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Opinion: A massive event is needed to save softball

Paul Fitzpatrick has a mad idea which might help save the grand old game of softball.

Gaelic Park, the iconic home of the GAA in New York situated at West 240th St and Broadway, was opened in the late 1920s by two men, Willie Snow from Cavan and Paddy Grimes from Offaly. The pair named it Inisfail Park and for a while, it boomed.

Then came the Great Depression, which had a devastating effect on the Irish community in America, most of whom were employed as unskilled labourers.

The flood of young Irish coming off the boat slowed down to a trickle and, naturally, putting food on the table took precedence over playing, or administering, football or hurling. The net result was that, by the end of World War II, Gaelic games had virtually disappeared in America.

Gaelic Park was on its knees when it was rescued by a Kerry bar owner of considerable means, John ‘Kerry’ O’Donnell in May, 1945.

O'Donnell soon realised that it was a disastrous time to invest in Gaelic games in New York, even for a canny businessman like him who already owned six bars.

“I was only in Gaelic Park, or whatever we called it then a short time when I was down to one saloon, one bar.

“It was so bad I thought by ’46 I’d be on the Bowery. Gaelic Park was dragging me down,” he later recalled.

Something radical was needed. Maurice O’Hare, the great Down Gael and historian, summed up what happened next.

“It became patently clear,” O’Hare wrote, “to those with aspirations to rebuild the GAA in post-war America that its revival would have to be organised around an event of considerable import.”

The event? The staging of the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship final in the city in 1947. It seemed absolutely impossible – bear in mind that commercial air travel was still very much in its infancy – but they made it happen.

The event proved a huge success and fostered a spirit of regeneration around Gaelic games in the city. By the mid-1950s, Gaelic Park was booming; 35 taps were needed to keep the beer flowing for the thousands of Irish who showed up each Sunday.

Why do we bring this up in a column on a handball website? Because one area of our sport - softball - is now is in a perilous state, just like Gaelic games in New York were back then. And an extravaganza on a scale we have not imagined before – something they will say is impossible, too - is needed to kickstart it back into life, too.

Where exactly are we at? Well, if the mood music around 60x30 handball is gloomy, it should be.

Around the country, our facilities are, let’s be honest, decades out of date. Even some of what we, as players, regard as the ‘better’ courts are just that – a concrete court with a galvanised roof, a rudimentary gallery and basic changing and shower facility. Very few are heated; many lack basic provisions such as unisex toilets and a lot lack adequate auxiliary facilities such as a kitchen.

Fifty-two years ago, the sport had an arena with three glass walls and seating for 1,000; in terms of the 60x30 court, the new National Centre is underwhelming, with limited seating and just one glass wall, although the alley itself plays very well.

Even more concerning is the fact that the standard of juvenile play has dipped alarmingly in the last decade. The latter stages of the Senior Softball Singles have become no country for young men; not one of the last 12 Minor Singles champions competed even in the round of 16 in this year’s Senior Softball Singles.

The number of entries has plummeted; 14 years ago, there were 29 players in the Senior Singles and 16 pairs in the Senior Doubles. This year there were 11 and 10 respectively.

And it’s not as if this has been a sudden decline. As far back as 2008, alarm bells were sounding and a National Softball and Hardball Review committee, chaired by Eugene Kennedy, was established and produced a very thorough report and recommendations.

“The hosting of the 60x30 finals in Croke Park in conjunction with the hurling and football finals has proved to be a very effective arrangement, leading to large crowds and very enjoyable social gatherings of handball fans over the years,” that report noted.

“This strategy must be maintained and the general principle built on for other games, especially at senior level.”

It was also felt that there was a “need for motivational factors such as international trips etc for 60 x 30” in order “to counterbalance those available within the 40 x 20 code”.

Unfortunately, both of these ideas withered on the vine. The established link-up with the Basques died off (and has been re-established in a different code) while the well-publicised saga over the National Centre saw the great tradition of softball finals on the eve of football and hurling deciders die away, presumably forever.

It has reached a point now where softball is facing an existential crisis. And with the inexorable and most welcome rise of wallball – which has now got the full backing of the GAA behind it – softball’s demise will be quickened unless drastic action is taken.

Which brings us back to the 1947 All-Ireland football final. Nobody thought it could happen but a couple of crazy individuals on opposite sides of the Atlantic managed to sell it and the rest is history.

Now, what I am about to suggest may be full of flaws but bear with me and just imagine it anyway. We’re going to call it the Softball Showdown (surely someone out there can come up with a better name than that).

It will be a softball doubles tournament to be played over a Bank Holiday weekend in Croke Park, starting Friday morning and running through till Monday evening. Games will run all day, from early morning till late at night, if needs be.

There will be 64 teams, all in the same grade. The only criteria is that a senior must play with a junior player, or two intermediates can play together.

Teams will enter a few months in advance to allow for pre-promotion. There will be a waiting list in case of drop-outs.

There will be wild cards included – a pair from the Basque Country, a pair from America, a pair from the UK perhaps.

Entry costs €200 per team, which covers tournament entry and spectator admittance for a full weekend. Each player receives a bundle of gear – not just the usual t-shirt but a whole set of attire, all branded.

Sponsorship could bring the total fund to €15,000 which would permit the organising committee to offer attractive prizes. For example, each of the four semi-finalists earns a travel voucher to the value of €1,000, to be redeemed against certain listed international handball events.

The trophies will be unique, not your usual crystal or silver cups but something spectacular.

First-round losers in the Elite grade drop into the A grade, with similarly attractive prizes for the winners there.

Every match will be streamed across all social media channels and highlights will be shared on the official GAA platforms, not just handball's own. Players will be interviewed on air after each match.

An independent committee will be tasked with choosing the best shot of the weekend and there will be various other prizes for ‘best comeback’ and ‘most clutch play’.

The games will be played on a timed basis. The countdown timer will be beamed high up on the front wall via laser (or something!).

On Sunday, for the finals, a professional broadcaster with a national profile will be employed to MC the event and sprinkle some stardust. There will be boxing-style ringwalks and a big screen. The trophies will be presented by the GAA President.

Now, full disclosure: I have put about three minutes’ thought into this. I am sure there are 100 other tweaks and innovations which could be added in order to improve it.

But the key point is that all of this is possible. Yes, it’s on a hitherto unthinkable scale for handball and especially the much-maligned softball code but each aspect of it very doable.

All it requires is a vision and a determination to make it happen. If it’s well-conceived and passionately presented, the money will come, as we have seen of late with GAA intervention in other matters.

Some will, of course, dismiss the whole thing as fanciful and point to all the ways it could fail. Too often, that is the way in our sport; we are our own worst enemy.

But I know that by even imagining this on a frosty December day, I’m already excited by it.

And exactly that - an injection of excitement - is needed more than ever if we are to save the grand old game of softball.

The real question is, do we have the appetite to save it?


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