Irish Baseball – the Movie: The Ultimate Underdogs Go from Zero to Hero

Despite strong competition from basketball and football, baseball holds the #1 spot as America’s national game, although it’s popular in dozens of other countries around the world including Cuba, Australia, Germany, Croatia and Sweden, to name but a few.

Japan were the surprise winners at the recent multi-national World Baseball Classic tournament that took place in Japan, Puerto Rico and various cities around the USA, but there was no team representing Ireland in the competition.

This may not sound unusual at first – Ireland is more associated with Gaelic football or hurling – but it was a love of baseball and Ireland that drove Valhalla, New York, native John Fitzgerald to create a unique documentary: The Emerald Diamond.

Soon after the screening in West Los Angeles, Fitzgerald spoke to us about the movie’s special link to Los Angeles, and how it all came about because he couldn’t get an Irish passport:

“Originally I wanted to play for the Irish team, but I’m fourth generation Irish-American – my great grandparents were from Cork, Kerry and Tipperary. To qualify, you have to have a parent or grandparent born in Ireland, or have lived there for 6 years or more. When I learned from the U.S. Embassy in New York that that I didn’t qualify for an Irish passport, I decided to start making a film about it instead – it was such a great story”.

During it’s 90 minutes the film takes us from the early years of baseball in America with it’s many Irish players and fans, to present-day Ireland where after only 10 years since their formation, the Irish National Baseball Team won a bronze medal in the European championships in 2004.

Formed from just a few believers in Dublin who wanted something more competitive than the softball league, they had no equipment, fields or uniforms, yet today they are a thriving sport with a strong youth – “Little League” – program, and a national team that is well-respected in the European community.

The film features some home video footage, and the first interviews were done in Rhode Island in May 2004, with Fitzgerald starting filming in Ireland a few months after that. He filmed in Dublin, Belfast, New York and Germany over the next year, and as with most ultra-low budget films, got funding by the favorite method of indie filmmakers:

“Yes, the film was financed mostly on credit cards! I did get a few donations of a few hundred dollars, which was a huge help, but the total budget was over $50,000.”

Fitzgerald had spent many years working as part of the crew on films such as Taxi, Ladder 49 and Kinsey, but his directing experience so far had only been on a short film, and The Emerald Diamond was a huge challenge in all areas:

“I started as a production assistant and eventually worked my way up to associate producing indie feature films, but I wanted to go off and make my own film instead of working on someone else’s. This is the first documentary and the first feature that I directed, produced and edited – I did it all!”

The documentary had its sold-out World Premiere on February 25th, 2006 at the prestigious Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, New York and is currently on a screening tour around the country thanks to something else that isn’t necessarily associated with the land of white-topped black stout: Boru Vodka:

“They found out about the movie as it was being finished in December last year, and they offered to rent theaters across the country. It gets their name out there and without that help, I couldn’t afford to bring the movie all over the country. Brian Boru was the first high King of Ireland and he led a victory against foreign invaders in 1014 -goes very well with the European Championships footage!”

Fitzgerald is on a “rock star” timetable traveling across the country – his L.A. visit was part of a grueling four-city schedule including San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle – and he has already visited Baltimore, Washington DC and Chicago, with Atlanta, Phoenix, Denver and three dates in Texas still to go:

“The turnouts have been great. Most nights have seen 50-100 people, and the screenings are outselling most other movies in the same multiplexes on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights.”

As part of the Irish Heritage Night celebrations, first baseman Joe Kealty – one of the members of the bronze medal-winning 2004 team – had the honor of throwing the first pitch at the Minnesota Twins Metrodome on May 4th:

“Throwing out the first pitch at a Major League game is the chance of a lifetime. It’s like a dream come true.”

He will also attend the two local screenings of the movie over the weekend:

“My grandfather was born in County Mayo, so it has been a great honor to be able to represent the country of my ancestors by playing a sport that is synonymous with America.”

One of the audience at the Los Angeles screening was Peter O’Malley, former owner of the L.A. Dodgers, who played a major role in bringing baseball to Ireland and the construction of a purpose-built baseball facility in Clondalkin, West Dublin – the “Field of Dreams”.

Having already developed baseball fields in the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and China, O’Malley pledged $140,000 to the building of an Irish Baseball facility, which officially opened for play on July 4th, 1998. The facility has a regulation adult pitch – the aptly-named Dodger Baseball Field – and an international standard Little League field, named after it’s generous patron.

The Irish-American community seems to have taken the film to their hearts, and most importantly for Fitzgerald, the players themselves like the film:

“Those that have seen the film have liked it – a few have even taken off from work to fly out for more screenings. Overall, the audience reaction has been great. Most people want to know what I’m doing next, and how they can help support Irish baseball.”

One of the more prominent faces in the movie – and one of the most popular players in the team – is Belfast North Stars player Terry Rosbotham, who seemed to personify a city that has started to thrive in the last few years, just like the Irish baseball was had done during the film:

“It didn’t matter where he was from or what his background was – he was as a proud to pull on a shirt and represent his country as everyone else was. Like the success of Belfast Giants ice hockey team, baseball has no affiliations or history, and it can cross all boundaries – it’s a sport than everyone can watch and play.”

Rosbotham also spoke to us about the film and playing baseball in Belfast, where he is a factory worker when not playing in the outfield:

“Yeah, the guys up North loved that I made the team. A few of us tried out and were sad they didn’t make it, but very happy for me and for Belfast that one of us did. I was very warmly welcomed into the national team fold, and am still close with most of the guys.”

He first became interested in baseball after visiting the United States in 1988:

“I was in Pittsburgh on holiday, and got into following the Pirates. I just loved going to the games, so I got a bat and some gloves, and used to play with my friends when I got back.”

As for baseball in Northern Ireland, it’s still very much in it’s infancy:

“Even though there are two teams – the Belfast North Stars and The Wolves, and this is our tenth year – I’m the only player to play for the national team. We have only had two home games so far (in Northern Ireland) and we still can’t find a pitch to play on this year, so we have had to postpone them until we can find a field.”

The national team training also takes place in Dublin, which is a further problem:

“It was often on weekday evenings a few times a week. I would get out of work two hours and travel down once a week, getting home at about midnight. In a Euro competition year they would train six days a week, and that’s impossible to get down so often.”

He sees the possibility of a Northern Ireland team being a long way away: “We’re still a small league and we don’t have enough players to have two teams”, but he has several special baseball moments to reflect on while the situation hopefully improves:

“I remember turning a double play from RF making a catch that no-one seen me making, and runner taking off and catching him out at 2nd base. In our trip to Boston I also made 3 outs in Fenway Park (home of the Boston Red Sox team, this is partly seen in the film). I had just came into the game in the 3rd inning and the first 2 batters popped up to me in right (field). It was a nice way to start your first game at a MLB ball park!”

Rosbotham is finally going to see himself on the silver screen in July, when Fitzgerald visits Ireland once again, although this time it’s to show the film to audiences across the country:

“I went to Ireland for the first time for this movie, and was there a bunch of times during filming, both North and South. I can’t even keep track of how many times I went over, but hopefully this summer I’ll get a chance to show everyone what I was doing, and see more of the country.”

The Emerald Diamond showcases the best of American and Irish people, crossing an underdog, never-say-die spirit with real charm and humor to make for a real crowd-pleasing film, whether you are Irish, American, a baseball fan – or none of the above.

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