JOHN RIORDAN: From Millstreet to 54th Street, Joanne is touching hearts

“Tell them No 14 sent you,” Curtis Granderson said before sauntering off to the New York Yankees dressing room.

That struck a chord with Joanne O’Riordan, the Millstreet phenomenon who, I’m sure you know, spent the last week over here in the Big Apple turning 16, wowing high-ranking officials at the UN and generally being an incredible ambassador for our country.

One of the places where she elicited broad smiles was at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx on Friday night. The Yankees were gracious beyond belief and gave Joanne VIP treatment, showing her (and us, admittedly) the fascinating inner workings of a slick operation which, we would find out during the course of the evening, needs 5,000 employees to make game day as smooth and as entertaining as possible.

Joanne is old hat for new experiences and by the sixth inning, the sports nut had learned the rules well enough to protest called strikes and celebrate sacrifice flies. But before all that, Granderson, a popular and big-hitting Yankees centre-fielder, came running over to her during batting practice and proceeded to give some good-natured insider information about the type of dessert available in the Legends Suite behind home plate.

“Tell them No 14 sent you,” was the secret code. After kindly posing for a picture that ended up in Monday’s Irish Examiner, he headed off to focus on the game and as he left us, Joanne could barely contain herself. “That’s Aidan Walsh’s number!”

Hanging around in front of the Yankees dugout in the middle of that gleaming stadium as the blinding sun set over the Bronx, Gaelic football was at the forefront of her mind. And, of course, Cork especially.

As it turned out she was at the forefront of their minds too. On Sunday morning, Conor Counihan replied to her text message, thanking her for her support and telling her that the pre-game chat would incorporate her. Which would normally be taken with a pinch of salt were it not for Graham Canty’s victory speech and Counihan’s own post-match comments.

Here was a girl who had touched hearts, be they the amateur men who gave their all for a secondary competition in a quarter-full stadium or the millionaire superstars performing nightly under the intense scrutiny of the New York media.

No one who knows me will be surprised that I admired Counihan’s response to questions about the admittedly paltry attendance at Croke Park. That’s when he was motivated to cite Joanne. It was all about quality, not quantity, he said.

It was difficult not to be touched, watching those messages flying in via all forms of social media as her friends queued up to tell her that she was name-checked in Canty’s victory speech.

And it was impossible not to feel overwhelmed 36 hours earlier when legendary Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland approached Joanne as the visitors took their turn to practice their batting.

Normally a cranky but endearing presence, Leyland cooly bantered with Joanne, asking her not to boo his team and if she had to, then boo his players and not him. His smile expanded the crevices of his weathered face. Later, after his team’s 7-6 defeat, he would blast a journalist for asking how one of his players, Delmon Young, could possibly be stupid enough to get arrested the night before, shouting anti-Semitic comments in New York City.

But Joanne softened him like she does so many.

I irritate myself when I wax on about the romance of sport so I can only imagine how the reader feels. But sat next to Joanne on Friday night behind home plate, sharing cracker jacks and never having to repeat the rules about walks or when a base runner can steal, I rediscovered the pure joy that every athlete can provide, the lanky full-forward from Kanturk and the big-hitting outfielder from the Windy City.

Joanne was rewarded for wearing her Alex Rodriguez jersey when the slugger hit a solo home run to right field in the fourth inning. And when Walsh struck that second goal against Mayo, her weekend was made.

“Remember John, real men cry,” she reminded me after our final goodbyes outside The Old Castle pub on 54th St on Sunday morning. I kept it together for the sake of my new friend but I’ll always have fond memories of those two games. In America, it would sound strange to be grateful to both the Rebels and the Yankees. Joanne O’Riordan achieved the impossible and brought them together. That’s what she does. Thanks Joanne.

* Twitter: JohnWRiordan


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