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A brave new world

A brave new world

Shawn Campbell talks about Mayo’s first ever baseball team

Daniel Carey

IT started with a Turkish visitor. Now, the youngsters of Ballyheane Braves are ready for their first full season as a baseball team – and the man who got the ball rolling is looking forward to the summer.
Shawn Campbell’s boys love baseball. So when the family moved from the United States to Ireland, he was keen to see what was available for lovers of ‘America’s national religion’ in this neck of the woods. The answer was: not much. That is, until last summer, when Shawn started Mayo’s first ever baseball team.
In fact, the Irish Baseball and Softball Federation was founded back in 1989, and adults have played the game on an organised basis in this country since the mid-1990s. But teams are scattered all over, and there was nothing in the west.
So when Shawn, who is based in Derrew, Ballyheane, contacted Baseball Ireland, the national governing body for the sport, they said: ‘Congratulations, you’ll be a coach!’ There wasn’t, as you might imagine, a long queue of people lining up to bring the sport to the central Mayo area. His first step, taken last year, was to get international expertise.
“We had a professional trainer over from Turkey named Alper Bozkurt,” he told The Mayo News. “I hosted him for a couple of days and I just sent out a couple of local flyers in the village, and I had a great response. I had about 20 kids show up, and they loved it.”
From there, Shawn organised weekly practice sessions at the Ballyheane soccer pitch for a mix of children who ranged in age from nine to 14. Five weeks later, the Ballyheane Braves, as they’ve been named, went to a tournament in Kerry, where their skill and organisation was praised by other teams. The summer ended but a seed had been sown, and practice for the 2009 season has just began. “The word that I heard back from the parents is that the kids can’t stop talking about it,” he said.
Baseball showcases a range of skills - throwing, hitting and catching, for starters. And, says Campbell, it’s a real team sport, because ‘even when the ball’s not hit to you, everybody’s got a certain job to do’. It’s said that hitting a baseball is the toughest thing to do in sport, so ‘when they do make contact and get a good hit, it really gives them encouragement’. Last summer’s group was made up mainly of children from the Ballyheane and Ballintubber areas.
“They had rounders experience, and the hurling experience they had helped them with the hitting, although they hold the bat differently to the hurley,” says Campbell. “But the hitting is fantastic because they have great eye-hand co-ordination from the hurling.
“The issue we have is the throwing, because there’s no sport in Ireland that really teaches people to throw overhand. But with the drills that I’ve got, I can definitely improve their ability to throw. And several of the local kids have good arms and are very good pitchers.”
This year Ballyheane Braves will be placed in the northern division of the competition being organised by Baseball Ireland, which is likely to include teams from Cavan, Dublin and Northern Ireland. He expects they’ll have ‘six or seven games, probably before June’, played on a home and away basis. There will also be weekend tournaments. The ‘one downside’, Campbell notes, ‘is the travelling’. There are plenty of teams, but their long distance from Mayo proved expensive last year. In this regard, he’s eager to get support from local businesses, is planning some fund-raisers, and is hoping for more parental involvement this year to help with the long commutes.
For players who excel at the sport, there may even be the prospect of playing on the Irish team. Internationals are organised among countries across Europe, and baseball is ‘very big’ in Germany, Turkey, Italy and Poland, according to Campbell.
“They have more established teams and playing facilities out there,” he explained. “They have a lot of the training coaches that travel around to give coaching seminars and baseball training seminars. A lot of the teams have American influence on them - in some cases they’re military people who have come over to these areas and their kids like baseball, so they get involved.”
A lot of Irish teams appear to have formed in similar circumstances to the Ballyheane Braves, headed by American coaches who established the game in places where it wasn’t previously played. Shawn Campbell has got assistance from Bill McCarthy in Killawalla, a fellow American who brings experience as a professional umpire, and Will Beglane, the President of Baseball Ireland, who has moved to Swinford. He would be delighted to have more coaches to lend a hand, and hopes to hear from other Americans, or from Irish people with knowledge of baseball.
“Eventually, if we can get baseball established, I’d like to maybe introduce it into some of the local secondary schools and national schools – have a day where I can go in and show what baseball is all about,” he adds. “I’d love if more teams started up in Mayo, so that way, we could have an inter-Mayo league. So it’d be great if somebody was willing to coach a team elsewhere in the county.”
Fancy stepping up to the plate?

Shawn Campbell can be contacted on 087 9295882, 094 9030521 (home) or e-mail ballyheane.braves@gmail.com. See www.baseballireland.com for more information on baseball in Ireland.