JOHN RIORDAN: Ireland’s finest so proud to face New York’s bravest

Van Morrison’s Into the Mystic seems to nestle on the humid air and float away off to the Ramapo Mountains, visible in the distance beyond the ballpark’s centre field fence.

“And when that foghorn blows, you know I will be coming home.”

It’s the top of the seventh and final inning of the Irish baseball team’s exhibition game against the Fire Department of New York’s team, the FDNY Bravest. It’s taken this long for a decent song to pop up on the PA system — Irish Heritage Day in Rockland County has been leaning far too heavily on toora-loora, The Pogues and U2.

Several hundred people have gathered at the home of the Rockland Boulders, a professional baseball team about 35 miles north of the Empire State Building and not far west of the Hudson River for the last game of Ireland’s week-long trip to the US.

Ireland will lose 5-1 but it matters little. The week has been a huge success in terms of gaining experience, meshing a squad that mixes Irish and US-born talent while also networking with what is a very Irish-American neck of the woods at a time when fundraising is more important than ever.

The foghorn is blowing and even the 100% Irish players — such as captain and second baseman Darran O’Connor — feel like they’re coming home. He’s signing autographs in the almost empty dugout, basking in the glory of a career highlight.

“In terms of giving guys experience, you can’t get better than this,” says the Dublin-based Spartans player. “Playing in front of all these people gives us a little bit of pressure. There were even NYPD guys out in the bleachers here to support FDNY and jeering us.”

For starting pitcher Pat Gorman, it’s a homecoming he could never have expected.

Drafted by the New York Mets in the late 1990s, he was moved onto the Baltimore Orioles three seasons later just as his elbow caved under the pressure of fastball after fastball.

He bends his arm to show me the Tommy John surgery scar, a dark L-shaped symbol of dashed dreams.

“I thought my career was over in 2002 but I guess it isn’t. As you saw, it still works a little bit,” he smiles as he straightens his arm again.

“This is my backyard, I’m from about 15 minutes away in Pearl River.

“I know so many people who came here today, it’s great.

“It was never a thought in my mind that I’d get to represent Ireland before about three years ago. I was coaching with (short-stop) Brian Smith and we decided to go for a try-out in Rhode Island. It’s a completely different feeling when you’re playing for a flag and not an organisation.

“You’re playing for your heritage — this is all heart, nothing to do with a pay cheque.”

Team manager and one of Baseball Ireland’s founding members, Sean Mitchell stops to chat near a table selling Baseball Ireland merchandise.

“We’re trying to make connections. New York is the heart of baseball so it’s important to be here.

“I only started playing when I was 27. I caught for 10 years for the national team and I’ve been manager for seven years now. There were a few of us playing softball for our company in Dublin and we started to get a little too competitive for what it was designed for so we decided to start playing some hardball in 1996.”

Since that, they have been expanding all the time, estimations of about 200 adults and 300 children consumed by this most American of sports. Famously, former LA Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley put up the money for their facility in Clondalkin, Corkagh Park. Over by the entrance to their host ballpark, which is in its second season, Nat Anglin can barely contain himself, still buzzing from the experience of representing Ireland yet again.

He tells me he was working in his uncle’s bar in Boston after a college baseball scholarship when he was scouted by the Irish team in 2005, his eyes brightening as he begins an impassioned monologue for my Dictaphone.

“I have a very close connection with Ireland. My grandparents came straight off the boat from Clonakilty. My dad is a big historian and he passed that on to me. Growing up on this feverish thirst for history, baseball is as natural a fit for me to represent the country.”

He is one of a trio of Anglin brothers on the team, Greg and Doug being the other two.

“I’m so lucky these guys have embraced me and let me go to bat for them. I’ll never forget the first time I stood for the anthem. My grandfather passed away the summer after so I managed to tell him about that feeling. It meant a lot to him.”

* Twitter: JohnWRiordan


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