Israel baseball takes the field

‘I think we have a chance to bring the red, white and blue spirit of American baseball over here, and it shouldn’t be so much of a problem for Israelis to learn.’If you didn’t know any better you’d think you …

‘I think we have a chance to bring the red, white and blue spirit of American baseball over here, and it shouldn’t be so much of a problem for Israelis to learn.’If you didn’t know any better you’d think you were sitting in upstate New York, watching the Oneonta Tigers host the Batavia Muckdogs in a pastoral setting of baseball. The smells Sunday night of cooking onions, hot dogs and hamburgers are wafting above the crowd, the concession stand is selling team shirts and hats, and squealing teenage girls with pen in hand rush up to players only a couple of years older to ask for their autographs. Friends relax in the stands, laughing and making jokes in between pitches, rising to their feet to cheer a great catch, or a home run.

It’s a scene played out every summer, in upstate New York and southern Georgia, before young and old alike in cities large and small, baseball and entertainment and a fun time. But is it something only Americans can enjoy, in America? Because this isn’t Oneonta, this is Petah Tikva, and the opening game of the Israel Baseball League. Organizers are hoping it’s the start of a new Israeli tradition: an American institution and ritual transplanted and modified to fit in with the rest of Israeli culture.

“We’re trying to bring some good publicity to Israel,” said Michael Rollhaus, an investor of the Bet Shemesh Blue Sox. “It’s not necessarily only for Israelis; it’s the public image for Israel. A lot of people in America have an idea that Israel is just desert land, a place of bombings and shootings and terrorism – and it’s really not. Hopefully they’ll hear that there’s a baseball league here and people are having fun, and that might be a good thing.”

They’ll have a good idea of the answer by the end of this summer. The inaugural season will feature six teams – the Bet Shemesh Blue Sox, Modi’in Miracle, Netanya Tigers, Petah Tikva Pioneers, Ra’anana Express and Tel Aviv Lightning – each playing a 45-game schedule, with one paid manager and two player-coaches.

The game has been tweaked to make it more palatable for a foreign audience, which may not have patience for the full experience: Games will be seven innings instead of nine, and ties will be decided by home run contests rather than extra frames.

“If you’re a baseball fan growing up in America, you appreciate the nuances” said Jon Stefansky, a transplanted American who runs the Burger Bar concession stand at the field. “The question is will the Israelis begin to appreciate those nuances? I think the minor league kind of game will be a better fit because the field is a little shorter – there will be more home runs, and the tie-breakers will be settled by home runs, so I think it will be better paced and faster action. You need less nuances to really appreciate the game, so the way they are doing it is very smart. It’s entertainment plus baseball, and I think that’s really the way you are going to appeal to a lot of the crowd of younger Israelis as well.”

The six teams will play in three ballparks, featuring stadium seating along with picnic benches, lawn chairs and open areas, allowing fans to tailor their experience to taste. At Sunday’s first professional baseball game ever played in Israel, many of the younger fans were more content milling about behind the stands, talking to the players from other teams, and asking to have a picture taken with the league’s commissioner, former US ambassador to Israel Dan Kurtzer.

When fans stood for the ‘National Anthem’, they didn’t take off their hats, as they do in the US, because this was Hatikva, not the Star Spangled Banner. But no matter the song, fans are always hungry. They bellied up to the concession stands to buy food, and there was plenty: chicken wings, onion rings, French fries, salads, chicken nuggets and of course hot dogs and hamburgers. There was potato chips and caramel pop corn too, as well as Israeli favorites like Bamba, a peanut-flavored snack.

At the concession stand, one could find Big League Chew gum, five flavors, the same as they sell in America. There were blue baseballs for sale, with the Israel Baseball League logo engraved on it, and small blue baseball gloves with “Inaugural Season, 2007-5767″ written inside. The hats of the individual teams and one of the league itself were being sold for 100 shekels ($25), shirts with each team’s logo were going for 50 shekels, and a shirt with all the team logos for 60 shekels.

But many of the fans were engrossed in the game itself, and for the Israelis, it was a learning experience.

“How do you say ‘Go Modi’in’ in Hebrew?” one Israeli teenage girl asked her friend.

“Go Modi’in,” was the reply.

Most of the fans, over 90 percent, were either Americans who moved to Israel and became Israeli, or were children of American-Israelis. Many have lived here a long time, but have never given up their love of the sport.

“It’s great to see baseball in Israel, something I was waiting for for a long time – 15 years,” said Paul Stark, who came from Ma’aleh Adumim, east of Jerusalem, to take in the game. “You used to have to listen to short wave radios, now we can see it live. It’s probably around class A level, maybe a little below it – but it’s better than nothing!”

Stark said the game has evolved beyond the borders of America, and will help Israelis learn about that broader world.

“I think it broadens the experience of Israelis who come to see it – they will learn more about how Americans think,” said Stark, a longtime Yankee fan. “We’re all Israelis here watching the game – it’s a game that’s international in flavor now.”

Aryeh Dean Cohen agrees. The Jerusalemite and former New Yorker was sitting in chairs set up beyond the outfield with three of his four children and his wife, happy to take part in the historic occasion. When Israelis see what it’s all about, he said, they will learn why it’s so popular in America.

“I think that once Israelis get the sense of the team game, and the excitement, and they see all the team uniforms, and the kids start to get into it, it’s gonna be just like it is in the States,” said Cohen, between bites of his kosher hot dog. “I think we have a chance to bring the red, white and blue spirit of American baseball over here, and it shouldn’t be so much of a problem for Israelis to learn.”

The bigger upside, Cohen said, was that Israelis might also learn the values that baseball teaches to American children.

“I think that we certainly need to learn a little sportsmanship over in this part of the world, and maybe that’s something that we can pick up on – the idea of team play, and everyone puling in the same direction. Maybe that’s something we can learn through osmosis from the game – Israelis are always fighting with each other, arguing with each other. Maybe baseball can bring some unity to this part of the country.”

The game itself was pretty ordinary, though the PA announcer made sure to note every “first” event in the league’s history – the first hit, the first home run, but so far no manager getting thrown out of a game for the first time. In front of 3,112 fans, the Modi’in Miracle – led by former Major Leaguer Art Shamsky – downed the Petah Tikva Pioneers – led by former Major Leaguer Ken Holzman – 9-1. Modi’in Outfielder Adalberto Paulino, of the Dominican Republic, went 2-for-4 with three runs scored, and shortstop Adam Harwood went 2-for-3 with 1 RBI and 1 BB. In the fourth inning Petah Tikva’s Ryan Crotin hit the first home run ever in IBL history, and Modi’in pitcher Andre Sternberg earned the first win with two hitless innings.

The players, who will dorm for the eight weeks at Kfar Ha’yarok just north of Tel Aviv, come from all over the world, representing eight countries: Australia, Canada, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Israel, Japan, Ukraine and the US. The largest delegation comes from North America, with 77 players from 19 states, led by California with 20, followed by New York and Florida with 14 each. The Dominican Republic is represented by 16 players; Israel has 15, Canada 9, and Australia seven. About 40 percent of the league is Jewish.

All the players are happy for the opportunity to continue playing the game they love, but are also happy to help contribute to bringing the game to Israelis.

“To me, it’s a reward for all of my hard work in the gym and on the field, and the ultimate Jewish-American dream,” said Josh Eichenstein, 23, slick-fielding middle infielder from Los Angeles. “I’ve been playing baseball all my life – I made it on to numerous all-star teams, and played four years at Beverly Hills High School. Now being able to play baseball as a job in Israel blows my mind.”

Eichenstein – one of five Joshes in the league – said he hopes to put on a good show for all of the people who are seeing baseball for the first time.

“I want to help Israelis understand the game of baseball,” he said. “Once the game is understood, they will fall in love with it. I can relate to when I was abroad one semester in London and decided to learn soccer. Once I understood the nuances of the game, I was hooked.”

League organizers firmly believe that Israelis can get just as hooked.

“We won’t know until we test it,” said Commissioner Kurtzer. “We’ve talked to people about it, and we think there’s room in Israel for a third sport beyond basketball and soccer. Baseball is a little complicated, it’s a little bit different from what Israelis know, but we’ll have a little fun teaching them.”

The league plans for IBL players to head into selected communities over the summer, handing out 1,000 bats, 1,000 gloves, and 1,000 baseballs to underprivileged children in Israel. They will teach these children the rudiments of the game, and leave behind the baseball equipment for the kids to own and use.

“Our real objective this summer is to build some degree of interest on the part of Israelis,” said Kurtzer. The real measure of success, he said, will be whether there will be a second season next summer.