An Irishman's Diary

Thu, Jul 27, 2006, 01:00

The Sugar Club on Dublin's Leeson Street occupies the site of the old Irish Film Theatre, which you used to enter around the corner on Earlsfort Terrace. Back in the dark days before TG4, this was about the only place you could see obscure art-house movies - often dealing with challenging subjects such as nudity - that had no prospect of commercial success. So it seemed an apt venue this week for a film about the history of Irish baseball.

"The what?" you ask. Like me, you may not have known that Irish baseball had a present, never mind a history. But it has enough of both, just about, to fill a feature-length reel, and for the latter to fill the Sugar Club on both Monday and Tuesday night. Despite being made on a budget lower than anything ever shown at the IFT, The Emerald Diamond held a packed attendance enthralled the evening I was there. Of course, the audience members may have been biased. As far as I could tell, most of them were also members of the cast.

Baseball slipped into Ireland around the same time that Riverdance slipped out. It started when a homesick Californian called Mike Kindle spotted a Dublin car sticker advertising softball and pleaded with the driver to know where he could play.

Softball is the gateway drug of baseball and the inevitable happened. After dabbling with the recreational game for a while, Kindle soon found that only the hard stuff would do, and decided to build a team of his own.

It's a popular delusion here that, because of hurling, Irish people have innate aptitude for such sports as baseball and cricket, were we only to put our minds to them. The Emerald Diamond suggests otherwise. We might be able to hit the ball. But outside of a few Northern cities with a tradition of rioting, we are completely inept at throwing things. Regardless of gender, apparently, we all throw like girls. This was one of the challenges facing Irish baseball.

Another was the weather. The sport that invented the term "rain-check" - originally a receipt entitling you to see another game if the one you paid for was rained off - was designed for dry pitches: a fanciful concept in Ireland, this summer notwithstanding. And there were the obvious aesthetic challenges too. The baseball cap is probably the ugliest item of hatwear ever made, but its relationship with the Irish head is particularly tense.

In the face of these obstacles, an Irish team was nevertheless established and The Emerald Diamond tracks its progress through the slow lane of international baseball: the European Championship B pool. In the early days, it was a catalogue of charming incompetence. The team's debut was a 23-2 defeat to the Czech Republic, while a dizzying 3-0 lead against the giants of Croatia proved only the prelude to a 28-4 trouncing.

Yet even then there were signs that Ireland and baseball could be friends. Disheartened by three successive defeats at the 2000 championships, the Irish prepared for the final group game against Hungary - the second-best team in the competition - by going out drinking the night before. Hung over and short of sleep, they recorded a shock win. Encouragingly, it seemed that baseball was a sport in which a relaxed mental state could be more important than mere fitness.

Back home, Ireland acquired its first proper baseball diamond at Corkagh Park, Clondalkin, west Dublin. Then, slowly, the national team's curve started to rise. Thanks to the granny rule and a few US imports, the Irish achieved second-class respectability with a bronze medal in the 2004

B championships. Next week they go to Antwerp with at least a chance of winning gold, and promotion to the A pool.

Both the team and the sport are organised on an all-island basis, without problems. True, the film details an episode in which a mini-van carrying Kindle and others once took a wrong turn in the North and drove into an Orange parade. It required some explaining to police what exactly a group of rough-looking men, carrying baseball bats, was doing in the vicinity. But the explanation that this was an Irish baseball team, however far-fetched it sounded, was eventually accepted.

New as it is, Irish baseball is already established enough to retire a jersey. Fans who come to the sport in later years may wonder why the international team has no number 10. It's because that is the number currently worn by the legendary Will Beglane, a returned London-Irishman, long the team's first choice pitcher but now in his twilight playing years. After Monday's screening, Kindle announced that whenever Beglane retires, the shirt goes too.

Directed by John Fitzgerald, The Emerald Diamond will not go on general release and may not even make TV. But it's a rare chronicle of the development of a sport here, almost from the moment of conception. Irish baseball has a small league now, with a Cuban ex-pat team among those competing. More promisingly, it has a young home-grown talent, Rory Murphy, who is seen as a major-league prospect. Not only does it have a history, Irish baseball appears to have a future. Get in now while the shares are cheap.