The late, great Con Houlihan had an affinity with stadia that were located adjacent to rivers or canals. They would often play a prominent role in the big Kerryman’s match reports; football internationals at Lansdowne Road involved a stroll along the Grand Canal from Portobello, with an obligatory intermission in Doheny & Nesbitt’s. Likewise, All-Ireland Final day’s report would take in the Liffey, the Royal Canal and a few old haunts along the way, most notably Mulligan’s of Poolbeg St. One of Houlihan’s favourite grounds was Richmond Park, home of St. Patrick’s Athletic, which backs onto the River Camac. The Camac flows on to join the Liffey at Heuston bridge, but the course of the river can be traced back past ‘Richo’ and through Inchicore – or as Con would have put it, past McDowell’s and the Black Lion – on into Clondalkin and up towards the Slade of Saggart and Mount Seskin. On its way back to infancy, this little stream flows behind what was once a picturesque green-field site outside a ruined gunpowder mill on unused council land. In the mill’s heyday, the Camac was a roaring source of natural power for the heavy machinery that made muskets for the Irish regiments who fought Napoleon’s armies in Spain and Portugal, and rifles for those who were slaughtered like lambs in the Crimea.
These days, however, the Camac is a slowly trickling tributary behind the National Baseball Facility: the Fields of Dreams built by then LA Dodgers owner Pete O’Malley to develop the game in the land of his forefathers. Since 1998, the humble stream has gurgled past countless incidents on the adult and little league diamonds; incidents that defined games and incidents that defined seasons.
One of Con Houlihan’s trademarks was that he viewed what happened in and around a game as far more important than statistics, times and final scores. Every game was a collection of incidents. Far more important for Con to tell the reader that he lifted a friend’s child onto his shoulders to afford him a better view than to bother with recording the time of the first goal. As he would write his match reports in the small hours of the morning, they would form the perfect collection of incidents.
The incident happened as the Camac flowed behind us, seemingly unravelling in slow motion. I was warming up my arm with a fellow substitute during the Hurricanes’ A team’s home game against bitter rivals the Dublin Spartans. It was still early in the game when the sharp crack of a Spartan bat sent a ball deep into the right field gap. Hurricanes and Ireland centre-fielder Tom Kelley and right-fielder Carlos LaRoche both headed to make the same play. As both men rushed headlong towards the approaching fly ball, neither noticed the other and neither pulled back. They collided with a sickening thud. Both men were out cold, blood staining the lush outfield grass from LaRoche’s obviously broken nose. Hurricanes third baseman Tommy Hernandez was among the first to reach the pair and performed first aid on the stricken players. He would later quip that his decision to see an MMA bout in Tallaght that night would finish second for sheer gore and blood spilled that day.
Kelley and LaRoche were taken to hospital immediately, to be followed by their teammates. The game was, for that day, over. The human cost had outweighed any desire among the Hurricanes’ remaining players to see out the last seven innings. A rematch was offered to the Spartans. They conferred.
“It’s a lovely day … we should have a result today … the day that’s in it.”
“Sorry, we need the points.”
Spartans skipper Alan Fox delivered his team’s verdict, and just like that, the Hurricanes’ streak was over. Undefeated in the regular season in over two years, the killer blow was administered by committee decision as the ‘Canes bench packed up despondently to make for Tallaght Hospital. Both clubs agreed to play the scheduled B game, albeit in the shadow of a serious incident.
Like the A game before it, the B clash was littered with incidents. Reduced to 10 players by LaRoche’s injuries – which would later turn out to be a broken nose, cheekbone and eye socket on top of a concussion; Tom Kelley got off lightly by comparison, but with a concussion of his own – it was a bare-bones performance.
With pitcher Garrett Pearse having put in a vintage first inning, the Hurricanes’ leadoff hitter John Hensey swung, uncharacteristically for a leadoff man but typically of Hensey, at a Scott Karnes fastball high and away. Spartans second baseman Wayne Talbot couldn’t glove the ball and Hensey coasted to first. Left fielder Jason Upton and catcher Danny Babcan reached on singles before scoring on wild pitches. German shortstop Dimitrios Ganztoras crushed a line drive for a single, followed one batter later by Irish National Team Third Baseman Colm Tully. Californian veteran Peter Ruotolo brought Ganztoras home on a sacrifice fly. A monster first inning saw all ten batters reach the plate and the ‘Canes took a four-run lead into the second.
The lead was padded in the second, as Hensey again smashed the first pitch he saw, this time for a clean double. Upton made it safely to first as Hensey was tagged out on the next play. Two batters later, the clean-up hitter Ganztoras made solid contact to avoid the double-play and bring Upton in for another run. The Spartans had eventually found their swings, though and the game see-sawed from then on.
Ganztoras, conscious of his club’s injury problems, approached the bench.
“Guys, I don’t need to be replaced or anything, but I think I’ve broken my wrist”.
Typical. All we need.
Adrenaline saw the German infielder through the game with what would eventually transpire to be ligament damage in his wrist.
Garrett Pearse was pulled in the 5th inning with the game on the line and replaced by Korean reliever Minyeong Choi. Choi stemmed the bleeding a little, but shipped the go-ahead run to the Spartans.
7-6 bad guys, bottom of the fifth.
Colm Tully, a debutant for Ireland against US Navy team the Rota Blue Devils this year, walked to first and broke for second on a sharply hit ball from Pearse – now playing first base in a positional shift. As pitcher Scott Karnes overcooked his throw to first, Tully rounded third and barrelled home. Tie game. Pearse would sneak home on a wild pitch.
8-7 ‘Canes. Looking good.
Choi’s pitching snuffed out the Spartans’ comeback until a run came in to force extra innings. An incident-laden game was far from over. The young Korean fire-fighter, in his debut season for the ‘Canes, matched wily veteran Scott Karnes – himself pitching a gem, apart from the four-run first inning – pitch for pitch, strike for strike, through the seventh, eighth and eventually ninth innings.
Bottom of the ninth, tie game, meat of the order: Upton, Babcan, Ganztoras, Tully.
Upton, an Irish-born vet of American and Japanese ball, struck a change-up past Spartans third baseman Sean Mitchell for a single. Slovakian catcher Babcan followed with a beautiful bunt single to advance Upton and reach safely. Ganztoras, favouring his injured wrist, fouled off some two-strike heat to draw a walk.
Bases loaded, hitter up, no outs.
Tully watched ball one and strike one before swinging his bat at a fastball low in the zone.
Bad contact, straight to Mitchell at third, should be enough to score the run.
Upton froze. He’d later attribute it to a mental error, or more precisely a brain fart. A second’s hesitation cost him. Thrown out at the plate.
Spartans catcher Jimmy Pita strode towards his pitcher Karnes. Danny Babcan stood at third base. In a split second he was off, realising that Pita hadn’t called time. The ball was live and was two feet away from the plate. The Slovakian was 88ft of the required 90 towards home before Pita noticed and dove for his onrushing counterpart.
Dust flying, every player silent, Con Houlihan’s Camac trickles in the background, louder than ever.
Ball-game, 9-8 Hurricanes.
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