John Fitzgerald, a New Yorker, went to Ireland to play baseball. When he found out he was ineligible for the national team, he did the next best thing – he made a documentary about them. COLIN MURPHY talks to Fitzgerald about how baseball has found a place in the Irish sporting lexicon.
Filmmaker John Fitzgerald doesn’t remember exactly how he happened upon the website for Ireland’s national baseball team, but he does remember his initial disbelief that such a team existed. “It didn’t quite seem to make sense that they would play baseball in Ireland,” he remembers thinking.
But play they do. The history of organized baseball in Ireland begins in 1989 with the formation of the Irish Baseball & Softball Federation. In 1995 a group of adults, looking to move beyond the recreational level, joined with a group of visiting coaches from Major League Baseball International and formed the first formal adult league team. One year later the team played in its first European Championship, and Irish Baseball was off and running.
Peter O’Malley, then owner and president of the Los Angeles Dodgers, gave Irish Baseball a much-needed lift when he committed to build a national baseball facility, which opened for play on July 4, 1997. The facility, in Clondalkin, West Dublin, includes fields for both adult and youth leagues, and has become the foundation on which the national program is based.
Since its formation, the Irish National Baseball Team has begun to establish its presence on the international scene. Just three years after the adult league first formed, the Irish team, competing with the smallest contingent, pitched and batted its way to an eighth place finish in the 1998 European Championships. Four years later they finished in fourth place at the European B-Pool Championship, and most recently, they won a bronze medal at the 2002 European B-Pool Championship held in Germany. In addition to the National Team, Ireland currently has a 10-team Adult League, and a thriving youth baseball program.
John Fitzgerald knew none of this back when he first stumbled on the Baseball Ireland website in December, 2003. As he read more about the team, and discovered the stories and myths surrounding the short history of baseball in Ireland, Fitzgerald, who has Irish roots, began dreaming of moving to Ireland and joining the team himself. A former high school and college ball player, he kept in shape through coaching and playing in competitive leagues made up of former minor leaguers. After reading about the Irish National Team, Fitzgerald began a three-month training program, hoping to get himself in top shape.
Just before he was ready to fly to Ireland to try out for the team, he called the embassy to check his status a final time. Even though his grandmother is a dual citizen, he was told that he was not eligible to play for Ireland because she was born in the United States. By this time Fitzgerald had immersed himself in Irish baseball, and he wasn’t ready to give it up, so he decided to get involved in a non-playing capacity.
Since graduating from Caldwell College in New Jersey, he had built a career for himself in film and television. From working on friends’ projects, to assisting on big-budget films and television shows, to producing and directing his own shorts and feature-length films, Fitzgerald proved to be a dedicated and capable visual storyteller. Following the realization that he wouldn’t be able to try out for the Irish team, Fitzgerald put his film skills to use.
He remembers, “I had heard all the stories of how the team started out with no fields and no equipment, and how it had built up to this really great, strong, powerful baseball program out of nothing. I thought it was a good idea for a movie.”
After signing his longtime friend and former Little League teammate, cameraman Bill Winters onto the project, Fitzgerald began filming The Emerald Diamond, the story of Ireland’s burgeoning baseball movement in May 2004.
He says of his first days of shooting, “Actually getting there and seeing a baseball field in Ireland was something else. We had no idea what to expect. We knew the stories, but we didn’t know the guys. A couple of days into it we realized that it was a really cool story.” Fitzgerald says that the Irish players were personable and dedicated to their work, making for good on-screen action. And he has fond memories of watching youths just learning to play the game. “They loved the game, but they just didn’t understand the rules. They’d throw the ball at the head of the runner and think if it hit him in the head that got him out. They’d slide-tackle a runner, and things like that.”
During filming, Fitzgerald followed the Irish team around Ireland, the United States and Germany. Completed in December 2005, The Emerald Diamond opened to a sold-out crowd at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, New York on February 26, 2006. Following the successful premiere, Fitzgerald took the film on a twenty-city U.S. tour sponsored by Boru Vodka. Fitzgerald hopes to submit the film to festivals around the country, and to find distribution.
He believes that The Emerald Diamond is a family-friendly story with universal appeal, whether or not people are fans of baseball, Irish or non-Irish. While still not as popular as hurling, Gaelic football, soccer, or rugby, baseball is beginning to blossom in Ireland. Fitzgerald believes it may even be the fastest-growing sport in the country. He offers this anecdote as proof. “An American woman moved to Cork with her family and started youth baseball in Cork this past year. The first day she had about fifteen kids, the second day she had about forty kids. She came back the next week and she had over 150 kids. The word spreads, and the kids have seen baseball in the movies and on TV, and they think it looks like fun. So they start playing and they tell their friends, and it just grows like wildfire.”
Thanks to The Emerald Diamond a new generation of baseball fans from all over the world will have a new Irish team to look up to.
For more information: www.irishbaseballmovie.com www.baseballireland.com