The first thing that needs to be said about The Toughest Trade, which aired on TV3 on Thursday night, is that Jackie Tyrrell is one of the very few men, of any colour or creed, who can get away with wearing a baseball cap backwards.
The Kilkenny defender has developed a reputation for not being easily intimidated but it is doubtful even he will have the temerity to show up in Nowlan Park with the peak of his Marlins cap pointed to the rear. The look of reproach from Brian Cody would haunt him for the rest of his life.
Tyrrell's contribution to the The Toughest Trade, in which an elite hurler and baseball star, and an elite soccer and Gaelic football player swapped lives, was the most fascinating aspect of a documentary born of a curious idea which somehow worked brilliantly.
Tyrrell, possibly buoyed by the eight All-Ireland medals he has won, somehow persuaded Cody and company to allow him to skip the rigours of early spring training with Kilkenny for the balmier climes of Miami, where like all true boys of summer, he had top pulled down and those Ray Bans on. The task for Tyrrell was simple: could he slug a baseball as thrown by a major league pitcher – and one who specialised in striking lefties out.
The reason that The Toughest Trade worked so brilliantly was the producers found four terrific participants for their show. Brian Schneider, the 13-year MLB veteran who was drafted to the major leagues straight from high school, not only auditioned for the role of goalkeeper with Tyrrell's club James Stephens, he also took on his day job as a representative with a dairy company.
Former Armagh playmaker Aaron Kernan headed to Sunderland to test his athleticism and agility against a Premier League teams.
David Bentley, who walked away from professional football at the age of 29 declaring himself out of love with the game, submitted himself to the caustic tutelage of Oisín McConville and John McEntee at Crossmaglen Rangers, probably the best GAA football club in the history of the association.
Praising any of our pathologically wayward national banking institutions doesn’t come easy but it is impossible to deny that AIB’s campaign for the All-Ireland club championships, which have their big day on St Patrick’s Day, has been brilliantly devised.
The short, terse adverts featuring Brendan Cummins speaking in a genuinely bereaved tone of losing a big club game, and Colm Cooper recalling the moment he snapped his cruciate while playing for Dr Crokes, are easily the best GAA advertisements of recent years. They leave the campaigns for the bigger and glitzier summer All-Irelands in their wake.
Antithesis of glamour
Club football and hurling is the antithesis of glamour: the calendar means that the best teams invariably meet in the heart of winter, often in appalling weather conditions. The club championship is the darker, truer heart of the summer All-Ireland championships.
The contradiction is that it is the most elusive medal of all: you can win a fistful of All-Ireland medals by playing for the Kilkenny hurlers or Kerry footballers without ever getting near the windy, intimate splendour of Croke Park on St Patrick’s Day, where the two best hurling and football teams in the country will finally bring the curtains down on their season. At least for a few weeks: next year’s championship is only around the corner.
The Toughest Trade exploited the true point about Gaelic games. Even for the very best footballers and hurlers – and managers – the county dressingroom is just a temporary home. Everyone is passing through. In the end, GAA players end up where they started, back at their club, either as coaches or managers or administrators or just as occasional spectators.
But there is a place for everyone who wants it in a local GAA club. That was something Brian Schneider and David Bentley understood and related to straightaway. Over in Sunderland, Aaron Kernan didn’t try to hide the fact he was taken aback by the level and detail of the conditioning of the first-team professionals at Sunderland – and by the emphasis on community placed by the club. There was one admittedly stagey moment when Kernan visited a school and was inevitably asked how much he was paid as a GAA star. Still, the expressions on the schoolkids couldn’t disguise what they thought of this arrangement: what a mug.
Of course the idea of anyone parachuting into the elite end of any sport as an adult and trying to "make it" is slightly daft. The reason Brian Schneider got drafted as a teenager into baseball is that he spent most of his childhood hours learning and perfecting his facility for the game. Only Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest American athlete of the 20th century, had the ambition and chutzpah to try to take up Major League Baseball as an adult. The experiment was one of the few failures in his sporting life.
But there was something compelling about Tyrrell’s brief exposure to the American pastime. In the early stages of his apprenticeship, when told by
, his batting coach, that the ball will be travelling “between 87 and 90 oomph”, Tyrrell nods and asks the questions that too many gardaí have heard on the stretches of roadway on the edge of towns: “Is that miles or kilometres?”
Tyrrell's impatience with the mitt, which he ditched to catch balls barehanded as an outfielder probably impressed the professionals as much as the speed with which he adjusted his swing and eye as a batter. The pity was that The Toughest Trade wasn't extended into four documentaries as Tyrrell's training programme was absorbing.
Baseball looks to South America for foreign talent now but in the early development of the sport in America, it had a heavy Irish influence and had a roll-call of Irish-born players who made it in professional baseball: Patrick Redmond's book The Irish and the Making of American Sport has almost 50 Irish men following the lead of Andy Leonard, the Cavan man born in 1846 who won two National League pennants with the Boston Red Stockings in 1877 and 1888.
That early influence has long since dissipated. Still, Tyrrell's cameo –and his introduction to Giancarlo Stanton, whose $325 million deal with the Marlins (over 13 seasons) exceeds any previous contract in American sport, was an intriguing crossing of two bat-and-ball sports with rich traditions.
The speed with which Tyrrell adapted to the movement of the baseball was, his hosts, declared, exceptional. Tyrrell was understandably delighted to have connected with one of the fastballs thrown by Todd Moser. But once he had achieved that, he seemed anxious to be on his way. Tipperary play Kilkenny this Sunday and Tyrrell knows too well that he will be getting as much as fastball as he can handle.