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Tuesday, September 25, 2018 - 12:00pm

Mercy’s Senior Associate Director of Athletics Bill Sullivan traveled to Grosseto, Italy in July to serve as the head coach for the Irish Junior National Baseball Team at the biannual 18U European Championships. Though the team did not win the tournament, Sullivan returned home with a deep sense of accomplishment: “This is a pivotal moment in Irish baseball history. While baseball is extremely popular in Europe, it's still in its early stages in Ireland. It was a great challenge going in as the perennial underdog and playing in Italy, a country that has an established baseball program. We were truly representing something bigger than ourselves.”


The Irish Junior National Baseball Team was made up of Irish-Americans eligible for Irish citizenship. Players came primarily from the Northeast U.S., with one player from Florida and two from California. “The team needed the infusion of American talent,” Sullivan explains. “But the long-term vision is to make the team more Irish. What we would love to see 15 or 20 years down the road is that baseball has grown organically and become a sport that is popular amongst the youth in Ireland.”


The first time the full team played together was in Italy the day before their first European Championships game. After a loss to Spain in their first game, they won against Lithuania. Then, they beat Germany 11-3. “We didn’t just beat Germany. We beat up on them,” Sullivan laughs. After a rough start to their next game against Italy — the defending European champion — the team pushed hard but eventually lost the game with a score of 10-9.


For the underdog, we did ok,” Sullivan says. “We had an ultimate goal of qualifying for the World Cup next year, and beating Italy would have moved us closer to that. But even in losing the final European Championships game, Ireland won in many regards because they made themselves a player in the game. They made themselves more viable in the European baseball landscape.”


As Ireland seeks to make itself more visible in Europe’s baseball scene, the sport is playing an important role within Ireland too. Before the game with Germany, Adrian Kelly — an Irish member of the coaching staff — addressed the team. July 12 is a significant date in the conflicts between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland that often involves unrest or violence, even today. Displaying a photograph of a young boy in a yellow shirt, Kelly noted that no one could tell if the boy was Protestant or Catholic, from Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland. He used this photograph to express baseball’s importance. “He said that baseball is relatively new in Ireland so it’s without prejudice,” Sullivan recounts. “No one group can lay claim to it. Baseball Ireland [the governing body for amateur baseball in Ireland] tries to use baseball as a means to break down barriers and build bridges. That's what we were playing for: that boy’s future and his future in the game. It’s what made the entire trip make sense.” After Kelly’s presentation, the team played against the Germans and “shocked them” with a win, Sullivan notes.


After coaching at Mercy for 18 years — including 15 years as the head coach — Sullivan stepped down from his coaching role in 2009 when he moved to an administrative position. So this trip was an opportunity with me to reconnect with coaching and the game of baseball.” He feels a strong personal connection to Ireland because his maternal grandparents and paternal great-grandparents emigrated from there: “My maternal grandfather was probably the biggest influence in my life. A big part of why I wanted to coach this team had to do with him. And I did feel a connection when I was over there and wearing the Irish uniform.” It was Sullivan’s first trip to Europe, and he now plans to visit Ireland to connect with his family heritage more deeply.


As Sullivan returns to Mercy this fall, he brings back a new understanding of the humanity and power of sports: “I’ve always felt like the players and coaches can be ambassadors for the game and for something bigger and better around the world.” In Italy this summer, he and the Irish Junior National Baseball Team did just that.