The softball game has gone through a challenging period but in McCarthy and Kennedy, we still have two of the greatest of all time, writes Paul Fitzpatrick.
There is no doubt that the two leading 60×30 players in the game are through to today’s MyClubShop.ie final. Big court sorcerers, they have conjured up a new storyline for the annals since they began to meet on the big day over a decade ago.
It goes without saying that this is a familiar fixture at this stage. Is that a good thing? If the absence of novelty is the enemy of a sport trying to sell itself to the masses – or even to its own core support base – then the answer is no.
And yet, let no-one say that Eoin Kennedy and Robbie McCarthy’s rivalry has not been an adornment on the sport over the last 10 years. They are champions for the ages, magnificent athletes with skills on a par with any sportsman, anywhere.
Why, then, has 60×30 had something of a bad rap? Because the game has not kept pace with its finest two exponents. We have to remember where we’ve come from and how we got here.
McCarthy, rightly described before the semi-finals by opponent Paudi Quish as “one of the greatest ever to play the 60×30 game” may be a legend in his own right but he’s standing on the shoulders of giants as well, as all the very best practitioners in any discipline are.
Look at it this way. Kennedy played his first final in 2000, losing to the late Ducksy Walsh, who had himself played in the semi-final as far back as 1984, losing to Tipperary’s Tony Ryan.
Ryan, for his part, was beaten in that final by Tommy O’Rourke of Kildare (“the entire population of Ballymore Eustace must have packed into Croke Park,” reckoned The Irish Press); in the 1979 semi-final, O’Rourke had beaten Wexford’s Dick Lyng (21-19, 21-16), also at Croke Park.
And Lyng himself had won the title as far back as 1965. Where are we going with this impromptu history lesson? Well, nowhere, really, only to point out that the past is what leads us to the present, the direct links through just a handful of ball alley maestros which bring us back five decades and more.
They deserve to be recalled just as the great champions of today should be celebrated yet McCarthy and Kennedy probably don’t get their due recognition for towering over the field for such a sustained period – for the same two players to meet in the final for an entire decade is unprecedented.
And that’s a by-product of the state of the game more than anything – the softball game, that is. There are those who will bemoan the demise of hardball but there is an element of the King Canute in that, trying to hold back the waves. Contemporary newspaper articles and annual handball secretaries’ reports illustrate that the future of hardball was very much in question as far back as the 1950s.
The vital signs are there, though, in softball, and if the going is close entering the business end this evening, the pulse will quicken and the old arena will come alive like before, nothing surer.
McCarthy will enter as favourite. Nobody has the magic in their hands that the Mullingar man possesses, nobody else can combine the deftest front court touches with the raw, pinpoint power like he can.
Has there been a better softballer, pound for pound, than the Westmeath man? Not on our watch, anyway, although there will be those in attendance today who will have witnessed many more players than this correspondent has.
The shame, though, is that McCarthy has played just one man in Senior Singles finals. Sure, he beat Cavan’s Patrick Finnegan – a former minor champion – in an intermediate decider but since then, it’s been Kennedy, every year.
The Dubliner, in contrast, has played four final opponents in Walsh, Tom Sheridan (Meath), Barry Goff (Wexford) and, of course, McCarthy. His CV looks fuller than his opponents for that, which is unfair, but that’s where the game is now, with the supply line of quality young softball players who can challenge the McCarthy-Kennedy axis having slowed almost to a halt.
For now, though, we must savour what we have. While reports of the demise of softball may not have been exaggerated, the challenges the code faces are surmountable if corrective action is taken.
For disciples of the big alley, this is a feast day. The flock may not descend on the big cathedral off Clonliffe Road in the numbers they once did but sports go through peaks and troughs all the time.
We should appreciate McCarthy and Kennedy while we have them but if we want to see the next Robbie or Eoin emerge, there must be a renewed push among counties and clubs to promote the 60×30 game. The new centre around the corner from here will help, as will some plans in the pipeline to attract more juvenile players, but it must begin with the clubs.
Back to 1984 again and that centenary final when Tommy O’Rourke won his second Senior Singles. On the undercard in this very venue was the Junior Singles final, where another Robbie McCarthy, the current incumbent’s Dad, lost to out to Wexford’s Ned Buggy, father of today’s final referee, Gavin.
In the crowd today, too, will be Eoin’s father Eugene, a stalwart of the sport. How do we keep the grand old game alive? This is how. Pass it on, instil that pride.
A family business is handed down through the generations. Sometimes it will boom; often, times will be hard. But the doors must remain open, always.
Maybe it’s the optimist in us but the hope is that the big alley has merely gone through a boom-bust cycle, that there will be other superstars to emerge. Let’s hope some kid in the crowd this evening is inspired to take on the mantle of the greats, who will take centre stage as night falls.