By Ray O’Hanlon
The boy in the baseball jacket was staring wide-eyed through the mesh wire fence with a puzzled look on his face.
“Dad, look,” he said, “they’re playing with sticks.”
He was right, of course. A hurley is a stick. But to the tyke in the jacket, this was an entirely new form of ballgame. Stickball on speed.
“Who’s playing?” he asked dad.
Dad wasn’t sure.
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“Boston and New York,” a spectator told him.
The kid was happy now. He could understand the geographic concept.
“Come on, New York,” he roared.
And the New York hurlers did just that on what might have been one of the last opening days at Gaelic Park, as the New York GAA explores building its own stadium on Randalls Island.
The Bronx venue has witnessed a slew of opening days down the years. Perhaps this wasn’t the best in terms of play, the quality of which ebbed and flowed with the time shown on the hard-to-read clock on the Manhattan College Jaspers scoreboard.
Still, the home supporters were happy enough to see the visiting Boston teams vanquished in men’s senior hurling and football.
The New York women also managed to see off Boston in their football game.
So if it was indeed the last opening day, at least it will be remembered for its victories.
And nice weather. If the temperature was just a few degrees below absolutely comfortable, the bright sunshine at least allowed fans to sit, or stand, for long intervals during a match sequence that lagged a little, then a fair bit, behind schedule.
By the time the women’s game got under way, at 15 minutes after 5 in the afternoon, the sun was fast sinking, the always cool wind had picked up to the point of being a tad raw, and the bar had become a much cozier attraction than the gray metal bleachers.
A gallant rearguard of less than 100 fans had remained in their seats to cheer on the women after the conclusion of the senior men’s football game.
The rest had been lured indoors by warmth, a cold one — or two — and music from a band that covered the ground between Dire Straits and Irish rebel classics.
Gaelic games and patriot games.
While people have often taken a lash at Gaelic Park and its, well, varied facilities, the place has a cozy charm about it. And a fair few years of history.
There were those in the bar who clearly felt uneasy about the GAA’s planned move to Randalls Island. Fear of the unknown is always heightened from the perspective of a long-familiar spot.
And for so many of varied age, the bar at Gaelic Park is a most familiar spot.
Indeed, the fact that grueling battles were taking place on the playing field only a few yards from the door seemed entirely lost on some patrons.
And that’s the point. There’s more than one crowd at Gaelic Park on opening day.
There’s the sporting crowd, the social crowd and the curious crowd as exemplified by the baseball kids and their sudden exposure to a culture rooted in another place, 3,000 miles east of the Bronx.
It is a culture, however, that has blended well into the neighborhood. At Gaelic Park you have choices both sporting and gastronomic.
Hurling on the pitch, baseball on the bar TV; cheeseburgers, hot dogs, scones and jam at the outdoor food and refreshment stall. A well-known brand of Irish potato crisps. “The Taste of Home,” it said on the box. But at a buck a bag, a distinctly local price.
Opening Day in particular is clearly a time when many people are meeting for the first time in a while.
A winter’s full of howyas and how’s it goings were uttered Sunday between the first goal, last point, first burger, last pint.
And the calls and shouts on the field of play were a lexicon all to themselves.
“No foul, Donal, ya don’t need ta,” roared one of the goalkeepers during the hurling clash.
“You’ve a yard, Tadgh, Tadgh, Tadgh. Aishya boy. That’s great [bleeping] hurling.”
And it was.
The late afternoon brought a steady retreat. The crowd that spent the day just inside the gate, like Mass-goers with one foot out the church door, had dropped by close half.
The asphalt open space between the bar door and the field was almost empty now.
A tiny kid jumped back and forth over a fence he had constructed from empty beer and cider bottles.
Indeed, from the position of the clustered bottles standing upright on the ground you could tell precisely where the outdoor drinkers had congregated only a short while before.
Recycling is not a sport at Gaelic Park.
The women played on and the band roared off into another number as opening day gave way to the rising banter of opening night.
In so many respects, Sunday could have been opening day at Gaelic Park in any year.
But this one was a little different. It might have been the last. Then again . . .