“We’re all told at some point in time that we can no longer play the children’s game, we just don’t… don’t know when that’s gonna be. Some of us are told at eighteen, some of us are told at forty, but we’re all told.” – Moneyball (2011)
Dennis Kinney was born in 1952, the same year the then Brooklyn Dodgers were the first team to wear numbers on the front of their jerseys, Jackie Robinson called the New York Yankees a racist organisation for failing to hire a black player five years after he had broken the colour barrier and Honus Wagner – arguably the greatest shortstop ever to play the game – retired from coaching at the age of 77. Between the ages of 26 and 30, Kinney played Major League Baseball for the Cleveland Indians, San Diego Padres, Detroit Tigers and Oakland Athletics. Kinney retired from professional baseball in 1982, having pitched his last inning in relief for the A’s on 20 May that year. As far as the record books go, that’s the end of his story. But on a cold April Sunday morning in 2012, Dennis Kinney strode to the mound in Corkagh Park in Clondalkin for his third relief appearance in two days.
The Moondogs Baseball Club of Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, were on their first ever European tour and took on four Irish ball clubs, winning three times and losing only their last game. Kinney, just shy of 60 years and two months of age, was far from the oldest player on their roster. With squad members aged between 48 and 77 the Moondogs enjoyed both the baseball and the hospitality, taking in the sights of Dublin, Kilkenny and Cork after their four-game series.
Kinney wasn’t the only ex-pro on the Moondogs team. Each night over copious pints, former Minor Leaguers and College players regaled those of us who took the Moondogs out in Dublin with tales of managers and players who were legends to us and real people to them. Unable to call time on their love of the game at the end of their careers, they continued to play in the Seniors League in the area in which they’d settled. They each had stories about each other too, every man too modest to proclaim his own achievements. The first baseman told stories about the third baseman’s once-legendary temper. The starting pitcher talked about the first baseman’s minor league batting records. And they all mentioned Kinney.
“He’s a major leaguer, kid. Let me tell you this about major leaguers, he may have only spent five minutes in the bigs, he’ll still be the best pitcher you’ve ever faced in your life – and Kinney spent four years there.”
I didn’t get to face Kinney. He cleaved through the six batters ahead of me, leaving me standing on-deck wondering if I really wanted to take my turn at the plate. Kinney threw with deception and guile. He still consults with current pitchers, teaching them techniques to improve their delivery. His pitches were demonic, starting eight inches outside of the strike zone and zipping in sharply at the last minute. Anyone who swung struck out. Anyone who didn’t swing struck out. The experience served as both a learning curve and as a lesson to count ourselves lucky we don’t face an ex-major leaguer every week.
The Moondogs were generous in their victories and magnanimous in their lone defeat to the Irish League Champion Spartans, presenting each team with both much-needed equipment and a host of souvenirs – the latter including the bruise on my left shin from a minor-league screwball pitch that screwed a little low. I sat after the last game, saying my thanks to Eddie Bartholomew, the Moondogs’ first baseman. He shook my hand and told me about his love of the game.
“I’m 62, I’m in the Lehigh Valley Mens’ Senior Baseball League Hall of Fame and I’m retired, but when heard about this trip, how could I refuse? It doesn’t matter if you’re 62, the offer comes to travel the world playing the game you love, you jump at it.”
A short week later, the Hurricanes B team pulled up to Cavan Rugby Club for a single game against the Cavan Comets, one of the younger teams in the Irish Baseball League. A developmental team, the Comets don’t yet field a team in the A league, and have yet to make the B league playoffs in their short history. Shorn of our front-line pitchers through work commitments, Minyeong Choi was assigned starting duties and didn’t shirk the responsibility. The Korean tossed six innings against a team who had improved immeasurably from their three-win season last year. The Comets’ Forrest Pierce rang up five strikeouts in a strong performance for the hosts as the ‘Canes struggled to assert their dominance early on. The superior experience told in the end, though, as the ‘Canes finished 15-8 winners. The Cavan Comets were outclassed in 2011, but this time round they had kept the contest going to the very end in what was a creditable performance for a young team.
Driving home with another win under our belts, catcher Danny Babcan reflected on how long he might have left in the game. Danny, a youthful 34, mused on having five, or possibly six years left at the demanding position of catcher. I thought of the Moondogs, about to start another season of baseball in Pennsylvania and told him not to worry. We won’t be told we can’t play the children’s game for a while yet – and even then, we might not listen.
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