BASEBALL IN IRELAND: GETTING BIGGER AND BIGGER

John: I’m speaking with Peter Kavanagh. Peter, is the president of Baseball Ireland. Baseball Ireland is the governing body of baseball in Ireland. It is responsible for Little League and youth and Amateur baseball and Ireland’s National Baseball Team. And Peter, let’s start by just going over how popular baseball is in Ireland right now.

Peter: Thanks really John. Baseball is getting bigger and bigger in Ireland because of our exposure to North American sports growing. We got to thank the internet for that 20 years ago. You might have seen a little bit of baseball on British television, which we pick up here in Ireland. So maybe once a week you might have seen highlights of a couple of games but it was very, very early in the morning. Our time, I think that the highlights package was like 1:00 a.m. or 2:00 a.m. on a British TV channel so it really was an eSports so it was played largely by expats who’d come over to live here.

It’s definitely growing because we were more exposed to sports of all kinds, and when you look at the growth of American football here in Ireland or football as I suppose you’d call it that’s been absolutely huge. They have about a 10-year head start on us as an association. So while the game is growing interest in the sport at the major league level is growing, we’re seeing an awful lot of interest from people who want to try it for the first time. So it’s brilliant to see that and we get to answer all those increased emails and Facebook requests like, oh, I really like the look of baseball, I think I might be good at.

John: So tell me about the guys that are coming out and playing baseball for the first time, whether they’re adults or kids, what is their athletic background? I imagined in most cases they don’t have any experience playing baseball but are they athletes or are they just trying sports for the first time?

Peter: We’ve got a very strong history of bat and ball sports. One of our national games here is hurling, which requires the same level of hand-eye coordination as baseball, it’s you’re striking a ball with a wooden implement, it’s something that we’ve been playing in Ireland for thousands of years. So a lot of hurlers they find themselves that they’re naturally suited to certain elements of the game of baseball.

For example, in hurling fielding is one of the most fundamental skills so while it can be quite difficult to teach somebody who’s never even seen or heard the sport before how to track a fly ball, hurlers are quite good at that, getting themselves under it and making catches as well as that they’re pretty good at swinging a bat. So we just have to work on their stance and their grip and basic fundamentals, but they’ve got a little bit of a head start and some of them have become quite decent baseball players over the last couple of years.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF BASEBALL IN IRELAND

John: Now, I’m sure anyone who is hearing about baseball in Ireland for the first time would be surprised to find out that baseball is in fact played in Ireland. Take us back to the early 1990s and explain how Irish baseball came to be?

Peter: Well, the Irish baseball and softball federation as it was known at the time was founded in 1989 and it was the first official coming together of all the players who play baseball and softball. Both sports have been played on a pickup basis for a few years beforehand, but this was the first formal association. So it was a body that could take on the responsibility of furthering the growth and development promoting both sports and developing umpiring and training and coaching.

It developed from there, the two sports split from each other and adult level baseball really began to formally take shape in 1995 when we had visiting coaches from MLB International. They came over and provided much needed instruction to adult players, a lot of whom who would only have played recreational softball but wanted a greater challenge, a more athletic experience and greater competition. So at that stage we began to take it, take the shape we currently are in and we put together our national team. The following year in 1996, we played our first ever international competition. It generated some great interest in baseball and that’s when we had our first domestic Adult League in 1996. So back then we had seven teams in the Dublin area, two of them in Belfast and one in Greystones, County Wicklow.

THE IRISH ADULT BASEBALL LEAGUE

John: Okay. So you mentioned the Adult League, so tell me who’s playing baseball in the Irish Adult League.

Peter: Well, it used to be a lot higher but one of the things we’re seeing recently is a lot of that first crop of youth baseball, guys who’re playing the youth baseball 15 years ago even as recently as 10 years ago they’re now the stalwarts of the Irish League. So the guys like up until recently he was the captain of our national team, Darren O’Connor. He would have started off as a youth baseball player, learning from American expats when they would have made up 90% of the league even 90% of the national team.

But now we’re looking at a national team that’s built around a core of Irish born players, the league every team has got a core of Irish-born players. We’re still a minority in the sport because it’s the sport that’s taken too more easily by expats but not just American expats anymore. The influx of other baseball playing cultures into Ireland has been huge and what for example the Venezuelans and the Mexicans, the Canadians the Koreans and the Japanese have given our game has been fantastic and they’ve sent over some great players over here.

Being an amateur league, it all depends on whether or not you find yourself in Ireland studying or working as opposed to something like the Czech League or the Dutch League of the German League where they’re pro or semi-pro where they would have players coming over on contracts. We’ve got guys coming over to work in banks or to study English in our college system and they end up finding themselves playing Amateur Baseball and adding to the league. And it’s really, it’s become a great melting pot of cultures much like major league baseball has. We still owe an awful lot to the American expats who set it up but they find themselves dwindling a number down. They’re still a very, very hefty presence but they’re slowly getting outnumbered by all the other baseball playing nations of the world.

THE IRISH NATIONAL BASEBALL TEAM

John: Let’s talk about the Irish National Baseball Team. I know Ireland does play internationally, they play other teams in Europe in the European championships and the team is a mix of Irish-born and Irish American players who hold dual citizenship and also Canadian dual citizens as well. So explain who the Irish national team plays against and who is on the team?

Peter: Well, the Irish national team competes at the European C-Level so in the C-Pool Championships. Up until 2013, we were at the B-Level but we had a rough outing in a tournament in Vienna, Austria. In 2013, we were relegated to the C-Level then we finished fourth in the C-Pool championships last year which was a very strong showing. We unfortunately had a couple of injuries to our front-line pitchers so we couldn’t get through the semi-final and ended up finishing fourth in that tournament that had some very strong teams like Slovenia and Israel.

And to compare the Israeli team was made up entirely of players living and playing ball in the US, a lot of them semi-pro and some of them minor league players compared to what we have. We’ve got a core of, as I said Irish-born players, guys like Jack Farrell and Leo Farrell who play for the Greystones Mariners. And our coaching system it’s all domestic based, we used to have a lot of imported players coming and playing but now it’s all firmly based around players within the Irish League with a handful of players coming from US and Canadian college leagues or Amateur hardball leagues.

YOUTH BASEBALL IN IRELAND

John: So we’ve got the Irish national baseball team, we’ve got the Adult Amateur League, what about kids? Where are the I guess Little Leagues or youth baseball programs in Ireland and what do kids in Ireland think of baseball? Is it a popular sport, is that something that they enjoy playing and how are you working to expand the presence of youth baseball in Ireland?

Peter: Well, youth baseball is not as strong as adult baseball, we have to admit it’s something that we’ve been working on over the last 20 years. But unfortunately one of the bigger problems we face is that an entire generation of coaches have retired from coaching because their kids would have grown up and gone on to play adult level baseball so replacing those is pretty tough. So we’ve got there are five ball clubs playing youth league baseball and that’s everything up from T-ball through coach pitch to Little League and what we call the cadets which would be teenage-level baseball. And they’re based in North Dublin Galway, Ashbourne in County Meath. There’s a team in West County Clare as well the West Clare Dolphin, so it really, it’s a huge geographical spread.

Unfortunately, we’d love to see more teams playing baseball but getting things up and running for a brand new club it’s very, very difficult considering how little the sport is played over here. Getting equipments, getting the kind of support we need to put in place a new youth team as well as getting the coaching and the interest in the kids it can be quite challenging. But there are those that are playing youth baseball, I mean you’ve got age groups running from four or five years old right the way up to 16, 17 at all of those clubs. So it really it’s providing a great stream of players to the Adult League but we’d love to see some more of it in areas that we don’t have a presence at the moment.

John: And what kind of outreach do you do to bring more kids in, I mean obviously baseball is a growing sport but it’s a new sport and most kids don’t really know much about it in Ireland, so how do you bring them in, how do you get them involved, how do you teach them about the game?

Peter: One of the key things we’ve done in the last year and it’s a current youth coordinator Mark Mandarano, who started his interventions into primary schools as per the equivalent of elementary school in the States. But going into the primary education system and showcasing baseball as a sport for the kids to try, baseball has got the same appeal over here as rumbindos [SP] in that you don’t need to be a certain physique or a certain shape or a certain level of athleticism to play it.

There’s a spot on the team for everybody, if you’re the small skinny wiry kid you can run really fast, you’re gonna stick in the outfield, you’re gonna steal bases. If you’re the big blocky kid with a lot of strength, you can play catcher or you can play corner infield so it’s got an appeal that really lends itself to being an attractive sport for Irish kids. Our biggest issue in trying to get it out there is that we’ve got one guy coordinating all of the youth league baseball and we’ve got a lot of coaches who are really, really dedicated, but because everybody’s doing it on an amateur basis it’s very, very difficult to give them the support they need.

John: And what about you Peter, how did you get involved in baseball?”

Peter: Well, I came to the game quite late compared to most of the people who play even in Ireland. I started playing at ups 27. I previously had played rugby in college and when I had a string of serious injuries to force me to give up rugby, I played a bit of cricket, which is a sport that has a long tradition here in Ireland as well, another bat and ball sports and something that lends us to baseball easily.

But I had always had an interest in baseball, I’d always watched it. I was one of those people who stayed up until early in the morning to watch the baseball highlights and I’ve been to Boston, I became a Red Sox fan. When the Internet became something that everybody could access it was great for all those baseball fans, we’re able to finally see our team every day. And then I just took a point I said I’m gonna try this out and I’m gonna email one of the teams that plays in Dublin.

I said, “Listen, do you have a spot for a complete and total newbie?” And I very quickly realized that while my strength may not be for hit in home runs there are parts of the game I’m pretty good at. One of them was administration, so I took over as manager of my ball club’s B-league team. I joined the National Executive Committee of Baseball Ireland as there’s the public relations officer, looking after their media, the social media, the press relations.

And then the opportunity came up somebody nominated me for president and I was honored to be nominated and I was elected to the post. So my role is just to provide some sort of strategic direction for the National Association. I mean, nobody can do anything on their own so the National Executive Committee, a bunch of volunteers who work incredibly hard trying to promote and grow the game in Ireland and promote baseball Ireland abroad.

John: Well, it’s certainly not easy and Peter I applaud you for your efforts and I applaud everyone at baseball Ireland, and everyone all over the world that’s doing their part to help share the game of baseball by bringing the game to places where it’s not traditionally played. Peter, I want to thank you again for speaking with me. And if anyone wants to learn more about Irish baseball or if they would like to donate or to help support the cause, they should visit BaseballIreland.com or SupportIrishBaseball.org. Thanks for listening.