Wednesday, April 08, 2009

A League of Their Own - In Israel

A League of Their Own
By Judy Labensohn
From Hadassah Magazine
April 2003 Vol. 84 No.8

When Americans settle in Israel they bring not only their material belongings, they also import their love of baseball.

"You gotta know how many outs and who’s on base. You never leave the base on a pop-up. Tag ’em low.”
Coach Ira Hauser is reeling off baseball rules to the 10- to 12-year-olds on the Jerusalem-Efrat All-Star team. The soccer-football field they are practicing on triples as a baseball field. Unfortunately, it is adjacent to the police orchestra headquarters and the trumpet section has just begun practicing, so concentrating on baseball is a challenge.

“Outfield’s gotta help the infield; infield’s gotta help the outfield. The third-base coach will tell you when to steal home. Remember our sign: two consecutive scratches on my belly.” And, Hauser adds after 50 minutes of rules, “If anyone kvetches, you can welcome yourself to the bench.” He assigns the boys their positions for the 5 P.M. practice, which lasts almost two hours. (The boys from Efrat have to return home in their bulletproof vehicle before dark.)

That was the scene last June at one Israeli Juvenile League practice game. Youth baseball in Israel resembles its American Little League cousin, but differs in language (a pitcher is a magish; a strike, though, is a strike); scheduling (there are no games on Shabbat); and infrastructure (the fields, except for three, Gezer, Yarkon Sports Complex and Sportek in Tel Aviv, are rocky, rolling and brown). But America’s export—its best, some claim—gets more than 1,000 Anglo-Israeli kids all over the country off their butts and onto the field. They play in regional leagues divided into four divisions: minors (8-10), juveniles (10-12), cadets (13-15) and seniors (16 plus).

In fact, talking to Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, a senior research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, one might think baseball is the quintessential Jewish game, based on the prophetic call for humility.

“Baseball is a humbling sport because most of the time you make outs—you learn quickly what failure is,” claims Maddy-Weitzman, who wants to raise half a million dollars for a flat, green field of dreams in hilly Jerusalem. “It is also a highly intellectual sport,” says the Ra’anana coach and member of the Israel Association of Baseball board of directors. “All that dead time on the field is really full of looking at options and thinking what your next move will be.” Maddy-Weitzman, who claims he was a mediocre Little League player in his native Syracuse, New York, returned to the sport in Israel in 1995 when his 8-year-old son’s team needed a coach. He got hooked, participated in baseball clinics with coaches from the United States and former major league players who came to Israel to promote the game. “I came to appreciate the game’s nuances,” he says, “how to teach a runner to take the first step, how to teach hitting, throwing, catching and fielding. It’s a science. A whole new world opened up for me.” He celebrated his fiftieth birthday in January at the Yankee Fantasy Camp in Tampa, Florida. For six days he was treated like a major league player—whirlpools, massages, personal trainers—and loved it. “It was a class act from beginning to end,” he says.

Another father-cum-coach who sees the biblical values of baseball is Rabbi Howard Markose, 44, father of five and director of education of the Young Judaea Year Course. The former Minnesota Twins fan compares baseball rules to those of Jewish law. “The rules of halakha are the greatest avenue to self-fulfillment because they give you a framework in which to maneuver,” says the Jerusalem cadet-league coordinator. “Kids need to learn discipline. Baseball is a fun way to learn.”

If baseball has so much to offer, why aren’t more Israeli youngsters clamoring to play?

Billy Weisel—Jerusalem coach for eight years, member of the national executive board of the IAB and one-time Chicago White Sox fan from Champaign, Illinois (“A town where 49 percent rooted for the Chicago Cubs and 49 percent rooted for the St. Louis Cardinals,” he says)—has a theory.

“Israelis hate rules,” contends the father of three sons he taught to bat on a dirt field. “There are too many rules. That’s why non-American Israelis don’t go for it.”

Weisel’s son, Yehuda, 11, has been playing for five years and the rules don’t dampen his enjoyment. He is a pitcher in the juvenile division. “It’s just fun,” he says of baseball. “I like it.” Even though he plays soccer and basketball, the young Weisel, taking after his father, “likes baseball the most.”

The lack of appropriate infrastructure is another reason why baseball hasn’t become more popular. (Tennis only became popular after the Center for Tennis in Israel built regulation courts around the country.)

When Shana Mauer, a 33-year-old mother of three sons, volunteered to coach Ariel’s team of minors, she was shocked when a senior coach asked if she had a weapon to take to practice. The field is close to the main Bethlehem-Hebron road and there is no protective wall. “The best I can do is a Nerf gun,” she replied.

“Take it,” the Efrat resident was advised.

The biggest distraction for Mauer’s inexperienced team was in April 2002 during Operation Defensive Shield. An Israel Defense Forces tank battalion had parked next to the ball field.

“The soldiers watched us play, and the kids watched the tanks,” muses Mauer, a coordinator of public relations and grant writing at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. “The kids wanted to play on the armored troop carriers. It was a little daunting.” Nonetheless, she succeeded in bringing her team—which in October didn’t have rudimentary skills—to finish second in June. “I wanted every kid to have at least one hit this year,” she says, voicing a principle held by all Israeli coaches. “Even my most clumsy player got a hit.”

Leo Robbins, a 45-year-old quality-control supervisor with the Ministry of Housing, wants to expand the popular base.

“We need to go into the schools,” he says. “We have to teach Israeli kids the joys of hitting and throwing…. We need a catalyst, like an Israeli player making it into the major leagues, or if we could get a team to go to the Olympics or build fields in five or six places. It could happen.” Robbins was regional director of Jerusalem juvenile baseball for 1997-1998 and coached seven All-Star teams to win five out of the seven championships.

Those who live and breathe baseball, especially during the two-month season that begins after Passover, agree that Israeli society could profit from the game.

“Baseball is a sport [Israelis need because of] the idea of teamwork,” says Markose. “They learn not to blame someone else. They just say, ‘We’ll try harder and do better next time.’” He notes that in soccer and basketball, the popular Israeli team sports, “the best players spend an inordinate amount of time with the ball. The best American players, in contrast, pass the ball off to someone else.”

Another reason Israelis need baseball, says Robbins, who has coached his four children, is because “baseball prepares people mentally for the army. You’re standing around doing nothing and then you’re called on to act quickly, perfectly, and then you wait again. That’s the way the Israeli army works. It’s good mental training. It teaches them the patience of waiting. They think it’s boring because they don’t understand its intricacies. Strategies change almost every pitch. It is a cerebral game. The skills—throwing, catching, hitting and running—are minor. They are the tools, not the focus. The focus is the thinking.”

One man is so convinced that baseball is good for Israeli society that he left a 20-year career in banking in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and brought his wife and three children to Israel in October 2000 so he could build the first field of dreams in the Middle East. When Jeff Chestnut, 41, chief executive officer of International Sports Properties, says “team,” each letter seems to flash in neon caps.

“Teamwork is what baseball is all about: TEAM,” Chestnut explains. He looks out onto his baby, the Yarkon Sports Complex at the Baptist Village, the only regulation field in Israel. It is complete with night lighting, dugouts, fences, stands, a batting cage, pitching machines, scoreboards, bathrooms and a kiosk that sells hot dogs and hamburgers when there are more than two events going on simultaneously. “TEAM stands for Together Everyone Achieves More.” In a slow, Southern drawl, Chestnut continues to preach. “Sports help you get prepared for life. It teaches you integrity and morals. It builds character. It’s not about the score. It’s about PEOPLE.” This is another Chestnut word in neon caps: “People Encouraging Other People (to) Live Exemplarily.”

The Baptist Village, located between a national park and a strip mall on the outskirts of Petah Tikva, invited Chestnut to develop softball and baseball fields at the Christian retreat center. Today, Chestnut’s business is independent of the village. By 2011, he wants to see the national baseball teams of Russia, Poland and Slovakia come to Israel for their winter practice.

Howie Litz, computer analyst from Kfar Saba and internationally certified umpire, has only praise for Chestnut’s initiative. “Until this year the kids here grew up with Little League baseball, and then they had to go to softball, because they didn’t have anywhere to play,” he says. “Now, with this facility, the seniors can play baseball…. A combination of improving facilities and raising the level of umpiring will further baseball in Israel.” Softball is played on a smaller diamond with a larger ball that is pitched underhand.

Chestnut coaches the Anglican International School’s minor league team; he enjoys that there are children from all over the world on the team, including Jews and Arabs. “I’ve seen it work,” he says. “Sports brings people together.”

The desire to bring people together motivated the Peres Center for Peace, in conjunction with the IAB and Yarkon Sports Complex, to sponsor the first Baseball Peace Clinic at Tel Aviv’s Sportek field on June 19, 2002. Forty Muslim and Christian sixth graders from the Achva School in Jaffa, learned how to play ball with 40 Jewish sixth graders from the Nature, Society and Environment School in Tel Aviv. The Peres Center chose baseball for the multicultural intersection because neither the boys nor the girls knew how to play, and they could learn together as equals.

IAB provided coaches to teach the basic rules to the children in small groups. (“The idea is to hit the ball hard,” urged Maddy-Weitzman to his batting trainees.) For the first hour, each child got to bat, throw, catch and run around the bases, while parents and teachers chatted in the shade nearby. Right before the kids divided into teams, Daniel Kurtzer, the United States ambassador to Israel, visited the peace clinic. He played catch with some of the children and batted out a few high balls. One of the coaches noted his enthusiasm and called to him. “We got a 16-plus senior team in Tel Aviv. You gonna play for us?” Kurtzer, a Yankees fan, smiled, said he’d consider it, and admitted, “This is the most important thing I’m doing today.”

Ron Pundak, director general of the Peres Center, who was pitching to Kurtzer on the field, hopes the peace clinic project will be repeated with other groups. The center would like to develop a mixed Jewish-Arab team.

“This is a small island of sanity,” said sixth-grade teacher Zahava Yariah, describing the event that took place between two suicide bombings in Jerusalem. “The kids want a different kind of experience. They want peace and quiet. Perhaps a larger island will grow from this small island.”

Can playing baseball break down barriers? On Israel’s baseball teams, secular kids play with ultra-Orthodox, rich with poor, Christians with Jews and city kids with kibbutz children. Whether the baseball diamond can serve as the arena in which the conflicting sides in the Middle East struggle forge partnerships remains to be seen. But judging from the spirit and enthusiasm of those already involved, the idea of seeking peace on the diamond is certainly what an Israeli umpire would call a kadur hai, a live ball.

Have Bat, Will Travel
In July 2001, the first year 14- to 16-year-olds were to be included in the youth baseball Maccabiah games in Israel, the competition stayed home due to the intifada. At the last minute, the Israel Association of Baseball arranged for 20 players to participate in the Jewish Community Center Maccabiah Games in Philadelphia.

“We didn’t win any games,” says Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, the team’s coach, “but we were a big hit.”

Last August, Israel sent 14 kids to compete in Omaha, Nebraska, though they didn’t win there, either. Israeli players have represented Israel in tournaments in Poland, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Italy, Switzerland, Holland, Germany and Great Britain.

“There are more opportunities here than in America for kids,” says Maddy-Weitzman. “The first contact between Israel and Saudi Arabia was on a baseball field in a European Little League tournament. A month before the peace treaty with Jordan, the Israeli National Baseball Team played an exhibition game with the Jordanian National Team. How many Jewish kids in America get to go abroad to play baseball?” —J.L.

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