Running the Bases

by Brian on July 5, 2007

in In the News,Only in Israel

It’s been over 30 years since I was at a baseball game, but that unintended hiatus ended this week when I joined my family to root, root, root for the home team as the Modi’in Miracle suited up to play the Ra’anana Express as part of the Holy Land’s first professional baseball league.

The afternoon game we attended, at Kibbutz Gezer’s newly built field of dreams in the center of the country, not far from the Latrun junction off the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway, also gave me a chance to fulfill not only an expatriate’s national pastime but a father’s obligation: to teach my kids the rules of the game. There I was, with nine-year-old Aviv on one side and thirteen-year-old Merav on the other, extemporizing on the difference between a foul ball and a pop fly, explaining how and when a player might steal a base, and bemoaning a double play that ended an inning with my favored team failing to score.

I had forgotten how much I used to love baseball.

For most of the mid-1970s, our family were huge Oakland A’s fans. This was already traitorous to our friends and neighbors because we lived in clear San Francisco Giants territory, on the west side of the San Francisco Bay. But The A’s had spunk, they had color, and for the years we were attending games at the Oakland Coliseum, they also won the World Series three years in a row.

Those were the days when the team had a roster of amazing all stars: Campy Campaneris, Sal Bando, Reggie Jackson, Joe Rudi, Gene Tenace, Catfish Hunter, Vida Blue and Rollie Fingers. In my diary from 1974, I have cut out newspaper clippings with box scores and player rosters pasted onto the pages. We listened to every game on the radio and watched on TV whenever we could.

Then the A’s stopped winning and I went off to college and got busy with “more important” things. My baseball fanaticism withered and by the time I arrived in Israel for the first time in 1983, it didn’t bother me that “football” (and not the American kind) rather than baseball ruled the land.

Now, all that’s changed with the establishment of the Israel Baseball League (IBL), Israel’s first professional league (the non-professional Israel Association of Baseball has been promoting baseball in the Middle East since 1986). The IBL, which launched two weeks ago, consists of six blue and white teams – the Beit Shemesh Blue Sox, the Netanya Tigers, the Petach Tikva Pioneers, the Tel Aviv Lightning, and the aforementioned Modi’in Miracle and Ra’anana Express.

Former American ambassador to Egypt and Israel Dan Kurtzer is serving as the league’s first commissioner, and team managers include three former U.S. major leaguers: Ron Blomberg, Art Shamsky, and Ken Holtzman (once with my beloved A’s, he is on the record books as the winingest Jewish pitcher in Major League Baseball history).

There are a number of differences in how the game is played in Israel – there are only seven innings (Israelis, it’s supposed, don’t have the patience to sit through a full nine), with ties decided by a “home run derby” rather than extra innings; and the “fifth inning stretch” is as likely to include a break for the afternoon mincha prayer service as a trip to the snack bar for peanuts and crackerjack (or the Israeli equivalent: a bag of bamba and some bisli). The view from the stands at Kibbutz Gezer is also uniquely Israel – rolling shrub-covered fields covered with sunflowers and the ruins of an ancient Canaanite town, a far cry from the urban landscape of Oakland or New York.

Still, the excitement of watching a professional ball player pick up a bat and take a crack at a ball hurtling towards him at 95 miles an hour retains much of the big league thrill from back in the old country. And then there was the young man who boldly called out over the intercom “Dalia Gold, will you go out with me?” just like in the States (she said yes, by the way).

Nevertheless, the game in Israel still has a few bases to run. The fledgling IBL had to look overseas for players to step up to home plate in its inaugural 45 game summer season: only 10 out of the 120 players on the six Israeli teams are sabras. Maximo Nelson, the Modi’in team’s star pitcher, hails from the Dominican Republic and barely speaks English, let alone Hebrew. Still, some 40 percent of the players, mostly U.S. imports, are Jewish.

Crowds are also not even at U.S. minor league levels. While the opening game two weeks ago attracted a respectable 4,000 or so fans, this week’s match at Kibbutz Gezer had a mere 400. The upside: we got front row seats along the first base line, better than we ever got for the A’s in their heyday.

Who did we root for? The Israel Baseball League strives to be purely professional, all the way down to the players’ uniforms which they’ve cleverly chosen to match the branding of some of the leading U.S. teams. The Modi’in Miracle (the name refers to the Maccabees, the Hanukka heroes who hailed from Modi’in) were in Mets’ pin stripes (no accident given that Miracle’s manager Art Shamsky won a World Series with the Mets in 1969). The Ra’anana Express were decked out in A’s green and yellow. Clearly we had to cheer the A’s clones. Big mistake. It was a baseball bloodbath with Ra’anana getting clobbered 9-1 by the Miracle (the next night, Ra’anana got nailed again, this time by the Tel Aviv lightning, by a score of 16-1).

Will baseball in Israel catch on? So far, it’s mainly an Anglo sport with even the play-by-play being done in English. Still the new league gets high marks for trying. And there’s something misty about singing Hatikva, the Israeli national anthem, before “take me out to the ballgame.”

Surprisingly, Jerusalem, Israel’s capital, has no team. That’s not deliberate, league officials say; there’s just no field suitable for baseball in the capital…yet. That didn’t stop the IBL’s “Official 2007 Yearbook” from superimposing a picture of a baseball stadium next to an image of the Old City, just alongside the Temple Mount, effectively obliterating a large chunk of mostly Arab East Jerusalem.

In Israel, it seems, even baseball can’t avoid straying into political territory.

(Here’s the picture from the cover of the IBL Yearbook)

Like all the California hotels, even a New York hotel has one of those travel agents who can get you seats on Orlando flights or even Vegas flights in emergency. Otherwise ideally they prefer allegiant airlines if one does have to fly. In other case, they are ardent fans of national car rental firms.

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