Irish Baseball got a big boost this past summer when the Irish 18U Junior National Baseball Team won the gold medal at the European B-Pool Championship Tournament in Zurich, Switzerland.
But aside from the obviously awesome things that come with a gold medal (namely, A GOLD MEDAL!), you may be wondering, “Why is winning a gold medal such a big deal?”
Well, to answer your question, we have to take a trip back in time, to the year 1996…
A Brief History of Ireland’s National Baseball Team Program
Back in 1996, a group of baseball enthusiasts in Ireland decided to enter the European Baseball Championship Tournament. Ireland’s team was not very experienced — several players had played baseball while living in the United States as children — but they made up for their lack of experience with pride.
You see, by entering the tournament and getting their uniforms, they were the ONLY Irish National Baseball Team. They were representing their entire country, simply because they could. So, they did!
But it wasn’t easy for that first Irish National Baseball Team. After a few months of struggling to practice in a country that, at the time, had no baseball fields and is notorious for its rainy weather, Ireland flew to England for their first official games in international competition.
It wasn’t pretty. Ireland lost their first four games by a combined score of 77-18. Things were looking bleak, as you can see in this clip from the documentary film, “The Emerald Diamond.”
Back to the Future of Irish Baseball
Long story short, Ireland salvaged their 1996 tournament with an important victory over Hungary in their final game.
Fast forward 21 years… Ireland has had its ups and downs in international competition — winning a bronze medal in 2004 and a silver medal in 2006, but never rising above the B-Pool in European competition.
And, more importantly, Ireland had never fielded a junior national baseball team. So despite some significant gains at the 18+ adult level of play, youth baseball in Ireland had struggled to find a foothold that would allow the Irish National Baseball Team program to enter a junior national team in international competition.
The First Irish Junior National Baseball Team
The idea was simple: combine the top Irish youth baseball players between the ages of 15 and 18 with top Irish-American players from across the USA. The only catch: the Irish-American players had to be Irish citizens.
The recruiting process took 8 months and players were found in California, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. Some of the players already had Irish citizenship and Irish passports. Others had to be guided through the process of gathering the appropriate documents and submitting an application for Irish citizenship.
In July, the Irish-American dual citizen players flew from JFK airport in New York to Zurich, Switzerland, where they joined up with two players from Ireland for the 18U European Championship tournament.
As we mentioned earlier, the result was the first gold medal in the history of Irish Baseball.
But what does it all mean? Why is it a big deal? Here’s why:
#1: A Gold Medal Means More Media Exposure for Baseball in Ireland
Ireland’s 18+ Men’s National Baseball Team has been struggling for media exposure since 1996. Even when the team won a bronze medal in 2004 and a silver medal in 2006, the Irish sports media has largely ignored the progress of baseball in Ireland. And it makes sense because Ireland’s sporting landscape is dominated by several major Irish sports that are governed by the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), as well as other “non-Irish” sports like soccer and rugby. But a gold medal gives Irish Baseball some additional credibility on the international baseball stage. If this success continues, the Irish sports world will continue to pay closer attention to Ireland’s baseball endeavors.
#2: More Domestic Media Exposure Means More Kids in Ireland Will Want to Try Baseball
Garnering attention from domestic Irish media outlets has a very real impact on the number of Irish children who become interested in playing baseball. It makes sense when you think about it — if a kid sees an Irish National Baseball Team winning a medal in an international competition, they are more likely to want to try this “new” sport called baseball. They may not understand the rules, but every time a kid picks up a baseball bat or glove in Ireland, it helps advance Irish youth baseball one step further.
#3: Ireland Has Qualified for the 18U A-Pool Tournament in 2018
Now that Ireland has defeated Belgium, Switzerland, Poland and Russia, they move on to the A-Pool tournament in 2018. The Irish will be facing off with European Baseball powerhouses like the Netherlands, Italy, Great Britain, and Spain.
#4: Ireland Now Has a Large Talent Pool for the Men’s National Team for the Next Decade
The gold medal winning 18U Irish Junior National Baseball Team roster had 20 players, including 18 Irish-American dual citizens that, just a few months prior, hadn’t even known that baseball existed in Ireland. These 18 players will be eligible to play for the men’s national team as they progress through high school and into college and beyond. This kind of influx of talent is sure to help Ireland compete on the 18+ level for many years to come.
#5: Media Coverage in America Will Help in Recruiting Other Qualified Irish-American Players
Although the Irish press has historically been largely uninterested in Irish Baseball, the US media has taken the opposite approach. In recent years, The New York Times, NPR, FoxNews, ESPN.com, and the Huffington Post have all covered the growth of baseball in Ireland. Irish-American news outlets like the Irish Voice and Irish Echo have also covered Irish Baseball, especially the recent 18U gold medal run. This sort of exposure is sure to help in the recruitment of additional Irish-American players in years to come.