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


Hull
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.





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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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