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”We decided we should try and form an international team,” Mike Kindle said. ”We said, ‘Let’s get some uniforms and funding and go play.’ We were sitting in the boozer over a couple of pints. Over a couple of pints, it sounded good.”
In truth, the dream of an Irish National Baseball Team was far from the mind of Kindle until that day at the pub. The transplanted American had much lower expectations back in 1990, when he followed a bumper sticker titled “Irish Softball Association” to a muddy field of coeds playing recreational slo-pitch.
The Emerald Diamond takes you through the next 14 years of twists and turns that culminated in the Irish National Baseball Team’ bronze medal in the B Pool of the 2004 European Championships. Similarly, though, producer/director John Fitzgerald’s vision was not to make a movie — at least, not initially. His first inclination was to PLAY FOR, not film, Team Ireland.
”I found out about them and I said, ‘This is amazing,’ ” Fitzgerald said. ”I had no idea Ireland had a national team.” Though born in the USA, non-citizens can play if one of their grandparents was born in the country (this is how Mike Piazza qualified for Team Italy in the WBC in 2006). The former college ballplayer worked out with the Irish team for four months before finding out his grandmother — who held dual citizenship with the US and Ireland — was in fact born in New York. But in the meantime, Fitzgerald realized his contribution to Irish baseball could be much larger than fielding a few groundballs — he saw a story that had to be told.
Indeed, the plight and flight of baseball in Ireland reads like a Hollywood script — a story of like-minded underdogs reaching heights that others could never imagine. Though a documentary, the plot is not unlike that of the Keanu Reeves / Gene Hackman hit film “The Replacements”, “Major League”, or, as The New York Times Jack Curry aptly described, “Think of Rudy, the Notre Dame walk-on, and multiply it by about a dozen.”
The film begins with touching, unbelievable, and humorous insights from members of the original team, a ragtag bunch who ranged in age from 18 to 36, and included rugby players, “footballers”, a video store cashier, and a naturalized Mexican from Guadalaraja named Gus; they were “as green as they were proud” . They stole bases from the slo-pitch softball team, built a makeshift backstop from chicken wire, an outfield fence from construction netting, and played on a field so wet and slopey that today the site is only visited by licensed fishermen.
Their first international game came at the European Championships in 1996 against Czechoslovakia. The game opened with great optimism, as Gus cracked a base hit in Team Ireland’s first official at-bat. The good times did not last, though — Gus was picked off first and the team lost 23-2. True to their Irish heritage, the team was jubilant afterward — simply happy to be there, playing baseball. It is that passion, combined with tenacity and a good dose of self-depracating humor, that drove the team’s players to eventual respectability — and drives the story into your heart.
This week, you won’t see the Irish National Baseball Team in the WBC. The team does exist, and is light years beyond those days of infancy, but has recently hit wall. The removal of baseball from the Olympic games also resulted in the disappearance of funds for the baseball program in Ireland (as well as in many European countries), and without that support, the team has an uphill battle to compete against teams such as the Netherlands, Japan, or the Dominican Republic. In addition to the fact that those powerhouses are stocked with MLB players, Ireland still has other obstacles to overcome. Consider, for example, that a typical day during Team Ireland’s season feels like this: 35 degrees, light rain, 20 MPH wind gusts. They routinely play through torrential rainstorms and snow, and rarely call a game due to inclement weather. As pitcher Carmac Eklof described, “Anything up to the level of ‘holy crap I’m getting soaked’ is playable” Or as an Irish outfielder admitted, “I had to call time recently when I got hit in the eye with a hailstone.”
So, in between watching the WBC and eating corn beef and cabbage this week, watch “The Emerald Diamond” here on BaseballDigest.com — or better yet, buy the DVD so the family doesn’t have to crouch around your computer and be distracted by the ads floating on the bottom of the screen. The film gives you a very real, heartwarming, and inspiring story about a group of people who truly love baseball. It’s a wonderfully entertaining film — with or without a couple of pints.