10 Jul

So far, this blog has been about me (bad habit, if you haven’t noticed).  But this tournament is not about me despite my sometimes feeling like it is.  It’s about a lot of people.  There’s Peter and Haim, the heads 0f the IAB (Israel Association of Baseball) who have been working on baseball development in Israel a lot longer and a lot harder than I have, than anyone has, really.  There’s Dan and Shlo who have been on the Israel National Team since Israel has had a national team.  There’s Leon Klarfeld and David Shanker who coached them when they were little.  There’s Pat Doyle, the head coach last summer in the European Championships Qualifiers.  There’s Richard Kania from Check Republic who goes to Israel every summer to coach and who was an assistant with me under Pat for that team.  There’s Alon.  All the guys on the National Team.  Steve Hertz, my coach in the Israel Baseball League.  There’s Sham, Blomberg, Holtzy, Prib, Levy, Haystings, Larry, Brett and Eric, the kids that came to our games, Tony, everyone who played and coached and watched and who care about baseball in Israel.  Point being, a lot of people, so let’s take a minute to look at what is called the big picture.  What does this tournament really mean to Israel, and baseball, and Israel Baseball?

We have two goals for the tournament.

1) To win the qualifier and advance as far into the World Baseball Classic as possible.

2) To do what no one else has been able to do, yet… make baseball popular in Israel.

The two are not exclusive from one another.  There’s no doubt that the better we do in this tournament, the better chance we have on making an impact in Israel, specifically with kids in Israel.

Peter sent the team this e-mail last week…

This is a historic day for Israel Baseball.  We finally have the opportunity
to build a field of our own.  The mayor of Raanana has approved the
establishment of a national baseball field in Raanana.

The realization of this dream, however, is dependent upon us to raise
sufficient funds in a relatively short period.  This is a true test of our
organization to work together as a team to achieve this goal, which will
change the face of baseball in Israel.  We have started the process to
transform our initial sketches to exact architectural plans.  We are also
leveraging our exposure with our participation in the WBC to get donations
for this project.  But of course much more is needed and everyone’s
involvement will hopefully give us the momentum to move forward.

The mayor of Ranaana, a small town about 30 miles north of Tel Aviv, has approved the plans to build the first bonafide baseball stadium in the country.  There are currently three fields in Israel; one is on Kibbutz Gezer, shout-out to the Leischman Family!  One is in Sportek, Tel Aviv’s “Central Park”.  And one, the nicest of the three, is in what is called “Baptist Village” or “Yarkon Sports Complex” depending on who you ask.  Everything in Israel has multiple names in multiple languages.  What can I say? The place is nutty.  Petach Tikvah, where Baptist Village is located, is in view of the West Bank which is neither here nor there but adds some gravity to the story and sheds a bit of light on why things in Israel have multiple names in multiple languages and hold multiple meanings to multiple groups of people.  The field was built by Baptists from Tenessee who felt it was there mission to build and, to this day, maintain a pretty nice baseball diamond in the Promise Land.  I do not think the plans for the new stadium in Ranaana would have been approved if we weren’t playing in the WBC, so there is some impact already.

picture of ausmus (manager) meeting president peres, from ny times article.

But like it says in the email, being approved to build a stadium, and the actual building of a stadium, are two different things.  The gap is the roughly three million dollars it’s going to cost to turn the structure from an architectural model into a full size building.  So we need to raise money.  We have fundraisers in New York and Chicago coming up this month.

official invite.

If you want to attend…

But to understand where baseball in Israel is headed, you have to understand where it’s been.  So, come with me on a journey through the magical and shabby history of Israel Baseball.  It is fortunate that as the King of all Jewish Baseball I have done extensive research on the matter, mainly for my still unpublished masterpiece, … THE SCHNITZEL AWARDS; The Story of the First and Only Season of the Israel Baseball League, so I will be able to retell the story to you now.

Baseball in Israel started in 1989.  At least, that is when the IAB officially formed, and Israel entered a “national team” into their first international competition.  I put national team in quotes because when you, reader, think “national team”, I assume you think Olympics, nice uniforms, and the finest training facilites and accomodations.  But in this case, “national team” means a bunch of kids and their dads going completely unprepared to a baseball tournament not having any idea what to expect.  That first tournament in ’89 was the Junior Euro Championships in Ramstein, Germany.  The kids were 12 years-old I believe.  They stayed in a bomb shelter next to the Rabbi’s house on the air force base in Ramstein where they slept on matresses thrown on the floor.  In the mornings, they would sit shivering on benches outside the bomb shelter eating cold cereal.  They had exactly 9 gloves and shared them depending on who was in the game and who was on the bench.  They wore mismatching hats and t-shirts and sweat pants as uniforms.  They lost their first game to Germany.  And lost their second game – a close one, 51-0 to Saudi Arabia.  I will not delve into the intrigue of those little league match-ups – Israel V. Germany, and Israel V. Saudi Arabia, and will simply point out how bad they must have been to lose a baseball game 51-0.  What are called humble beginnings.  The team eventually earned their first win at a tournament in Italy versus Estonia three years later.  To give you an idea of how far they’ve come since 1989, last summer, 2011, 21 years later,  we lost to Great Britain in the finals of the European Championship Qualifiers, the day Shlogun threw 13 innings.  Their team was full of North Americans with British passports many of whom had played pro baseball.  And our team was full of, well, basically those same kids that were sleeping in the bomb shelter 21 years earlier.

2011 Israel National Team!

So, there is a functioning baseball world in Israel, however small.  There’s a little league, a men’s league, a national team program, and quite a few ex-pats watching their favorite team play on at 3am each night.  But despite the good finish last summer and our being invited to the WBC, let me say explicitly so you understand, baseball is still way off-the-radar in Israel.  People like soccer and basketball.  In general, it is a sporty place, Tel Aviv at least.  But people there say what all people who don’t like baseball say – that it is slow, they do not understand the rules, and the players are fat (it comes up a lot).  When I’m in Israel playing or coaching and tell cab drivers or the lady at the post office as much, they look at me blankly and say, “No, No, we do not have beisbol in Israel.”  Then I say, “No, yes, you do– I am here–”  Then they lose interest and look away.  If you are from America and you grew up playing baseball, you’re just an average American, no explanation is required as to why.  In Israel, if you play baseball, there’s a story. Either you moved there from California, or your cousins in Long Island mailed you a glove and bat and ball, or you just wanted to do something different.  In America, baseball is tradition.  In Israel, it’s weird.  So what does it take to make baseball, anything, popular in a place where it is already unpopular?  I personally have played in places where the game is huge – the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, and places where it is not – Israel and Germany, and still do not know exactly the answer.  Why do people in the Dominican Republic love the game and people in Germany don’t know the pitcher and hitter are on different teams?  Why are some people willing to learn the rules and spend a lifetime practicing the game and some just think the uniforms look funny?

Let’s take this a step further.  To understand if baseball will become popular in Israel, we have to understand how it’s become popular other places. Outside the United States, baseball is played mainly in the Caribbean and Japan, right?  There is an emerging international baseball scene, primarily in Asia and Europe.  Just about every country not considered “third world” has some version of a pro league.  But most of the European and Asian counties are in the same boat as Israel in that baseball is considered a fringe sport there.  Competing in the WBC this September will be a quantum leap for most of the new countries trying to qualify for the first time.  So why did baseball catch on on Japan and the the Caribbean and not other places?  The common assumption about baseball’s proliferation is that American soldiers build fields wherever they’re off fighting and then everyone uses the fields when they leave which is not that far off.  The field on the air force base in Ramstein is a perfect example.  War does seem to play a big part…

Supposedly, the first baseball game ever played off American soil took place in 1847 when the wooden leg of defeated general Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna was used as a bat in game between soldiers in the Mexican American War.

Baseball came to Cuba in 1860 when professional team from Philadelphia and Chicago went to Havan to play exhibition games in the warm weather.  The Cubans eventually brought baseball to the rest of the caribbean fleeing the Spanish in Ten year War.

In 1837, an American teacher named Horace Wilson is credited with bringing the game to Japan.  By 1934, over sixty years later, the game was popular enough for an American All-Star team to go there to play.  Babe Ruth was on the team.  One of Ruth’s teammates, Mo Berg; catcher, Jew, and CIA spy, took photos of Tokyo on that trip that were later used in the plans to bomb the city.

There is no shortage of war in Israel unfortunately.  The weather is perfect for baseball.  And there are lots of Americans. All the ingredients are there to make baseball, if not huge, good at least.  But it’s only been 20 years, and these things take time.

Here are some of the kids from our baseball camp last summer….





one of the kids had a youkilis jersey!

the next generation of israel baseball stars, at lunch.

For the full story of the Israel Baseball League.  Check out my teammate Aaron Pribble’s book!  Just click the link below…,674766.aspx

2 Responses to “THE BIG PICTURE”

  1. Carlos July 18, 2012 at 10:21 pm #

    I love it, all hail the king. Los


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