The phrase ‘thrown in the deep end’ comes to mind as you hear about the beginnings of Baseball Ireland.
The Baseball & Softball Federation in Ireland was first founded in 1989 and slowly began to develop at an Adult level to the point that a Men’s National Team was formed in 1995.
Their first-ever international match came in the form of the 1996 European Championships held in Hull, England.
“The first game we got absolutely hammered by the Czech Republic”, recalls former player John Dillon.
“The coaches from the other side were absolutely amazed because here we were being beaten 23-2 but we were running in and out as if we were winning.
“It was the first game we ever played and we were so excited to be playing baseball. We were more vocal and into the game than they were! We played five games, lost four, but we won our last game and it was against Yugoslavia and that gave us hope for the future and it all took off from there.
“The Irish team got better and better and we ended up getting a silver medal in Belgium in 2006.”
Baseball is generally classified as an American sport. The modern game originated in the States and Major League Baseball remains one of the most popular sporting leagues in the country.
However, over 100 years since it was invented, baseball is very much an international sport. In fact, it is the number one sport in Japan.
Its international allure is a unique selling point Baseball Ireland is keen to promote. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what background, baseball is a sport for everyone.
“What’s really interesting about it is we had lots of different players from lots of different countries”, Dillon states, “there was a very eclectic mix of players.
“Still to this when you tell people about it, their first reaction is ‘I didn’t know there was baseball in Ireland!’ and that was certainly the case in the early days.
“You pick up people along the way, we were quite steady in numbers for the first 10/15 years. You’d get the odd Irish person coming in who was in their 20s and looking for something different to do. But a lot of time it was international people from all corners of the earth. I’ve played with South Americans, I’ve played with Japanese, I’ve played with a lot of Europeans so it’s not the typical American players.
“Really what impressed on me over the years is how international the game is. Ireland is changing a lot, particularly in Dublin, in terms of the international profile so it’s a good sport from that regard.”
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Of course, some of the best coaches in the world have learned and carved their trade in the States but they have shared their knowledge worldwide – including in Ireland.
“The one real benefit of the national team was the access we got to some really top-class international coaches. We would have got visiting coaches during the summer for the national team and then during the off-season, if they were ever coming over to Ireland, they’d reach out and give us a session on particular aspects of the game.
“So really the players on the national team became really knowledgeable about the game, more so than your average player, because we had access to these great, top-class coaches.
“I mean we had Ron Wotus who was on the bench for the San Francisco Giants and a lot of other high calibre coaches. So the players were self-coaching.”
As the Irish team progressed, the formation of an Adult Irish League was a natural step. But as American players made their mark in baseball on this land, there was a concern that it would hinder the development of homegrown players.
A development ‘B’ League was soon established and the focus now is on enticing the younger generation to pick up a bat and ball.
“There’s been a lot of big developments in the last while that have really pushed us on as an organisation. Back in 2013, I started a youth club in my local area and the focus was to try and get my kids and other kids interested in the game. So that’s been going really well. This year, we’re entering the Adult B League with that first wave of players who would have gone through that system.
“So we’ve a big focus now on youth development, both in terms of clubs and going into schools. We have plans for a League system for schools now.
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the reaction. There’s a lot of similarities to my own initial reaction to the sport. It’s hard to hit the ball, but when you do, it’s a great feeling. There’s a couple of aspects of baseball that make it stand out to other team sports. First and foremost, everyone gets a go. Even though you’re playing in a team game, you get your chance to stand up at the plate, no matter how good or bad you are.
“Also, we encourage mixed-gender playing, Take GAA for example, the split up the kids between boys and girls at a reasonably early age. But in baseball, there’s no reason why they can’t keep playing together. There’s very little contact in baseball so there’s no reason why guys and girls can’t play together.”
Baseball Ireland has no plans to slow down in its quest to grow the game in Ireland. Their 10×10 Strategic Plan lays out their aim to increase youth participation numbers tenfold from the current 150 players to over 1,500 players over a ten-year period.
“That mightn’t seem like a big number but it’s a significant figure for us”, Dillion explains.
“If we can get that number of youth players playing, we should hopefully see that filter through to the national teams. So we’re focused on the youth development but very much with an eye on bringing them through the Academy onto the national teams at the different levels.”
To read more about Baseball Ireland and their plans for the future, visit https://baseballireland.ie/