Monday, August 01, 2016

20th Anniversary Of Baseball Ireland's Trip To Hull

Almost exactly twenty years ago, the Irish baseball team travelled to Hull, England, for the Pool B European Championships, our first foray into European Competition, not really knowing what to expect. The team assembled were young, inexperienced and had never taken the field against another international side. The Irish Baseball League hadn't even started serious play as yet (that would come a year later in '97), effectively the team had only played a handful of pick-up games. Despite all of this, it proved to be a great adventure full of great experiences and learnings. What could have been a disaster and a quick end for the Baseball Ireland program was ground into a meaningful expedition that set the program up for years to come, from '96 through to the silver medal in Antwerp in 2006, the final year that Ireland meaningfully challenged for medals in Pool A or B in European competition (the team has been rebuilding since). 

With the 20th anniversary year in mind, I revisited my notes on the Hull tournament and added some 2016 comments, which you can see below (in resplendent navy blue). Special thanks to Darran O'Connor for the fantastic photos. It's hard to believe it has been 20 years, but, here we go...

The Irish team in Hull, 1996

European Seniors Championship
"B" Pool Great Britain - 1996

Preparation for Hull consisted of a few months with two of Major League Baseball International’s (MLBI) coaches, or ‘envoys’. Pat Doyle and ‘Gentleman’ Jim Reach. Both were and still are well respected in the MLBI organisation, indeed Coach Doyle is currently the head of MLBI.

Cormac 2016: I am unsure if this is still the case in regards the coaches, although I imagine MLBI has undergone a few face-lifts in the ensuing years. The MLBI website isn't exactly instructive.

It was our first experience with US coaching as a team. Mick and Mike had actually attended spring training for a few sessions with the LA Dodgers, Mike took some batting practice pitches, a few brushbacks and some colourful language from Tommy Losorda. Apart from the two Godfather’s of Irish baseball this was the teams first experience of high level US coaching. Both sides took a while to get used to the arrangement.

Boy does Mike love telling the above story. Mick Manning and Mike Kindle are basically the Godfathers of Irish baseball. There are a number of crucial folks who got the ball rolling, the Mitchells (there's about nine of them), Anne Murphy and people like Brian Connolly and Paul Peake, but without Mick and Mike, there's no Baseball Ireland, simple as that.
The coaching staff in '96. From the left, Coach Doyle, Anne Murphy, Mick Manning, Mike Kindle and Coach Reach. Coach Doyle's son in front. Cute shirt!
In America if your coach tells you to ‘jump’ you ask, ‘how high Coach?’ In Ireland, when a coach asks the same question the reply in those early days was ‘Hang on a second just finishing this cigarette.’
Team Ireland 1996.

Coach Reach actually had to stop a training session once to ask Fiachra to put his cigarette out. That’s the way it was. There certainly was never any disrespect, however there was definitely a culture clash. Coach Reach was the more approachable of the two and spent quite a lot of time with the players, often joining in animated conversations at the bar.  Coach Doyle had actually brought his wife and young child with him and was therefore a little more withdrawn from the day-to-day goings on of the team. It certainly never affected his work however Coach Reach definitely got a little closer to the team.

Twenty years on I think it's safe enough now to say, I for one did not enjoy the company of Coach's son. He, for some reason, thought it was funny to tell players that they weren't going to be a starter on that day's team. I am sure he's grown up to be a solid young man, but, back in '96, he wasn't hugely fantastic for team morale.

The Opening Ceremony for Hull '96. I think Coldplay played it. That's Darran O'Connor, Mick Manning and Brian 'Boomer' Connolly in the front row, I've got my arms folded behind them.
Our opening game against the Czech Republic was a real education. We batted first and Gus Hernandez led off with single. The lads went crazy in the dugout as I'm sure most of us thought ‘hey, this isn't so hard!’ I didn't see much of it because my view was blocked by Noel Mitchell literally climbing onto the chicken wire in front of the dugout clambering around like an excited chimpanzee and shouting his head off.  The Czech pitcher looked worryingly relaxed and sure enough, as the next batter stepped in, he caught Gus napping and picked him off first. Ireland’s first lesson in European baseball had been learnt. Don’t stray too far off the first base bag when you have a lefty on the mound.
A little pre-game pepper with Gus 'O' Hernandez. Ireland's first batter in International baseball, Ireland's first hit.
The Czech’s were patient, strong batters and ate Noel alive. Noel was the ace in those early days, Bill Beglane was something of an unknown quantity to most of us but his experience in the English league would prove invaluable through the next few years. Noel was and still is a control pitcher with a decent curveball and a little bit of quirkiness that as a pitcher you need to throw the timing of the batters off.
Actually he's a lead-footed, iron mitted first baseman for the Spartans now! I can't tease him too much, though, as he batted about .498 off of me in Irish league play over the years.

Noel Mitchell in the foreground, myself, John McCarthy, Bill Beglane and Paul Peake, with Jim Kilbride and Gus Hernandez standing.
His position as the catcher Sean Mitchell’s brother led to some hilarious in-game sibling arguments down the years over the location of pitches, the amount of pitches in the dirt or anything else Sean could think about to give out to his brother for. Noel probably threw too many strikes that day against the Czech’s leaving the ball over the plate for one grand slam and a few other monster hits that totally knocked the wind out of our sails. It was tough assignment for anyone making his international debut and the Czech’s had absolutely no mercy. To Noel’s credit he stuck with it and took it all on the chin never giving up.
I'm 30% sure Noel would not be concerned during a global catastrophe Alien invasion event.

I was given a two inning clean up assignment. With my father there I probably tried to do too much and most of my pitches were out of the strike zone, at chest height or worse still right at the batters. I hit four of the Czech’s in two innings. A couple of them were fairly pissed off at this upstart Irish guy plunking them in the back, ass and any other part I could hit. Their Coach though knew I just didn’t have the experience to hit the strike zone and I certainly wasn’t doing it on purpose.  The scariest moment came when I hit the Czech that hit the grand slam. He was wearing a pirate like bandana under his helmet and probably was about three times my weight and most of that was muscle. He flipped his bat and jogged down the first base line staring me down. I kept my eyes firmly glued to the ground.

My abiding memory of my first few pitches in International competition was our coaches shouting at me 'Make an adjustment!' I heard it in my sleep for the next few days. Make a damn adjustment!
The Ireland dugout, Noel Mitchell, John McCarthy, Gus Hernandez and John Dillon. Great snap.
The Czechs were gracious in victory (2-23) and their coach had kind words for us, he was impressed with our hustle, the way we kept playing even as much as twenty runs down, and how we never put our heads down. He told us to keep it up and things would change with experience.

Damn straight, Czech Coach. At that point, standing there shaking hands with the Czechs having taken a serious beating, you couldn't have predicted we would go on to travel the World, and beat great teams like Austria, Belgium, England (twice!) and many others. But, he predicted it. Kind of.

The Czech’s were damn good. Like nothing we had seen prior to that. They had slick defensive moves, everyone seemed to know what their job was. They had pitchers with strong arms and allot of pitches we hadn't even seen before. After a strike out Gus came back to the dugout shaking his head and Brian asked him “well, what was it?’ like a soldier asking a fellow soldier what kind of ammunition the opposition was using, curious as to what the pitch was. Gus just shook his head and shrugged ‘I don’t know!!’ We were definitely schooled that day, simple as that.

I remember Darran, playing left field I think, didn't move a muscle on the grand slam Noel gave up. Someone said something to him between innings, something innocent enough like 'Hey let's hustle on every play' and he replied, 'did you see how far that fucking ball went?'

The game against Norway was a much closer affair than the Czech game. Norway were ahead of us in terms of experience, training and had the usual bigger squad, but for a few innings we gave as good as we got. The highlight of the game was Brian Nolan scoring from second on a single. He bravely turned third with the throw coming in and steamed in to score, spiked his helmet and roared ‘this is what it’s all about, this is what it’s all about!’ Brian has always been an inspirational figure to me. I was a year behind him in secondary school and played basketball against him weekly, and a couple of sessions on the court against Brian would toughen you up in no time. He’s just a smart, down to earth guy and is always more interested in other people’s problems than telling you about his own. When he has advice he tells it to you straight.
Brian 'Knacker' Nolan (right) and some skinny dude (left).
Those are the qualities that made him a player everyone looked up to. Having played softball for so long with the Dodder Dynamo’s, Brian was also a slick fielder, very good with ground balls and with a good arm by Irish standards. His moment though was the highlight, and after that Norway wrestled control of the game and won comfortably enough, 15-5. The problems we faced were sloppy fielding, inability to catch up to fastballs and too many walks. We needed a fix and we needed it fast as there were some frustrations creeping in.

Understatement! We were all ready to kill each other at this stage. Sure, we were a rookie team, and in reality no one expected anything from us, but make no mistake we wanted to win badly. Hidden beneath the friendly exterior, there is a competitive spirit in Irish sports, and we wanted to win, badly. That was starting to get us annoyed, at this point.

The Lithuania game was the least enjoyable game of the tournament, a straight old fashioned pasting. They were clinical like the Czech’s and almost as talented. Our coaches decided to start Darran O’Connor, who was primarily an infielder but who had a cannon of an arm, possibly the best pure arm on the team at the time. This is probably what made Coach Doyle and Coach Reach decide to start him, hoping he could keep the Lithuanians in check with the one pitch, a solid fastball. As we found out in later years though that speed certainly isn’t everything. The low 70’s fastball and the 50 mph changeup is a dangerous weapon against batters who have spent the previous months facing guys throwing in the eighties. It totally messes timing up, and when you throw control into the equation you have some very frustrated batters.
O'Connor at the bat.
Darran was 19 at the time and had previously pitched in the Irish little league, years before. His outing against Lithuania was predictable, he never gave up but the Lithuanians were not overpowered by his fastball and he didn’t have another pitch so they just waited for something to hit and strung the runs together while we failed to get anything going offensively. Darran never complained or asked out and certainly left the opposition with some bruises, hitting six batters. Maybe hoping Darran would get a taste for it the Coaches left him in until the mercy rule was applied and the game ended early. They decided it was more worthwhile Darran getting innings than relievers getting a look in. Darran has been a major part of the heart of Irish baseball, a class act at shortstop, but as far as I know he never pitched one inning again in league or International baseball. The coaches also left several positional players on the bench when the game was way out of reach, Ireland losing 1-19.

Confirmed, that was his one-and-done on the mound. Thankfully the experience didn't scar him for life, and Darran went on to become the longest serving player in Irish baseball history.

Looking back at the preparation the single biggest gap in our readiness was the pitching. As Irish baseball has developed it has done so in tandem with the development of the pitching staff. In 1996 calling it a ‘pitching staff’ would have been a huge insult to the phrase. Between lack of experience, lack of actual pitching coaching and lack of practice we were lambs to the proverbial slaughter. There was no lack of effort on the part of Noel, Will, Darran, myself or any of the other guys but we just were not ready for the standard we were to encounter. Before the tournament the coaching and training was all about hitting and fielding, barely any time was spent on pitching. This just was not the specialty of the two MLBI coaches we were assigned.
We really had done nothing in terms of individual coaching until 4 weeks before we left for Hull. One Wednesday night the coaches took aside the guys most likely to pitch and had us throw about 50 pitches, offering a few suggestions and comments. We did the same two weeks later, and that was all she wrote. As we found out that simply was not enough preparation heading into a tournament like the European Championships.

That was literally the extent of our pitching training.
Mike Kindle and Bill Beglane. Gus Hernandez strolls off to the left.

The frustrations that had been building up one loss after another finally exploded the night of the Lithuanian game. The two coaches went out for dinner, which left the team to go to a local bar. The night went okay for a while, we were playing drinking games and generally relaxing. The conversation finally turned to the tournament and got heated. Several players were disgusted at putting in so much work and getting so little playing time. The two coaches were sticking with the best players even when we were getting battered. Personally I felt strongly that we should all be getting experience for the next tournament, since it was obvious we would not be winning this one. Opinions were shared and no one held back. As the argument went on I grew more and more frustrated and finally stood up and vented. I would say that my tirade was certainly youthful and I definitely meant well, I just wanted to see more equal playing time on a fledgling team still learning the ropes. I probably went overboard and Mike told me to ‘back off’. I was so wound up that I said I wouldn’t and in fact I was leaving, and I walked out the door to the amazement of Mike.
Looking back at that moment now I can smile at it, even if at the time I had tears welling in my eyes as I walked down some street in Hull on my own with no clue how to get back to the college dorms where we were staying. 

Reading this now it sounds like I got up on a soap box and ranted on about inequality and so forth, in actual fact there was a long discussion and subsequent argument between baseball the entire team, with a lot of players venting. My rant was however by far the most childish temper tantrum of the lot.

Team Ireland in the dugout.
Frankly I’m glad I was so passionate about it, as was everyone else involved in the debate, whichever side they were on. It didn’t really matter who was wrong or who was right, we all wanted the same thing, for Irish baseball to get on the map whatever it took. My lonely walk home was interrupted by Paul Peake cruising along in one of the team station wagons, he just gestured for me to get in. No one gave out to me or anything, we just went home, in silence The next day while shaving side by side Mike told me to always keep that hot headedness as I would need it on the mound. Positive affirmation like that stays with you. Typical Mike.

I should also ntoe Mike was fully naked while delivering this pep talk. Not a stitch. Yup.

Our game against Poland was a chance to put the Lithuanian game behind us, and it turned out to be very similar to the Norwegian game. The difference was our bats were starting to wake up and in retrospect it was the perfect warm-up for the Yugoslavian game. Although we were beaten again, 20-10, and the game only went seven innings thanks to the ten run mercy rule we scored ten runs and showed some real potential on the base paths. The pitching again was our weak spot, that coupled with some sloppy defending in the field meant the Poles won by ten runs but we were encouraged by our veritable offensive explosion. Everyone contributed. Mick came in to catch to give Sean a breather and crunched a huge double off the Polish pitcher scoring a few runs. A couple of the other ‘bench’ players finally got a game and contributed to the ten runs we scored. I got clean up duty again and got my first ever strike out in international competition. I would say everyone on the team has a memory from that day, we all chipped something into the pot.

I think the Polish guy that struck out against me was cut forever after the game. In fact I think he now lives in the Amazon as a missionary or something.

The Yugoslavians had also lost all their games coming into the bottom of the table clash with us, but had more experience, better equipment and were probably favourites for the game. As would become custom for the Irish team though we saved our best for last. Bill Beglane showed us what he could do, keeping the opposition off balance with a fastball and a huge sweeping curve. The defence played above expectations and we created runs on the base paths. We won. We beat them 8-6. After getting beaten up for a week we had beaten someone. We ran out of the dugouts on the final out and celebrated like we had just won the World Series. There were a couple of pints downed that night.

Best sentence of entire piece; ''As would become custom for the Irish team though we saved our best for last. ''
The Roscommon Rocket, Bill Beglane, in the blue jacket. John Dillon, Ken and John McCarthy, Brian Nolan and Jim Kilbride alongside.
European Seniors Championship
"B" Pool Great Britain - 1996

Final Standing
1.         Great Britain - Promoted
2.         Czech Republic - Promoted
3.         Lithuania
4.         Austria
5.         Slovakia
6.         Poland
7.         Croatia
8.         Norway
9.         Ireland
10.        Yugoslavia

The 'promoted' bit means they went up to play among the big boys, in Pool A. We got to play England in a three game series in London in '06. We beat them two out of three, on their own patch. One of the best weekends of baseball the Irish team has ever played.

That win probably set Irish baseball up for a few years. If we had come home with zero wins it might have been hard to generate or even keep enthusiasm going. However, we had gone away, we had picked up some invaluable experience against high-class opposition and we had come home with a priceless win. There are plenty of European sides that have left their first European tournament without a win. The fledgling Irish team of 1996 played with heart, great hustle and team spirit and came home with that priceless first victory. Straight off the bat we had respect in European Baseball. We had arrived. 

Today, in 2016, twenty years later, this statement still rings true; ''That win probably set Irish baseball up for a few years''

Had we come home without a win at all, who knows what would have happened. Instead, the Irish baseball league is booming, and the National team has some good quality younger players who can hopefully lead them back to Pool B sooner rather than later. Twenty years of baseball, it's hard to believe how much as happened in the meantime, but this trip to Hull was certainly a good start.

The 1996 Irish National Baseball team.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Worst Team Mate Ever: Baseball Ireland Edition.

Playing a sport in a country where that given sport is a minority exercise often brings up funny situations. Baseball and indeed softball in Ireland are great examples of that. You get this 'big fish, small pond' syndrome where certain individuals think they are really something, when, in actual fact, they are not.

This can manifest itself in all sorts of shapes and sizes and sometimes the results are hilarious. Sometimes it's as simple as someone making an absolute buffoon of themselves over email. The great sports website Deadspin occasionally posts funny emails from amateur teams and individuals, and I have a beauty to share with you.

A few years ago a guy I played baseball with for a little while left my club team in inglorious fashion, via the media of angry-rant email, in fact. A little bit about this chap, for context and so you get how funny this email is. A mediocre ball player, this fella thinks he is someone. His ego does not match his output, he has considerably out-punted his coverage. He used to send us extravagant stories as to how he led the Spanish baseball league in all sorts of stats, but when we looked into it, he hadn't played in the actual league, instead was splashing around in some Mickey Mouse, glorified pick-up games. He would constantly yack on about his skills and, if things didn't go his way, he would just change teams. He changed squads twice in Ireland before joining my team, and I believe has changed squads twice since sending this nuclear fart of an email below. If my math is correct, and I think it is, he's played for 5 Irish baseball teams.

Yeah, that guy.

This guy is actually relatively popular amongst his peers, however those that have read his hilarious emails down the years, and listened to his bizarrely narcissistic and exaggerated stories of self-success on the diamond, know that he's a simple blow-hard and a terrible team-mate who will stab you in the back quicker than you can say 'Douche Bag' if things aren't going his way.

What led to this hilariously inept email below?

This guy played every game when available over a couple of years, and was slotted in to various positions on the field, despite a an anemic batting average. An enjoyable side-note, when faced with his pathetic statistics, he actually accused one of the team co-captains, one of the most honorable and responsible men I have ever met, of 'cooking the books' to make him look bad.  That's the kind of deluded clown we're dealing with here. The team did all it could to make him happy, and he certainly wasn't lacking playing time. So why the anger? For one, he was behind me in the team's pitching rotation, and as you can see below he singles me out for a couple of choice stabs in the back. A couple of weeks prior to this email I had a back and forth with him about caring for his injury over email, and I always tried to support him as a team-mate. As you'll see, apparently that wasn't enough for this guy.

Let's cut to the chase, shall we.

The email in full, for your absolute entertainment. Unedited save for a couple of added, contextual comments and redacting names to protect the innocent and indeed the moronic. Spelling mistakes left as is, again, for your pure unadulterated enjoyment (bear in mind this was written by an adult male, not by some kind of exceptional chimpanzee that recently, with the help of scientists, 'mastered' the English language).

Enjoy, in all its glory.

Hey [Redacted team co-captain] and [Redacted team co-captain], 

Decided to boycott your team man,after long deliberation with my freinds,familly and colleagues about how things have been handled on the team,ive decided im not happy playin for you,being benched is just completetly embarrasing for one [Editors note - bear in mind he wasn't benched, he got to bat, he just wasn't pitching],put in in the 5th to let dry loosing big time cause mac is shit [Editors note - Love this bit! 'Mac is shit'. Whilst no Pedro Martinez, I think my 158 wins in the league, with a 10-1 season coming the year after this email, speaks for itself] is just not exeptable [Editors note - nothing should ever be 'exeptable', guy!], you should of benched his ass after the 2nd,dont care what you say anymore,you always make false promises,but at the end you will always have your guys play cause its your team, I have rested for 1 month after playing in barca to recuperate, i wouldnt come to the field if i wasnt fit to play,and you bench me ( I had work that day for money [Editors note - this as opposed to the days where he had to work for bananas] but cancelled to come play ) ? Plus your going to say its to keep me fit for the Spartans for the play offs, i dont beleive your lies anymore, i know for a fact Mac will pitch all the way even if the spartans are kiking his ass [Editors note - I love it when someone is 'Kiking' my ass] you will leave him in the hopes that we will get runs back, i havnt been happy playin for you at all,always bullshit and drama to deal wit [Editors note - this within the single biggest bullshit, dramatic email I have seen in club baseball]. So thats it for me, ive been part of the canes for 5 years now, I wont be playin for you anymore. Period. Ive had great times but more bad times.

I dont even beleive you wil play me against Spartans in the play offs, its all bullshit  [Editors note - he likes that word!] for Mac to get his award for best pitcher [Editors note - I did, thank you, and two more after that also.] but in my opignion [Editors note - everyone's got an 'opignion' these days!!] he is not the best pitcher in the league and should not be a starting pitcher,his time is up [Editors note - the guy was almost correct here, I only pitched another 4 years after this was sent] ,everybody in the league knows it,all the national team laugh about him and say it,its a joke. I guess being benched was the last straw for me, you handled me completely wrong.
I have told you many times, I take baseball very serisiouly [Editors note - if you're not taking things serisiouly, well, there's no hope for you!] . Good luck with your team and cant wait to see Mac do it all by himself next year like he wants, I will not clean up shit for anyone expect myself [Editors note - well, at least we know he has sanitary bathroom habits] 

Thanks again for the years playing with the canes [Editors note - worst thank you, ever?] 

Your a good guy [Redacted team co-captain] , i mean that but for me personally, thats it. Look forward facing you next year.

Monday, July 04, 2016

In Response To The Irish Times Article On American Sports

Dear Sir,

I was very disappointed to see column inches dedicated to the erroneous and indeed lazy article by Brian O’Connor on American sports. Normally in the journalistic World, ignorance of a subject precludes writers from tackling same, Mr. O’Connor seems to wear that same ignorance of American sports like a badge of honour.

His article is wildly inaccurate on a number of levels, and is actually quite offensive in parts.
He appears to be making an odd case that American sports are not popular in the rest of the World, and offers a few glib remarks to back this up, but very little of actual substance. Indeed, he takes a quick swipe at baseball and yet doesn’t actually tackle the game in the body of his content. It’s as if he awoke, saw news of Fourth of July celebrations and snidely thought, ‘Screw them, their sports are crap!’.

From an Irish perspective I have to wonder if Mr. O’Connor knows anything about sports in Ireland outside of a seemingly very narrow understanding on his part. Basketball is absolutely enormous across Ireland, and indeed Irish keeper Darren Randolph’s father, Ed, is a legend in Irish basketball circles. The game is played in schools and clubs all over the country and has enjoyed several years of huge success as it makes it mark as one of the bigger sports outside of the biggest players such as soccer, GAA and rugby.

Mr. O’Connor’s poorly argued article would fall down on the topic of basketball alone, however he is also hugely incorrect when it comes to American Football and indeed baseball too.

American Football has been growing steadily in Ireland since the 1980s and is home to a vibrant league, the IAFL, with thousands of registered members both North and South of the border. One of the joys of the sport in Ireland is that it is played by teams North and South, fostering sporting ties in broad communities. It is one of the biggest ‘minority’ sports in Ireland, and its thousands of members should be greatly offended by Mr. O’Connor’s lazy article (in which he actually goes out of his way to offend those very people in a bizarrely arrogant sentence).

Baseball is smaller in terms of membership and yet ironically better placed internationally than its footballing brothers. The Irish National baseball team has taken part in European Championship tournaments since 1996 and has achieved medals and notable scalps along the way. We’ve beaten several big European teams (Austria, Belgium, Finland and England, twice, on their home patch, to name but a few) and have achieved bronze and silver medals at European tournaments in ’04 and ’06. The team is growing as is the sport in Ireland. The Irish Baseball League contains teams from literally every corner of Ireland, again North and South, and is developing and growing annually.
Both football and baseball have huge followings all through Europe. As a member of the Irish baseball team from ’96 to ’06, I had the huge privilege to travel the World in an Irish jersey, and I can tell you, there are some beautiful baseball facilities all over Europe, in places as disparate as Karlovac Croatia, Prague, Hull, Vienna, Stockholm, Croydon, Regensburg Germany and Antwerp. Baseball is absolutely enormous in France, Germany, Italy and The Netherlands in particular.

Mr. O’Connor’s article is wrong on both sides of the Atlantic. In his shopping list of sporting clichés, he appears to copy and paste in the old refrain that soccer, football, isn’t big in America. I would openly wonder has Mr. O’Connor bothered studying the game in the USA lately, as it’s absolutely huge at this point. Huge at all levels. Soccer is pushing the established sports at school, college and professional level all across the States. Seattle, where I am now and for example, has some of the most incredible soccer facilities I have ever seen, with literally thousands of players playing in hundreds of games in tens of leagues on a weekly basis. There is soccer everywhere you look here, and for Mr. O’Connor to write the Beautiful Game’s place in America off so lazily is nothing short of pathetic.

One last glaring part of Mr. O’Connor’s article was his misguided and also hypocritical analysis of American sports as ‘static’. First, to call basketball static would suggest the writer has never watched a second of sports in his or her life. That’s just awful. Second, if that gentleman had ever tried understanding either baseball and or football, he would understand the physical demands, skill and commitment required to play those sports well. He might then also understand the passages of play in those sports. Further to this, if he wasn’t just having a bitter, disinterested pop at Americana, he might have realized he was being super hypocritical in labelling any sport static considering he appears to be a fan of Rugby Union. Much as I love that particular sport, have you been watching the deterioration of the scrum in the last decade? Yeah, static? Really?

I find it very worrying that your paper prints and article by a writer who clearly hasn’t researched his piece at all, and is instead left to jot down a few lazy personal opinions about American Sports.
Everyone in entitled to their opinions, of course. However, a paid journalist shouldn’t take so much glee in being so wildly inaccurate in his clearly personal ramblings. One would think that the title ‘Sports Journalist’ would come with a basic understanding of a wide variety of sports, not just breathless fan-boy drooling over rugby, framed by a lazy, arrogant dismissiveness of sports one doesn’t understand.

Yours in sports,
The Irish National Baseball team in historic Fenway Park, August 2001

Thursday, June 09, 2016

The NBA Finals, Fixed? Kind Of.

Look, I know, there’s nothing worse than a bad conspiracy theory. For example, I know of actual real human beings who think that the United States Federal Government actually want to ‘take away’ all the guns, and their 2nd amendment rights with them. Think about that for a second, what would President Obama do, start driving around in a pickup and collect them all? It’s beyond asinine. Anyway, you probably know a few sloppy conspiracy theories yourself. You definitely have a friend or two that are into them, I know I do.

However! These NBA Finals, am I right?  I’m not saying they are fixed to a particular outcome, but I think it is perfectly reasonable to hypothesize that the league is trying to extend to a six or seven game series.

Why? That should be blatantly obvious, money. Imagine the difference in overall dollar revenue for the NBA between a four game sweep and a dramatic seven game series. A game seven alone must be worth hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising revenue alone to the NBA. It is absolutely in their interest to ensure this series doesn’t slink off into the off-season off the back of a four to five game affair.

Imagine how easy it would be for the NBA to quietly instruct its referees to achieve this? So easy. Just over-officiate the home games in favor of the home teams, and very few will notice. The vocal home crowds will be baying for the calls anyway, and the TV audience doesn’t really get a say, apart from some fart like noises on the social networks.

We’re seeing exactly that in these finals, the zebras officiating heavily in favor of the home teams, and, I write this as someone who’s rooting for the Warriors and Curry.

Games one and two, LeBron and the Cavs were not only beaten to a pulp by Golden State, they were smothered heavily by the men in charge. Watching Twitter react to LeBron repeatedly being called for travelling was a treat. Watching LeBron react to being continuously called for travelling was the cherry on top. LeBron doesn’t get called for travelling, be it 5 steps or the 7 steps he was taking in games one and two. It wasn’t just that, everything even close to a 50/50 went Golden State’s way.
Then last night, in Cleveland, the mirror opposite happened. Curry, Thompson and crew couldn’t buy a call. The horrific moving pick that Mosgov set on Thompson should have been investigated by Cleveland Homicide, it was that bad, yet amazingly the zebras kept their whistles quiet. The entire game they called anything close in Cleveland’s favor.

Keep an eye on this on Friday during game four. If a lot of calls seem to go Cleveland’s way, well, don’t say I didn’t tell ya!

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Would The Top DiCaprio Movies Be Better As Matt Damon Movies?

Say what you want about former ESPN writer Bill Simmons, but, he’s not afraid to make pretty outlandish claims. In a press release to highlight his forthcoming HBO series, Simmons said that, and I quote;

''I believe every DiCaprio movie would be just a little better as a Matt Damon movie.''

That’s a pretty astonishing comment right there, and for many, a little too crazy to even give pause for thought. I however have always enjoyed all three elements of this sentence. He's not everyone's cup of tea, but I'm still a Simmons fan. He's still an entertaining read. DiCaprio and Damon are two of my favorite actors, both definitely top 5, with ease. Therefore, Simmons’s seemingly bonkers suggestion still made me think, ‘Could he be right? Could the movies of Leonardo DiCaprio be better with Matt Damon in the leading role instead?

Well, let’s take DiCaprio’s ten biggest movies and find out! Naturally we’ll then flip it over and partake in the same exercise but with DiCaprio in Damon’s place, but for now, let’s focus on the DiCaprio question.

To the movies!

Number 10 – The Aviator

We’re off to a good start! The Aviator is a movie that you could conceivably argue might be better with Matt Damon in the lead role, instead of wily old Leo DiCaprio. This is by no means a slight in any shape or form on DiCaprio’s at times majestic performance, it’s more of a knock on us, the audience. The Aviator is loved by critics and put forth as a sample of DiCaprio’s greatest work. The audience, by and large, liked it, but didn’t love it. It’s a sweeping epic with great attention to period detail, and sometimes that just doesn’t resonate so well with the average cinema goer. What does Damon bring to a movie? One major element is a kind of lighthearted, guy next door ‘feel’ that in turn lightens the movie a little. The Aviator could have lightened up a little with Damon in the lead role. Again, I’m being careful here as DiCaprio was superb, but for the sake of this overall argument, let’s give this one to Damon on the basis he would have brought some levity to the project.

1-0 Matt Damon.

Number 9 – The Wolf Of Wall Street

Wumph. That’s the sound of Simmons’s hypothesis splatting into the ground from up on high. DiCaprio completely owned this role, and turned it into seventy billion memes that we can never un-see. DiCaprio very much made The Wolf his own, and it is unimaginable to place any other actor at all in this role.

1-1 tied.

Number 8 - Shutter Island

Wait, what? Shutter Island is DiCaprio’s eighth highest grossing movie? Seriously? Yes, it’s true. Hard to believe, indeed, but true. To understand that you just have to know that Shutter was Leo’s second highest grossing opening movie ever, yes, ahead of Titanic and just behind Inception. I think it’s safe to say there was not much going on the weekend Shutter opened, otherwise there’s no way to understand a $41 million opening box office for such a movie. Shutter is entirely joyless. It’s technically brilliant, and quite chilling, but there isn’t a single element of joyful type entertainment to be had within. Again I had to double check in astonishment that this was DiCaprio’s eighth highest all time box office entry. You can probably see where this is going. Damn right Damon might have had some impact towards the positive if magically placed in DiCaprio’s place herein. There’s no reason to say he couldn’t improve a little on the role, and perhaps bring a bit of toothy charm to the lead role. He would definitely have played the shock and surprise as it all unraveled. That’s something he does well. Let’s move on, but let’s all agree, Damon could have done something positive here.

2-1 Damon.

Number 7 – The Departed

Boom! That’s right, Damon as Billy Costigan, DiCaprio as Colin Sullivan. I am going to go ahead and call this one a potential win for Damon straight off the bat. There’s no doubt at all Damon could have pulled off Billy Costigan’s tormented good-guy. Imagine the look of shock on his face as Mark Wahlberg tore into him in Martin Sheen’s office? You would entirely believe Damon as Costigan, a conflicted good-guy undercover, trying to do right, while trying to prove to the bad guys he belonged. On the flip side, you could equally argue DiCaprio would have absolutely torn into the role of Colin Sullivan, and might have brought some extra menace to that character. That I believe is called a win-win situation. In this context, that’s another win for Damon.

3-1 Damon.

Number 6 – The Great Gatsby

There’s a moment in Gatsby where DiCaprio mutters ‘This, this is a terrible mistake’. Well, the critics agreed, and box office aside, Gatsby is viewed as something whilst not completely in the flop category, definitely in that general area. By very definition therefore, Damon might have done something positive here. You can’t argue with that considering the critical panning this flick got. There’s no reason to say Damon might not have put on the tux and brought something extra to Gatsby, elevating it higher than it’s very low current critical rating. Simmons is starting to look like he might have been on to something.

4-1 Damon.

Number 5 – Django Unchained

In short, no. Damon could not have bettered DiCaprio when it comes to Calvin Candie. There’s no argument to be made here, at all. DiCaprio in a landslide.

4-2 Damon

Number 4 – Catch Me If You Can

Central to the success of the brilliant, entertaining and most of all, heart wrenching, Catch Me is the relationship between Tom Hanks and DiCaprio. It matters. It just matters that Hanks both wants to capture DiCaprio and ‘fix’ him. The father figure like status Hanks has over DiCaprio in Catch Me is what makes it such a vital movie, it’s what gives it it’s pulse. Whilst Damon and Hanks could easily cook up some chemistry, as evidenced so easily in Saving Private Ryan, you’d have to go out on a very lengthy limb to suggest it would ultimately better the work that DiCaprio and Hanks did here. Sometimes you just can’t improve on something so fundamentally good.

4-3 Damon

Number 3 – The Revenant

Just, no. No. Not happening. Sure, Damon might have got a few more laughs out of the up-to-that-point terrified audience, but let’s face it, The Revenant is not about laughing or levity in any shape or form. The Revenant is a slap in the face of a movie, and DiCaprio nailed it. The bear incident, the horse incident, the overall struggle, no way in any shape or form Damon improves on DiCaprio’s Oscar winning outing. Looks like it’s going to be a tight finish, for Simmons’ hypothesis.

4-4 tie.

Number 2 – Inception

What did DiCaprio bring to Inception? He exuded this edgy, sweaty, vital tension to the role, pushing and driving to find his way home whilst literally haunted by ghosts and dreams, and indeed dreams of ghosts. It’s a psychologically gifted performance that’s as brilliant as it is unnerving. Damon in that role? Even the biggest Damon fan can’t go there with any authority. Sure, you might have rooted for Dom Cobb a little harder with Damon playing him, but that would have defeated the purpose. DiCaprio’s incarnation was always on the edge, both in the movie and for the audience. Damon in that role? Simply not the same.

5-4 DiCaprio takes a late lead.

Number 1 – Titanic

Ugh. I wonder if, when his God or his Gods come calling, as he passes away peacefully and happily amongst his family and friends, will Leo DiCaprio think to himself ‘I can’t frickin’ believe that was my most popular movie’? Perhaps he embraces it fully, but once you strip everything away, Titanic is a pretty basic movie about a big disaster. Take the big ass sinking ship out of the equation, and you have a pretty vanilla love story. I like Damon as a romantic. He does it well in The Adjustment Bureau with Emily Blunt, and I would suggest Damon could do something different with Jack and add a thing or two here and there to the character. There’s no reason to think this would be beyond his capability, particularly when it’s such a fundamentally threadbare movie.

5-5. A tie.

In summary, does this 5-5 tie come anywhere close to proving Simmons’ somewhat outrageous comment? Not really, no. Not really, for two reasons. First, Damon only barely got the nod for most of his 5 wins. DiCaprio absolutely annihilated the suggestion with most of his 5 wins. For example, going back to The Wolf, there’s no way Damon improves on that performance, in any imaginary scenario possible. So, the 5-5 tie is at best a precarious position for Damon.

The second reason? Simmons’ original hypothesis can only be fully fleshed out be visiting the same topic upon Damon’s movies. Could DiCaprio have made Damon’s top 10 movies ‘better’?

Stay tuned, we’ll find out together.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Sunderland Pull Off Great Escape Version 4.0

It has been an astonishing comeback by Sunderland. I am in the top 5% optimistic people in the World but even I had resigned myself to Sunderland playing in relative anonymity in the Championship next year, and subsequently missing out on next season’s 100 million euro EPL extra payment bonanza.

Kone blasts home from close in to push Sunderland 2-0 up

The beautiful part of the Great Escape Version 4.0 was that it was done in style. Just a few tweaks, and Sunderland are suddenly a decent side again. A feisty, savvy and contextually aware manager in Big Sam. Four or five well judged signings and, everyone buying into the plan together. Manager, players and fans. The way the fans and players bought collectively into this was really uplifting and enjoyable.

Defoe gets all the attention with his incredibly clutch goals, but Kone, Khazri, Kirschoff and indeed Borini were all crucial to the Great Escape, and all look right at home in Sunderland.
Khazri is literally exactly the type of player Sunderland have been crying out for, for seemingly years and years. A playmaker, who can also score goals himself. An added bonus, he likes a tackle! Perfect for the North East.

Two other players in particular deserve a big shout out, first Vito Mannone, who has his reward with a call up to the Italian Euro Championship squad. Mannone was nothing short of superb these last 2 months, and it’s great to see the big man get his dues after patiently working hard in training and waiting for his chance. A big shout out also to DeAndre Yedlin, who has gone from looking lost in January, to being a huge, impact player by May. Once again the future looks bright for that young man.

You could see this escape coming in the last few weeks, as the crowd got more and more behind the players, who responded in kind with better and better outings.

The Great Escape version 4.0 was epitomized, to me, by a simple moment in the Chelsea game. With Sunderland up 3-2 and trying to play out the last 10 minutes, Borini chased down a Chelsea defender in possession, waving his arms to get the crowd loud again. They responded with a massive roar and Sunderland, led by the literally heroic Lee Cattemole, tore into Chelsea for the final ten like their lives depended on it.

Without totally losing my mind I want to suggest that Sunderland stayed up because a group of very well paid young man forgot their egos and wages for a moment and tapped into the incredible energy created by the massive, throbbing, roaring crowds at The Stadium Of Light, and played like their lives depended on it.

That, in this day of mercenary players and million dollar contracts, is pretty fucking cool.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Leicester City Cheated

Just so we’re all clear about this, Leicester City cheated to win the Premier League. 

''Think anybody will notice?''

It’s not up for debate either. In full context it’s glaringly obvious what they did. What’s not clear is why only a couple of publications are tackling this. I suspect it’s due to threats of litigation. 

However, yes, Leicester achieved Premier League glory by cheating. What level of cheating are we talking about here?

In short, Leicester are paying their group of players much more than they are bringing in as legitimate revenue. They are hiding this fact behind fake loans, fake sponsorship of advertising space they have already sold and other financial theatricality and deception. 

Again, none of this is up for debate. They aren’t even denying it. These are facts. 

Let this sink in for a second. Leicester flat out cheated to win the league, and basically no one, or at least very few people,  are calling them to task for this.

Digging a little deeper to illustrate, the Foxes shirts are sponsored by their owner's company (don’t you love where this is going already?!), but of course not directly. Instead, that company buys the sponsorship through a marketing company, with the end effect being increasing Leicester's sponsorship income significantly. The point of the Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules are that clubs should not be spending money they are not actually earning or creating themselves. The wheeling and dealing with the sponsorship alone increased Leicester's sponsorship revenues from £5.2 million to £16 million. This money directly built their current squad. 

All of this information is freely available in the public domain. There is nothing convoluted or tweaked to make Leicester look bad. This is what they did, they cheated the game in order to build a squad which could win the Premier League. Sure, they then went out and did the harder part, actually winning the thing, but they flat out cheated to put themselves in position to do same.

The Guardian had covered this extensively in this article however they, nor anyone else, has brought out much on this lately. Again, I would highly suspect this is due to the threat of litigation. Perhaps we’ll see more in the coming weeks, but for now, it is what it is.

The natural reaction to this is 'Well, everyone is doing it', and that's just false. The Premier League is in flux right now, open up to clubs like Leicester winning it, because of the very fact the clubs are adhering to FPP. With the exception of Leicester. Arsenal are a great example of a well run club that only spends what they legitimately bring in. Arsenal could easily manufacture the cash to bring in a couple more players to push them over the edge. However, they don't, and it comes back to bite them when their own fans turn on them. 

Personally I was brought up to root for the Under Dog, and I will do so most of the time. Not, however, when that dog cheats to win its prize. 

Leicester City cheated to win the Premier League.

Monday, April 25, 2016

On Brady, The NFL And Reaching A Tipping Point

Deflategate, am I right? You know, this has been building and building, and this, to me, could be the tipping point for the NFL and I. I have a strong feeling I am not alone in that sentiment. The simple question is, what’s the point, at this stage? The NFL has really become the theater of the absurd.

Where to start?

Greg Hardy walks free, free to play sports and make inappropriate jokes about other player’s wives. Peyton Manning has his two potentially serious alleged transgressions wiped under the carpet faster than you can say ‘Protect Pappa John’s meal-ticket’. Roger Goodell earns $40 million a year doing, well, what, exactly?

It's not just the tangible elements that outrage, it’s the overall context that the NFL is forcing on its fan-base at this point. They appear to be saying;

‘’Hey, NFL fan, look we’re building an enormous, billion zillion dollar empire and what we’d really like you to do, as a pawn in all of this, is root passionately for your team, sure, that’s a given, but most of all, can you empty your wallets for us? And, we mean, really empty those wallets. We want you to soak up every little thing we throw at you, and when we’re done, we’ll color it pink and ask you to buy it again. We’re going to allow several really nasty people to play in this sport, by the way, but don’t worry about that, they still produce a lot of cash so we know you’re going to be on board. Along the way we might punish a few guys completely disproportionately however you’ll understand, we can’t have anyone potentially unmasking this venture for what it is. A gigantic money grab with no soul anymore.’’

So now we’re supposed to be OK with the NFL banning a player for 4 games for allegedly knowing some other guys let a bit of air out of a ball, despite the fact Aaron Rodgers and the smaller, squeakier Manning have openly admitted to doing same and not being punished for it.

We’re supposed to be OK with this despite the fact this is clearly not about the incident and more about the power struggle around it?

I’m not OK with this, and the worst part for me, after being all fired up about this last season, this time round, I don’t even care. Have it your way, NFL, let the misogynists, women beaters and HGH cheaters play. Ban the guys who work their butts off and do incredible things in their community. Yeah, that makes sense, NFL. Let’s go with that.


Ireland Croatia

Ireland Croatia
The Irish Team in Croatia 2000

Heroes and villains on Fox Sports

Heroes and villains on Fox Sports

'I didn't know..' gets a mention on Fox Sports


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