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Israeli ball players say ‘batter up’

Posted By Aryeh Dean Cohen On April 9, 2006 @ 2:45 pm In | No Comments

When young Israeli kids in the network of both baseball and softball leagues spreading across the country get together, “pasul” sometimes replaces out, and a hit is a “havata.”Some will claim that baseball has ancient roots: they are certain that home runs were mentioned in the Bible* and that the rod Aaron carried was actually a Louisville Slugger.

Whether or not you believe the world was created in The Big Inning, there’s no doubt that despite some tough beginnings of their own, softball and baseball are scoring big today in Israel.

A determined group of immigrants from North and South America, eager to hand down a legacy of curve balls and the infield fly rule to their children, has overcome a paucity of fields to bring thousands of players – fellow immigrants and, more recently, native-born Israelis – out to the ball game.

The game may not always sound the same, however, with Hebrew invading the traditional lingo of the baseball diamond. When young Israeli kids in the network of both baseball and softball leagues spreading across the country get together, “pasul” sometimes replaces out, and a hit is a “havata.”

But as the US Major Leagues swung into its baseball season, the thwack of ball meeting bat was certainly also being heard across Zion. Moreover, the sport’s future in Israel is being buoyed by promises that the US-based Israel Baseball League, via the Jewish National Fund, would take a page out of Field of Dreams and build a series of much-needed, ecologically-sound new baseball fields around the country.

Even before they have been built, large numbers of Israelis have nonetheless come to discover the joys of the game. The Israel Association of Baseball, founded 20 years ago by “a group of parents who wanted to impart the skills of baseball to the next generation,” according to president Haim Katz, has about 900 players competing, with participants ranging in age from 8 to the mid 50s.

Around 150 players on nine teams, from Eilat to the Galilee, play in the Israel Softball Association, with an independent, Jerusalem-based league also suiting up regularly. Boys, girls, women’s and men’s teams compete, and Israel is a member of European federations in both sports, competing in and occasionally even winning regional tournaments. There are about 100 participants in the women’s league, and some 60 girls playing in youth softball games.

Even more importantly, the game is taking root among young Israelis, either sons and daughters of transplanted Americans or Israelis who spent time in the States, or attracting what Katz calls “non-conformists, looking for something different than basketball or soccer.” While he says it takes some time for them to learn some skills – throwing is the hardest – baseball and softball are drawing youngsters like 12-year-old Yuval Pick, who says he doesn’t mind playing for the Tel Aviv Yankees, even though his heart is with his beloved Baltimore Orioles.

“I love the home runs, and the fast pitching… I watch all the games I can on TV. My favorite thing is the World Series, which I wait for all year,” says Pick, who learned the game when his father was sent to Maryland on sabbatical. “I managed to convince a few friends to play already,” the self-described ‘ambassador for baseball’ told ISRAEL21c.

Former major-league players like Art Shamsky of the Miracle Mets of 1969, or former Yankee Elliot Maddox, both Jews, are set to visit this summer and conduct clinics, and the baseball league plans Sunday games that will be open to the public and where hot dogs, kosher of course, will be sold to the fans.

Things have progressed so far that a new form of baseball diplomacy has even emerged, with Katz and his group using games between Arab and Israeli kids to try to break down barriers between them. But old-timers will tell you that it took lots of hard work, Tug McGraw-like belief, and determination before the sport touched all the bases in Israel.

The pioneers of the game were the softballers. They were mainly members of US and South American Jewish youth groups or students who found themselves in Israel in the late ’70s. Sure there was falafel, beautiful beaches, and kibbutz volunteers from Sweden, but one thing was missing – the old horsehide.

So one day, Ed Freedman, a Bronx-born lawyer and currently head of the Israel Softball Association, put an ad in The Jerusalem Post, “because I wanted to play softball.” It read simply: “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?” and urged anyone interested in playing to meet at the apartment of then-Chicago Tribune correspondent Jon Broder.

“About 50 guys showed up, from all places, and all kinds,” he remembers. Some were occasional pick-up game players, like the fellow who, looking out his window and seeing Freedman and some friends tossing the ball around on a little mound of grass on Tel Aviv’s swanky Kikar Hamedina, yelled down: “Hey! I’ve got my glove! Can I come down and play?”

In those halcyon days, however, finding a patch to play on wasn’t easy, and literal turf wars broke out with native Israelis, who told the softballers just where they could stick their bats and balls.

“We threw the bases down on an empty area in the Sportek in Tel Aviv,’ Freedman recalls of the disputes at the sports complex in the north of the city, “and we got into fights with all the people who walked between first and third base, and they were going from one side to the other in the middle of the game. There was no fence, so guys would set up their soccer nets right in the middle of center field. Fisticuffs broke out, and people told us to go back to America.”

Things weren’t much better elsewhere. A UN contingent on the Golan Heights had a team, and invited its rivals to come play on a field right along the border, at Kuneitra. Veteran player Tim Cummings, a die-hard Yankee fan from Connecticut, recalls: “The infield was full of stones, and the outfield was full of thorns. When there was a fly ball in the outfield, the outfielders looked like ballet dancers as they tiptoed around the thorns.” Here, foul territory was truly out of bounds. “If you hit a foul ball, it went into Syria,” recalls Freedman.

The teams persevered, mostly in the Tel Aviv region, with names like Bernie’s Bottle Club or MASH or Ziontours, sponsored by local businesses. With the building of a real field at Kibbutz Gezer and later, at the Baptist Village near Petah Tikva, and the addition of lights, the league expanded. Gradually, the children of the founding fathers of the softball league joined, and today there are several multi-generational teams around, with Rise-High’s Ed Harow has four of his sons playing on his team. Baseball came along in ’86, starting out with about 100 players, sharing some of the facilities already set up for softball leagues and pushing for new ones.

The game has changed as the face of North American immigration changed, but the impact on the lives of the players, particularly the new immigrants among them, has always been profound.

“We used to have movement kids coming from Habonim or Hashomer or Young Judaea,” recalls Freedman, “mostly non-religious kids moving here. Today, the league reflects the fact that the aliya has become more Orthodox-centered, and that’s one of the changes and reasons we no longer have games on Saturdays. The league has also become more Israeli in the sense that the younger kids have moved in.” Their impact has been great, with one softball pitcher even getting a scholarship for a California university where he’s considered a good prospect.

But it’s the heart of those who play it that the game has meant so much, especially to the new immigrants. “It was part of America that came over with us,” says Harow. “We thought it wasn’t going to be here…I couldn’t picture playing baseball in Israel before I came. It just made things a little easier. It’s tough here, especially at the beginning. .. some of the disappointments weren’t so bad if you won the game at the end of the week.”

“I think the league has done a lot for people who have come here and were looking somehow to adjust to Israeli society, coming from a totally different cultural environment, says Freedman. “And there are hundreds and hundreds of olim from North and South America who have developed networks of friends here by playing in the league.”

Goose Gillette, a Cincinnati native and softball league legend and current softball league secretary-general, says simply; “Softball has kept me sane, I look forward to every game. Without that, I don’t know where I’d be today,” while Cummings adds: “For me, it’s just been a big smile.”

It’s also created some powerful memories for players and teams alike: feuds, moments of glory, and sometimes “only-in-Israel” moments, like the time Harow’s club was playing a Friday doubleheader, and the second game was running very close to Shabbat. “We were winning by one run, and they had the bases loaded, and I was playing center field, and a ball was hit out there. I dove for the ball and caught it, rolled over. I was hurting, in real pain. I looked up and my team was leaving, taking the bats and balls, and no one ever came out to say: ‘Good catch,’ or ‘Did you get hurt’ or anything. My kids came out to ask: ‘Are you OK, Abba (Dad)?’ It was pretty funny.”

While its popularity has grown, the lack of fields has been holding the sport back from making even greater inroads. Cummings says the sport is “taking off” among young Israeli kids like Yuval, but without a place to play, expansion hopes are being stymied.

Katz, who calls baseball “the most Jewish sport” thanks to the likes of Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax, says the field issue is “very much a limiting factor. We’re in a tremendous bind, especially in Jerusalem.” Softball or baseball moms have to tote youngsters virtually around the city to get to existing fields, and the lack of lights makes scheduling something that would have made even baseball’s inventor, Abner Doubleday, throw down his scorebook.

There’s new hope on the horizon, however. Larry Baras, founder of the Israel Baseball League, said that his group, whom he describes as “fans of baseball who are also fans of Israel,”hope to try to combine the two passions.” Baras said the belief was that help for Israeli baseball could best be recruited “in the US, where there already is a passion for it.”

The organization, which is a league to champion baseball in Israel rather than to actually play it – for now – was founded last summer, “with the intention to address what we’ve been told are the three deficiencies in Israel as far as what has stunted its growth: the lack of playing fields, the lack of instruction and the lack of equipment…”

Seeking a Jewish organization to lend a hand, the JNF was approached since it handles recreational areas. Baras says potential benefits “will not only be within Israel itself, but perhaps it can serve as a bridge between North American Jews, particularly youth, and Israel.” The new organization has already provided instant assistance: when an Israeli youth team set to play in a tournament in Italy discovered wooden bats were required, it turned to the IBL. Through its contacts, a local US sporting goods company shipped 36 wooden bats to the Israeli club.

While the goal now is simply “to dot the Land of Israel with baseball fields,” ultimately Baras and the IBL have bigger plans: to launch a professional baseball league in Israel. Whether Baras becomes Israel’s Bud Selig or not remains to be seen. Certainly, however, more Fields of Dreams across Israel would make it even easier for baseball-loving potential immigrants to feel at home, and assure more at-bats for Israeli-born players skillfully learning a new national pastime.

*Numbers 11:31-33: “And there went forth a wind from Yahweh, and brought quail from the sea, and let them fall by the camp, about a day’s journey on this side, and a day’s journey on the other side, round about the camp, and about two cubits above the face of the earth. And the people rose up all that day, and all the night, and all the next day, and gathered the quail: he that gathered least gathered ten homers…”

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