ten years until the team is good enough to compete in the Classic. There is a huge obstacle, however.

One of the casulties of the Olympic Committee's decision to pull baseball from the Games is funding for national programs. A decade and a half of developing young players could be threatened by losing half of its funding, which went not only to the National Team, but also to youth programs across the island. One casulty of this is the Belfast youth league, which no longer exists. MLB is not helpful in this regard, as it does little to grow baseball in other countries aside from paying for host families and plane fares for American coaches. In a time when baseball as an international sport has never been more popular, and in the wake of the success of the WBC, one would think that MLB could step up its international program. (Hey, maybe when they sell the Nats they can give some money to Baseball Ireland! ;) )

All of European baseball will suffer from the IOC's decision. Teams in Pool A like Italy, Netherlands, and England will survive, but for Pool B teams, it will be a struggle. Perhaps we can pressure National Disgrace to increase funding for MLB International. We can write letters to his office, write letters to editors of major US newspapers, heck, even bring signs to ballgames.

Above all, the film was simply enjoyable. The theater laughed out loud throughout, as Fitzgerald knew what was good entertainment. But the best thing about this movie was the sheer passion these players had for the game, a deep love without the complications we see too often in MLB, and an incredible lust for life. The film gets to the soul of the game and is a truly spiritual journey through the religion of baseball.

For more information on baseball in Ireland, please visit Baseball Ireland.

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