Irish people the world over are overcome with pride these past few weeks with the success of the Irish soccer team at the European championships and the stellar job our fans in France are doing in representing us.
But the national pride doesn’t have to end with the conclusion of soccer season because a whole other squad will be representing us just as gallantly this summer when the Irish national baseball team travels to Slovenia to compete in baseball's European Championships.
What’s more, there will be several players from North America in their midst.
“It's been such a worthwhile experience. I can't speak enough to it,” Michael-Anthony Ferrato, who's played for Ireland’s national team since 2013, told IrishCentral.
“It's not only that playing baseball on the European scene is a cool experience but, for me personally, it's been a really great excuse to reconnect with my Irish roots and gives me an excuse to go and visit my family over there every year.”
Ferrato's mother was born and raised in Ireland before she moved to Canada in her 20s. Ferrato was always encouraged to keep a link with his Irish roots and to acquire an Irish passport, in case it would ever be needed or simply come in handy.
Ferrato, who catches for the Irish team, searched online to see what he could use his passport for. Ferrato, who plays competitively in Canada, came across Baseball Ireland and decided to get in touch.
“First of all, everybody has to be an Irish passport holder in order to play for Ireland in the European Championship,” explained the national team coach Seán Mitchell. “They can qualify for Irish citizenship through being born here or having a parent or grandparent who was. There are elements of all of the above in the squad.”
Baseball Ireland (the Irish Baseball & Softball Federation/IBSF) was founded in 1989 with the aim of growing baseball and softball at all levels and ages throughout Ireland.
The Irish National Baseball team entered its first international baseball competition in 1995 and they’ve fared well in international competitions since, especially considering that baseball competes for players with rugby, soccer and the the GAA sports of football and hurling. The national team reached the quarter-final stage of the 1998 European Championships, winning a Bronze medal in the European B-Pool Championships held in August, 2004 in Regensburg, Germany and a Silver Medal at the 2006 European B-Pool Championships held in Antwerp, Belgium.
This summer they will compete in Division C of the Championship against Finland, Norway, Slovenia and Serbia, with hopes of moving up to Division B the following year.
The organization also has over 200 kids playing baseball throughout the country. They opened a new International Baseball Center in Ashbourne, Co. Meath, in August 2015.
Although the national team has an average of seven North American players on the squad each year, they don’t make a habit of seeking out players from other countries, but rather they emphasize the need to develop players in Ireland.
“We'd normally have about two-thirds of the squad actually resident in Ireland, paying their baseball in Ireland and about a third we bring in from other countries, generally the US and Canada but sometimes some other countries as well,” said Mitchell.
“We're trying to balance bringing players in with the development of the grassroots program over here so we want to make sure that the national team is accessible to players who are playing their baseball in Ireland. If they're good enough and if they've worked hard enough, then it's realistic they can get onto the team.
“It’s just through word of mouth that we've attracted players from the US.
“We are careful. We want to find people who are going to fit in with the culture of the team and generally they're guys who are very excited about representing Ireland and definitely see it as a privilege.”
And for those currently playing for the team, it certainly is that.
“It means the world to me,” said Ferrato.
“I know a ton of guys who have played minor league baseball in the States and they see what I'm doing with the Irish team. One expression I've heard is ‘minor league players are a dime a dozen’ but not everyone gets to go over and do something like this and gets to represent a country so it’s a really special experience.”
With essentially zero funding available to the team, however, the privilege of representing Ireland comes at a price, with North American players funding their own travel expenses to Ireland each year and having to commit to both advance training and tournament time during the summer.
“It's worth it,” said Brian Smith, from New York State, whose been playing with the team since around 2010.
“It's not easy, but it's 100% worth it every time you get there, every time you get to play with them. Every time you get to put the jersey on for Ireland, it's 100% worth it.”
Smith, whose grandparents were from Cavan, was introduced to the team because a friend played for the Greek national team.Luckily for Smith his job is teaching baseball in New York, so the company understand the necessary absences, but he is one of the luckier ones. Like Ferrato, he relishes the opportunity the game provides him to get back in touch with his roots.
“When I made the team, I'd never been to Ireland, I'd never been to Cavan, so I flew out and I stayed in Europe for almost 22 days,” he said.
“We had a European championship in Spain, but we trained in Dublin so afterwards we flew back from Spain to Ireland and I stayed for a week with family in Cavan I had never met before which was kind of fantastic. It was the cherry on top.”
The lack of funding can be difficult for the players, but the chance to display Irish pride compensates them.
“Sometimes in the States it becomes monotonous a little bit, it loses its luster. You play so many games in such a lengthy period of time, things kind of dwindle away, but playing with these guys, every inning, every game, everything is at full 100 percent intensity,” admits Smith
“The passion that they played with was refreshing in many ways, to play with guys again who were so passionate about it, so into it, they didn't take anything for granted … and I was able to fit in just because I shared the same passion as they did for baseball.”
The Irish national baseball team will take part in the European Championship Seniors C-Pool between July 25 and July 30 in Ljubljana, Slovenia.
If you’re interested in supporting the Irish baseball team, you can buy a team t-shirt to help the team get to Slovenia. T-shirts are available to purchase here.