Thursday, March 11, 2010

Opening day, and the opening days, way back when

We are inexorably approaching the Irish baseball season, word from the wise sets the opening weekend at April 10th (keep an eye on baseballireland.com for the official word). With that in mind, found myself thinking about my first ever experience of baseball in Ireland, way back at the tail end of the summer of '95.

There had been a juicy, vibrant slow-pitch softball scene in Dublin for years, since the 80s in fact. Some of the fellas had tired of hitting 30mph slow arcing melon sized balls, and decided to start playing some baseball in Corcaigh Park, out near Newlands Cross.

At the ragged tail end of the summer of '95 they started to get together Saturday mornings and play some hard ball.

To jump forward for a second, little did we know that just that next summer Ireland would field a team in the European baseball championships, winning a game in their first tournament. Ireland would go on to attend tournaments every second year with the distinction of always winning at least one game, right up until the championships in '08.

It would be naïve to say you could see something special was building in those early days. However, the desire and tenacity were there from day one. That first session was on a back field deep in the green recesses of Corcaigh Park, an area now flooded and used for fishing. The old field is behind the spiffy 'new' O'Malley baseball fields, in service since 1998.

My first act ever in Irish baseball? When I turned up they had started taking ground balls. Mick Manning, the Godfather of Irish baseball, was slapping grounders at a line of determined guys. I literally just slipped into the line, winked at the guy who set me up with baseball here (Gus O'Hernandez) and joined in. Standing in line a new player would have seen the following equipment available to those in the early days. A makeshift backstop, made of wood and what looked like chicken wire. About four or five aluminum bats and one or two ragged old looking wooden ones. A single box of balls, half used, half already 'Irished' up (wet, heavy, dirty).

The session was basically made up as it went along, ground balls, some fly balls, infield outfield. The former was a chore at that venue. The outfield was sloped and the grass was long and heavy. Chasing a fly ball down was an adventure in itself. And yet still, guys were launching themselves, leaving their feet and getting a face full of dirt to try and catch fly balls. The early passion for the game was electric.

Thinking back, that passion was definitely the fuel that pushed Irish baseball forward in those old, rookie, somewhat ramshackle days. We made good with what we had. The session ended with a little bit of live batting practice. There was no mound so we put the batters at the back end of a slight slope and the pitchers on the top of same. Instant, natural mound, Irish style. I actually remember my first pitch ever in Irish baseball. It was a slow, looping 'fast ball' that popped into catcher Jim Kilbride's mitt, past batter Brian Nolan, sneaking past the inside corner of a battered old softball home-plate. Mick Manning gave an exuberant 'strike' call, and fifteen years later the insides of my right arm must look like spaghetti.

What a journey though. And all starting in such innocuous circumstances.

Veteran baseball bystanders probably would have laughed their backsides off at us on that day, but there was a vibrant innocence and eagerness that you could physically feel amongst the participants. The start of every Irish baseball season since has been linked, locked in those first few sessions back in 1995. That was the birth of baseball in Ireland.

In a couple of weeks myself and the guys on the Dublin Hurricanes will jog out onto the field to kick start another season. The sloped field and muddy, heavy turf has been replaced by real baseball infield dirt and a beautiful diamond/field, but the old enthusiasm and passion is just the same. Put it this way, my heart was in my mouth throwing that first pitch in '95, and it will be the exact same toeing the rubber at Corcaigh Park in just a couple of weeks time.

How beautiful, timeless and transient is the game of baseball?


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Irish National baseball team

Irish National baseball team
Team Ireland at the European Championships, Croatia, 2000.

A nice little mention for this blog on Fox Sports

A nice little mention for this blog on Fox Sports

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