Field of Dreams

Baseball Ireland hoping to join the big leagues

It’s been a year to remember for the sport in this country.

BASEBALL MADE ITS fair share of headlines this week. First, Mike Trout signed what is the most lucrative deal in the history of sport when he put his name to a 12-year extension worth a reported $426.5m (€377m) with the Los Angeles Angels.

Then, after 27 seasons as a professional, Ichiro Suzuki finally called time on his illustrious playing career.

Both newslines coincided with the start of the 2019 Major League Baseball season. And while Corkagh Park might be a million miles from Angel Stadium or the Tokyo Dome, the Irish baseball season also gets underway this Sunday at the Clondalkin venue.

The opening game will see the Dublin Spartans host the defending champions, the Dublin City Hurricanes, with the former looking to avenge a 9-12 defeat the last time the two sides met in September 2018.

It’ll be a tough ask, however, as the Hurricanes are now ranked 36th in Europe, lofty heights no Irish club has seen before.  

It should come as no surprise that Irish club baseball is on the up, as the national team goes from strength to strength.

Last summer, on home turf, Ireland upset the odds to win the European Baseball Championship C-Pool Qualifiers, beating heavy favourites Greece, as well as Finland, Slovenia and Norway, to the title.

And it’s not just the senior team. The U18s spent last summer sitting at the top table, securing a win over perennial powerhouse Germany.   

“It’s a very exciting time for the national programme,” Adrian Kelly, PRO of Baseball Ireland told The42 this week.

“Obviously, we had a lot of success last summer and the goal is to build on that again.

“It has to be said, if we can repeat the feat and win our qualifying pool there’s a chance that Ireland could qualify for the Olympics in 2020. Now, it’s a long shot, and it would take an impressive winning streak, but there is a path to Tokyo for Ireland.’

A key part of the national team’s success in Ashbourne last year was the pitching of Keelan Smithers. The leftie found himself starting for the country of his mother’s birth in front of more than 1,000 fans at the European Qualifiers.

Against a heavily favoured Greek team, Smithers gave up just one hit over seven innings before he returned a few days later to deliver another pair of scoreless innings while pitching in relief.

The former Princeton prospect’s on-field achievements were noted in the US, and he found himself being offered tryouts with the Cincinnati Reds and New York Mets.

Earlier this month, Smithers became the first Irish international to sign a professional MLB deal when he put pen to paper with the Mets, where he’ll compete with Ryan O’Rourke — another Irish qualified player who could join the international set-up shortly — for a place in the team’s Major League line-up.

The Mets, of course, were already home to PJ Conlon who last year became the first Irish-born player to appear in the MLB since World War II and is competing this season for a pitching spot on their roster.

“Having those guys get their name in the media is great, as it makes people aware of the fact there is baseball here in Ireland,” says Kelly.

“But the focus of Baseball Ireland is to grow the number of indigenous players. At the moment, Irish-born players make up about a third of the senior squad and the goal is to get that to two thirds.

“We’ll always look to bring in American-born players with strong Irish links, especially pitchers because they can be so hard to come by, because all the European teams we compete against do the same.

“That said, they have to be strong Irish links, not just a great-granny or anything tenuous like that. Keelan, for example, spent a lot of time in Ireland growing up and that’s the type of player we want involved with the set-up.

“But the focus is definitely on providing a pathway to international baseball to people born in Ireland,” he says.

Kelly himself is evidence that the sport can be for anyone. He didn’t pick up a bat until the age of 36 when, on a stag night in Galway, the group went to Pure Skill where baseball was part of itinerary.

Though he was “handy enough,” Kelly didn’t think much more about playing the sport until the following St. Patrick’s day when his local team marched in the parade.

“Like a lot of people at the time, I suppose, I didn’t realise there were baseball teams in Ireland, let alone a league,” he laughs.

“I found out a bit more about it, started training and since then I’ve played all over Ireland and have even travelled to the US to play internationally. It’s been some experience.”

And Kelly’s story isn’t unique.

“The great thing about the sport is that it really is for anyone. We have people coming along whose dodgy knees or ankles mean they can’t play Gaelic football or rugby any more but we can find a place for them in baseball.

“It’s hard to take up a new sport as an adult, particularly a team sport, but I think ours is the exception to that.

“Not just because lots of different body types and aptitudes play the sport, but because there are a lot of people coming to it late, so you’re not joining a team where everyone has been around each other since underage.”

Kelly says that if anyone is interested in taking up the sport, Facebook and the Baseball Ireland webpage are the best place to find out where your closest team plays.

And as for the future, he and his colleagues are focused on growing participation numbers to over 1500 senior players as part of the organisation’s 10×10 plan. And who knows, maybe seeing another player or two make the Majors.

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