15 Nov

Howie Osterer died Tuesday night at Kibbutz Gezer during a Junior League game between Jerusalem and Bet Shemesh.  He was 59 years old.  This blog post is for Howie and his family.

Howie Osterer was the regional director for baseball in Jerusalem. And he was my friend.

I met Howie when I moved to Israel a year and a half ago. I was the new National Director, and he was the new Regional Director for Baseball in Jerusalem. You’re my boss, he would say, I report to you, but I never thought of it that way. Howie was older than me. He had been a National Director for Scouts Canada before he moved to Israel and had run a chain of camping goods stores.

Howie was a big guy. He dressed like an archaeologist, or a fly fisherman, everything was khaki and waterproof with lots of pockets and zippers.  He also always had his camera on him and was studying to become a tour guide. He was at war with the committee that issues guide licenses. He would study for months for the tests. He had an apartment in Jerusalem overlooking the old city. The walls were covered with maps of Israel and notes about the different historical eras of the region. It looked like Russel Crowe’s office from “A Beautiful Mind”. Howie was a Herodian expert. He would take me into the West Bank for an afternoon at King Herod’s mountain palace, taking pictures and pointing out details of the engravings in the stones, practicing on me. The test day would finally come, and he would fail, inevitably, never sure why, he had aced it, he thought. He would then appeal the decision, and the cycle would start over, reading books and studying the notes on his wall at home.

He was also a taste tester for Pizza Hut. He and I would visit Pizza Huts in Jerusalem and secretly fill out the survey they had provided him. Were you seated immediately? Was the waitress wearing a name tag? How long did it take to get your drinks? He always had a couple pizzas waiting for us at our coaches meetings at his apartment.

But Howie didn’t do anything, not study, not pizza, as much as he worked on baseball. He was responsible for every kid who plays baseball in Jerusalem. He umpired in the Premier League, and nearly every Junior League game Jerusalem played. He started a T-Ball program for 6 and 7 year olds in Jerusalem, our only T-Ball program in the country. And he coached multiple teams and he and I started a program together at the Jewish American Institute in Jerusalem where he went every week to coach. He would write long, color coded newsletters about what was going on in Jerusalem Baseball, different fonts, bold letters, red, blue, highlighter.  Sitting in his apartment are stacks of baseball paperwork, receipts, lists, and notes. He was either an organizational genius, or an idiot, I still can’t tell. And downstairs, in his storage unit, is all of the equipment for Jerusalem. We are going tomorrow to try and sort through it.

When someone dies, we want to praise them. We are not being dishonest, it’s just a default mode of grieving, we naturally inflate their image in our minds and to each other. I do not want to do that here. I do not have to. If a kid wanted to go to practice and did not have a ride, Howie would take the bus with them, sometimes a 2 hour ride, then take them home safely, all for a single kid to go to a single practice or one day at baseball camp. I do not need to exaggerate to make you see how special that is. But, if I am being honest, life was not easy for Howie in Israel. He was very lonely. That is one of the reasons he worked so hard on baseball, and one of the reasons why I liked him so much.

Howie called me every day to tell me about T-Ball or an idea about how we can raise money for a new field in Jerusalem. Often, I would be busy or uninterested and he would apologize for calling so much and ask if there is anything he could do to make my job easier. Even the other night, the night he died, as I pulled into Gezer, at the same time he was calling “time out” for the last time and going down to one knee, I was badmouthing him in my mind because I didn’t want to be driving out there at 9 at night just to drop off equipment. I had 120 pairs of baseball pants and 120 navy blue hats in the back seat for him to pass out to his teams in Jerusalem the next day.

He also called every Shabbat, and on every holiday to check on me. He would ask if I was lonely. I knew he was. Before we would hang up, he would tell me he loved me, and I would tell him I loved him too. I am the same age as his son back in Canada.  And we were both far away from our families.

When I got to the field, there was no game being played. The coaches from both teams were standing at home plate. A few players paced around, hands over their mouths. The others stood still in the dugouts. When I saw Howie on the ground, I did not know what to do. Two of the parents at the game were doctors and began CPR. I got down on a knee and held his head. I thought he would come back. When I realized he may not, I held his hand. The ambulance arrived and we got the kids out of there. He collapsed at 9, and was pronounced dead at 10. I stayed and sat with police and a few other people from baseball until 11:30. There he was, Big Howie, under the lights, on home plate, under a white sheet, in his umpires uniform, his water bottle to the right, his chest protector on the ground to his left, shin guards still strapped to his legs. It was perfect. And I laughed at him a little.

I am not sure how to end this. I am crying. And it’s not really over. There is so much to do. He left us a real mess in Jerusalem.

We started a scholarship fund in Howie’s name for kids who want to play baseball but can’t afford it. He would have liked that. He had a soft spot for tough kids, bad kids, poor kids. I think he had been one a long time ago.

There is also a batting cage being built in Jerusalem. It was one of Howie’s projects. We will name the cage after him, “The Howie”. Maybe I will paint his name on the wall outside the cage. I don’t know.

Today is Shabbat. Howie hasn’t called. But I will say one more time anyways… Love you too.

You can donate to the Howie Osterer Scholarship Fund to help under-priveleged kids in Israel play baseball.

2 Responses to “HOWIE”

  1. virginia rechtschaffen November 16, 2014 at 6:03 am #

    Very sorry for you, Nate, to lose this friend. He sounded like a really good guy. Thanks for writing about him. Now his essence is also circling around here. Sounds like baseball gave much to him. I hope there was much in his life that gave him pleasure.

  2. Adam November 16, 2014 at 2:13 pm #

    Amazing tribute. Hope all is well my man.

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