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Belfast baseball looking to build its 'field of dreams'

(Darran McCann, Irish News)

For a long time baseball seemed to be one of the few US exports to have failed to capture the Irish imagination, but now that is starting to change. Darran McCann gets ready to play ball and looks at how a local group is trying to establish a permanent home for the sport.

All things American tend to play well on this side of the Atlantic, so it is perhaps surprising that while we have embraced most things, America's national pastime has never made it past first base here.

Now however, due to the hard work of a number of pioneers, the fortunes of baseball in Ireland may be about to change.

There are now 10 senior baseball teams in Ireland, with a second Belfast club set to take the field at the start of the upcoming season.

Both the Belfast NorthStars and the newly-formed Belfast Wolves will begin the new season in the coming weeks hoping to wrest the championship pennant from last year's winners, the Dublin Hurricanes.

Unfortunately the northern sides are at something of a disadvantage against their southern rivals – of whom seven are from Dublin while the other team is from nearby Greystones, Co Wicklow.

Currently there is only one purpose-built baseball diamond in Ireland, at Clondalkin in west Dublin, leaving the Belfast sides to practice and play home games on makeshift football pitches.

As a result, the local baseball fraternity has organised a lobbying organisation, Fastball, to promote the game and, ultimately, to build a baseball diamond in Belfast.

According to spokesman Slide Moony, the diamond in Dublin was re-sponsible for much of the game's popularity in the city.

"While it has slowly been emerging in Ireland in recent years, it has not yet fully taken off in the north," Mr Moony said.

"Much of the interest generated in baseball in Ireland in recent years can be attributed to the development of a purpose-built baseball facility in Clondalkin. This at present hosts the majority of games played in Ireland," he said.

The emphasis must now be on building a state-of-the-art facility in Belfast, he said, complete with a pitcher's mound, outfield fence, clay diamond and bases – as well as an adjacent scaled-down version for Little League games.

"The emergence of a second adult team in the north coupled with the upsurge in the number of young people taking up Little League Baseball is evidence of the growing love for this cross-community, co-educational game in Northern Ireland," Mr Moony said.

"There is nowhere in the north for these new teams to play. At present home games are played at Queen's playing fields, but there is a need for a proper diamond.

"It is envisaged that in five years, Baseball Ireland will have its own northern division, with at least four teams, such is the rapid growth of the game. A baseball facility would facilitate the further growth of the game," he said.

Mr Moony said that Fastball had identified a number of underused, council-owned playing fields in Belfast on which they could build the facility. He added the Fastball was seeking funding assistance from Irish-America to assist the project. He estimated that the facility would cost around £100,000.

The Baseball Ireland league was formed in 1995 when recreational players in Belfast and Dublin organised themselves into four teams. The first Belfast team was the Bluesox, who folded after 10 players split away in 1996 to form the Northstars.

The Belfast Wolves were formed in 2004 and are the newest members of Baseball Ireland. Both teams are made up primarily of Irish players.

It is not widely acknowledged, but Ireland has made a significant contribution to the history of baseball – a fact which Fastball also seeks to highlight. Some local athletes have even gone all the way to the Major Leagues.

Among these players were Henry Cooke 'Irish' McIlveen from the Sandy Row area of Belfast played for the New York Highlanders, which later became the Yankees.

Mr Moony said that Fastball would continue to work closely with the Belfast Baseball Association and Base-ball Ireland to promote the game.

He predicted that within a few years Belfast would have four senior teams and it would become necessary for Baseball Ireland to set up a Northern Division, with an annual World Series between the best sides north and south.

Belfast-based American Stephen Van Houten, player-coach with both the northern teams, hopes to take part in a future World Series. However, he discovered the local baseball scene in less- grand circumstances.

"I decided to do an internet search for baseball and Belfast. After wading through numerous search engine hits about the baseball bat's role in the Troubles, I eventually came across the Belfast NorthStars," he joked.

"That was almost two years ago and a lot of progress has been made in respect of the game of baseball in Belfast," he said

"I would now invite you to do web search for baseball and Belfast. You will see the NorthStars much higher up on the list of hits!"

April 17, 2004

This article appeared first in the April 14, 2004 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News