Take me out to the ball game

They came in carpools from Ra’anana. They came in
convertibles from Beersheba. They took public buses
from Jerusalem and got off on the highway at rush
hour, walking a mile in a heat wave without a word of
complaint.

How long had they been waiting for this?

Standing patiently in a single line at the gate, but
hopping up and down with excitement, they turned to
the people around them and beamed in unison. Everyone
knew how momentous this was. Once inside, they rushed
to stands that offered memorabilia of teams which had
never played a single game – and practically cleaned
them out.

Some jogged off to a clear patch of grass, a safe
distance away from the crowd, and started playing
catch. As if they were preparing to take the field
themselves, they pounded their fists into leather
mitts that had last seen action in another time. In
another country. In another life.

Officially, they came to see the Petah Tikva Pioneers
‘host’ the Modi’in Miracle in the first game of the
first season of the first professional baseball league
in Israel. Declaredly, they had come to support and
celebrate the arrival of the sport they never forgot
to the country they always loved.

But really, deep down, they had all come for one
simple pleasure: To feel like a kid again.

The Israel Baseball League, the creation of American
Jewish businessmen and Jews connected to Major League
Baseball, is different in its Israeli incarnation from
the American original. For the most part, that’s a
good thing. The games go seven innings instead of
nine, with ties decided by a home run derby instead of
extra innings. There are no multimillion dollar prima
donnas here – the players will make $2,000 for a
45-game season, plus modest expenses – and most of the
120 players are North American Jews. Only a dozen are
Israeli (immigrants or children of immigrants,
actually), while several have come from the Dominican
Republic, and a few hail from other countries.

One thing pleasantly lacking from Sunday’s ceremonies
was any sense of pretense, from the players and the
fans alike. The latter walked into the teams’ dugouts
at all points during the game, either to ask players
for autographs or to tell the former Major League
stars serving as coaches how they used to idolize them
way back when. It was as if every player were a bar
mitzva boy, forced to endure the pinching of his
cheeks by distant relatives.

There were other Israeli touches, of course. Instead
of drinking Gatorade from a cooler, the players
swigged Mei Eden spring water from 1.5-liter bottles.
Instead of peanuts, the concession stand sold
peanut-flavored Bamba snacks. Instead of the
seventh-inning stretch, a minyan was organized during
the fifth. (The game was held at the Baptist Village
in Petah Tikva, which the league is careful to call
Yarkon Park instead.)

Sometimes the differences were downright awkward.
After the requisite formalities of introducing the men
behind the league, for example, Sunday’s festivities
began in earnest as all six teams – the Pioneers, the
Miracle, the Netanya Tigers, the Ra’anana Express, the
Tel Aviv Lightning and the Beit Shemesh Blue Sox –
lined up on the foul lines for the singing of the
national anthem. That is, for the singing of
‘Hatikva,’ the anthem of a nation that 90 percent of
the league’s players do not call home. They stood at
attention – keeping their caps on, instead of holding
them over their hearts, as they would if they were in
America. The crowd of more than 3,000 adoptive
Israelis – no doubt enthusiastic ‘Hatikva’ singers in
other situations – was practically silent.

The whole thing seemed so out of place that, for a
moment, all the naysayers’ claims of the
inappropriateness of transporting this
quintessentially American game to Israel felt sadly
correct.

But as soon as the anthem ended, the crowd roared
‘Play ball!’ and everything was right again. When the
first Modi’in batter lifted a pop fly to Petah Tikva
first baseman Shuki Friedman, both benches were empty,
with every player and coach on their feet. The stands
were the same. From one end of the field to the other,
it seemed, there was a sense of relief, of
reassurance, that a professional baseball game was
indeed under way in the Holy Land.

IN THE Pioneers’ dugout, though, that relief was
short-lived.

Abel Moreno, Petah Tikva’s Dominican pitching ace, had
trouble finding the strike zone. And when he thought
he found it, the home plate umpire was calling balls
anyway. As manager Ken Holtzman grew upset over the
calls at the plate, Moreno fired a scorching fastball
right down the middle. Then, on the next pitch,
Miracle catcher Eladio Rodriguez smacked a triple that
scored two runs. As Moreno’s teammates shouted
encouragement to him, the crowd savored the lingering
‘crack!’ of the wooden bat meeting the baseball, and
the Modi’in baserunners charged triumphantly across
home plate.

If the game had been accompanied by a soundtrack, this
was where John Fogerty would have come in.
Specifically, the cheesy ‘thwack-thwack,
thwack-thwack-thwack’ sound effect and folksy guitar
lead-in to his classic paean to baseball,
‘Centerfield.’ Every bit a staple at ballparks around
the States as hot dogs and beer, Fogerty’s
‘Centerfield’ evokes the boyish glee of the runner’s
scamper around the bases and every player’s overriding
desire to get off the bench and into the game.

Well, beat the drum and hold the phone – the sun came
out today!

We’re born again, there’s new grass on the field.

A-roundin’ third, and headed for home, it’s a
brown-eyed handsome man

Anyone can understand the way I feel.

Oh, put me in, Coach, I’m ready to play today.

Put me in, Coach, I’m ready to play today.

Look at me, I can be centerfield!

When Modi’in’s players rounded third and headed for
home, the Pioneers did know how they felt, and they
wanted to feel it too.

‘Let’s go get those runs back!’ they encouraged each
other as they filed into the dugout.

There was only one problem: the team couldn’t find its
allotment of batting helmets. To keep things moving
along, the Miracle sent over a bunch of their own
helmets. Until the sixth inning, when someone
discovered the Pioneers’ helmets sitting in a
cardboard box on the grass about three meters behind
their dugout, Petah Tikva batters went to the plate
wearing Modi’in’s orange-and-blue ‘Mem’ logo on their
foreheads.

There were other glitches, too (although none was as
bad as finding out the next day that one of the three
fields planned for use in the summer’s games would not
be ready for use for at least a week). League
officials couldn’t provide ice to soothe the pitchers’
shoulders between innings. The play-by-play over the
PA system was spotty, passing over entire at-bats and
becoming irrelevant. When they weren’t simply absent,
the guards who were supposed to secure the dugouts
were inept, letting kids file in and molest the
players with autograph requests.

On the whole, the Pioneers took these things (as well
as my presence on their bench, coordinated in advance
with the league) in stride. For at least half the game
they even welcomed all the children. As the team’s bat
boy posed for a picture with one of the Petah Tikva
players, catcher Dustin Melanson, who sported a large
crucifix, jumped over and silently made the ‘bunny
ears’ sign behind his teammate’s head. It was one of
those silly things that teammates are supposed to do
to each other, and significant because the teams had
met only a few days before.

For strangers only days removed from their arrival in
the country, the players also showed some heart. As
the incessant parade of autograph seekers grew to be
unbearable and really distracting to the players, a
little boy gingerly stepped his way around the legs of
much larger kids (and adults). Holding aloft a
baseball with fingers that barely held it steady, eyes
wide and mouth agape with awe, the boy stared at the
athletes as if they were superheroes. He couldn’t even
form the words ‘Would you sign my ball?’ – but he
didn’t have to. The players melted at the sight of
him.

SOME STANDARD ballpark entertainment stunts were
introduced – such as the bat race, the main purpose of
which is simply to make the contestants dizzy. This it
did with great efficiency, sending three kids
stumbling about and laughing.

Around then, the Pioneers began to play as if they,
too, were dizzy. The shortstop and second baseman
crashed into each other trying to field a pop fly.
Moreno surrendered costly walks and followed them with
pitches that Miracle batters gleefully slapped all
over for hits. Fielders squandered sure outs by
throwing the ball away. On one play, several Petah
Tikva players started walking off the field as if they
had gotten the third out, though there were only two.
Only three innings into the game, the Pioneers found
themselves in a 7-0 hole.

Most confused, however, were the Israeli journalists
assigned to cover the game. Worst off were the
photographers, who could not merely comment on the
English spoken so freely among the crowd, and who
seemed totally befuddled by their task of documenting
the action.

One such suffering photographer – a veteran who has
kept his cool during bombings and warfare – placed a
frantic call to his editors, stammering, ‘Someone has
to help me with the captions for this, because I have
no idea what’s going on in this game!’ Kneeling next
to him was a colleague, imploring the first
photographer to tell their editors that he was injured
and needed to be replaced immediately.

‘Tell them to come rescue me,’ he said. ‘I’m dying
here.’

Even after Pioneer third baseman Ryan Crotin hit a
towering home run, the photographers were clueless.
Turning to a cameraman who had just filmed Crotin’s
trot around the bases, one photographer asked, ‘Was
that a touchdown?’

THE BATTER’S PRAYER is short: ‘One good pitch. Just
give me one good pitch over the middle of the plate,
and I’ll smack that ball so farÉ!’

Batters need this prayer because so much of their
efforts end in failure. It’s so bad that reaching base
a mere 30 percent of the time is considered excellent.
Hitting 40 home runs over the course of a Major League
season – that’s more than 600 chances, for a success
rate of 7% – will make a player a hero. In fact,
anyone who can hit even half as many homers in six
months of baseball can make a very good living.

There are very good reasons for this. Imagine Roger
Federer trying to hit a tennis ball with the handle of
his racket, and you start to comprehend how difficult
it is to hit a baseball. Add the fact that the batter
has but half a second to locate the ball as it leaves
the pitcher’s hand, estimate its trajectory and speed,
and swing a wooden bat weighing just over two pounds
to the exact point where the ball will pass over the
plate, and it becomes almost impossible to hit a
baseball.

Almost.

In the bottom of the fourth inning, Crotin’s prayer
was answered. As the crowd cheered the league’s first
home run, all of the powerfully built 28-year-old’s
teammates rushed out of the dugout to greet him at
home plate. Suddenly, the Pioneers had a burst of
hope.

As the next batter crouched into his stance at the
plate, a few of the Pioneers’ players worked
themselves into a crouch of their own, bouncing gently
to loosen up the knees, pretending to hold a bat and
staring down the pitcher. As the batter swung under a
high fastball, they swung too – imagining, however,
that, instead of ‘whiffing,’ they had connected on a
crushing hit that sent the ball soaring over the left
field fence.

This is the Perfect Swing Fantasy – indulged in by
every kid who ever mimicked a real-life slugger,
jumping in front of the television and pretending to
unload the mightiest swing that baseball has ever
seen.

From the look in their eyes, it was clear that several
of the fathers in the stands at Yarkon Park were doing
this in their heads.

AS FAR AS bright spots go, that was about it for Petah
Tikva. The game ended in a 9-1 Modi’in victory – but
that wasn’t nearly as important as the fact that the
game was played at all, and everyone knew it. For a
league trying to prove that it can last in Israel,
there were at least as many encouraging signs as
causes for worry. Turnout of more than 3,100, for
starters (the league originally planned on 1,000 fans
showing up). Hundreds hung around after the game,
chatting with the players and waiting up to an hour
for autographs from Holtzman and Miracle manager Art
Shamsky, both owners of World Series rings.

The fans didn’t seem to mind that the players won’t
have much of a connection to the cities that they
ostensibly represent, as they are being housed at the
Kfar Hayarok youth village in Hod Hasharon. Neither
did they mind that there was practically no sense of
rivalry yet. On opening night, players from all six
teams enjoyed the opportunity to mingle with each
other at Yarkon Park – and to mingle with the fans,
who greeted them all with equal zeal.

These weren’t former Major Leaguers playing with a top
minor league team, clinging desperately to the hope
that a big league club will give them a call soon.
They weren’t guys with a thousand hits to their
credit, not guys who were used to seven-digit
contracts. Of the guys taking the field in Petah Tikva
and Kibbutz Gezer this summer, few have ever been
close to playing in the Majors. For some, a four-year
career at a decent college was the most exposure they
ever got.

A handful of players here are still young enough and
talented enough to dream of making a roster, say, with
a AA club. Most, though, seem to understand that this
is as good as it gets: pocket change, room and board
and a free trip to a far-off country where everyone
reads from right to left. There’ll be too much
humidity and too little ice, plenty of kosher
hamburgers but hardly any beer. And when the
championship comes, the natives won’t understand what
all the fuss is about.

But they’ll get the chance to hit a baseball – and the
fans will treat them like heroes for it. The Israel
Baseball League will take them back to another time,
to another country, to another life. Back to when they
were baseball players. Who wouldn’t want to extend
that a little longer? And who wouldn’t want to cheer
them on?

(BOX) Big League Jew

Of the six inaugural teams of the Israel Baseball
League – the Netanya Tigers, Ra’anana Express, Tel
Aviv Lightning, Modi’in Miracle, Petah Tikva Pioneers
and Beit Shemesh Blue Sox – three are led by men with
Major Leagues cache, men with bona-fide credentials in
‘The Show.’

While the name Modi’in Miracle refers to the
Maccabees, the Hanukka heroes who hailed from Modi’in,
the Miracle’s uniform and logo are clearly inspired by
the New York Mets. That’s no accident: manager Art
Shamsky won a World Series title with the Mets in
1969.

They were called the Miracle Mets not only for their
surprising championship victory over the Baltimore
Orioles, but for the fact that they even made it to
the playoffs at all. Late in the season, the Mets were
so far behind the division leading Chicago Cubs that
their situation seemed bleak. The Cubs collapsed down
the stretch, though, while the ‘Amazin’s’ won 38 of
their final 49 games to streak into history.

Coincidentally, one of the members of that 1969 Cubs
team which gave way to the Mets was Ken Holtzman –
manager of the Petah Tikva Pioneers.

Holtzman carries a noticeable paunch now, but he was
once a svelte and efficient pitcher who tossed two
no-hitters for the Cubs. Later in his career, Holtzman
pitched the Oakland A’s to victory in several World
Series games. Although some of his other records have
since been broken, Holtzman is still the winningest
Jewish pitcher in MLB history.

Beit Shemesh, although called the Blue Sox, has a
strong New York Yankees motif in its uniform. This is
in deference to manager Ron Blomberg, whose place in
baseball history is secure as the first designated
hitter. The move made sense because a series of
injuries significantly limited Blomberg’s playing
time, but his high success rate in clutch hitting
situations made him a valuable offensive weapon.
Blomberg has written an autobiography called
Designated Hebrew.

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