Tuesday, August 5, 2008
Burning Bush League: the story of professional baseball in Israel, season 1
I would like to begin this talk like most other speakers at Chautauqua: by telling you what an absolute privilege it is for me to be with you tonight. I first came to Chautauqua in 1995 as a 10 year old and my most vivid memories were capsizing a dingy at boys and girls club and trying to ride my bike across Palestine Park. During a later summer I started gaining an appreciation for the daily 10:45 lecture and I remember asking myself if I would ever do something profound enough in my life to warrant speaking at Chautauqua. Well, I'm not sure if the word profound really belongs in the same sentence as the Israel Baseball League. A better adjective might be bizarre, intriguing or unbelievable. I say unbelievable because more than once after telling a native Israeli what I was doing in their country they would respond by saying: no, we do not have baseball in this country. And I would respond, "yes, you DO have baseball in this country." But whatever series of events brought me here tonight, I cannot tell you how honored I am to be here, telling you the story of the Israel Baseball League, season 1.
finding out about the league
It was the middle of winter during my senior year at Haverford college and I had just returned from a weightroom session with my roommate, baseball teammate and fellow Jew, Nat Ballenberg. In the midst of deciding between dinner delivery options I got an email with the subject line: Israel Baseball League tryouts. Israel Baseball League tryouts? Apparently, some Jewish investors had gotten together and decided to create a professional baseball league in Israel. Why, one might ask? Initially it was a project to support Israel that didn't entail sitting on another boring committee, according to businessman Larry Baras who founded the league. The dream was to produce a team that could compete in the 2009 World Baseball Classic. After checking THIS website to make sure the whole thing wasn't a joke, I yelled in to the living room, "Nat, you gotta go check your email." That night we made a fraternal pact taken right out of the movie, "A League of Their Own" (PIC2). Either they'll take both of us or they'll take neither of us. During the next few weeks leading up to the Miami tryout, the prospects of this venture started to materialize in my head. 1) I was a Jew that had never been to Israel. 2) I've dreamt since I was a fetus about becoming a professional athlete AND the glory of being on national television--granted this turned out to be Israel Channel 5 not ESPN--but who's counting? And 3) I was a college senior with literally no clue what I wanted to do after graduation. In a nutshell, it was a perfect opportunity. So with a lot on the line, with a lot of nervous anticipation, Nat and I flew down to Miami in late December 2006 to spin of the metaphoric dreidel on our future baseball careers. The tryouts were run by IBL Director of Baseball Operations, Dan Duquette, previously the general manager of the Boston Red Sox and Montreal Expos (PIC3).
During the tryout, Duquette was faced with an interesting mix of approximately 70 "players" including a practicing orthodox rabbi, pais and all, a holocaust survivor who hadn't picked up a bat in decades, a handful of middle-aged Miami Jews who probably heard about the tryouts during synagouge announcements the shabbos before and then there were guys like me: college ballplayers who just weren't ready to hang up the cleats. The tryouts themselves were a shmogisboard of drills and live competitions that left most of us clueless as to whether or not we'd made the league. You see there going to be later tryouts in California and the Dominican Republic, two hotbeds of baseball. So when I was finally emailed a contract from the league, it was kind of like the feeling you get after your bar mitzvah(PIC3.1) when you realize no one saw you fumble your torah portion you didn't drop the scrolls prompting a 40 day fast. Immediately I called up my compatriot Nat and found out that he'd made it too. The BEST part was, because both of us made it, we avoided excercizing our fraternal pact. But as a little bit of foreshadowning I'll tell you that this would not be the last time the idea of hostile negotiations crept up during IBL season 1.
League Bashing Preface:
Before going any further in this narrative, I feel like it is necessary to give one important preface: my experience in Israel was beautiful and priceless: BUT there were obvious problems with the league from the begining. Please do not take my commens as discontentment. I would relive it ALL in a heartbeat and I hope it comes across that I am incredibly grateful to the people who gave their blood, sweat, tears, and countless hours of their lives to start the IBL. We're talking about a core group of people here who attempted the unprecedented feat of starting a large scale professional baseball league, coordinating with people thousands of miles away in a different language for a sport that a vast majority of the local population does not even remotely understand. So let's just say the deck was stacked against them from the beginning. If you think about the tremendous costs of putting together the IBL, you'll understand why they went broke half-way through the season and had to beg donors and investors for more cash just to finish the summer. Think about the cost alone of flying 150 people to Israel. Now think about that cost of buying 150 last minute plane tickets when your flaky travel agent backs out at the zero hour. With about 14 days before opening day I remember thinking to myself: when am I going to get my plane ticket? Is this league really gonna happen? The answer to this rhetorical question is YES. But just barely.
I'd like to first describe to you our living situation in Israel. Now for those of you who have never been, you should know that Israel is a beautiful country. It has mountains. It has farmland forged atop dessert soil (PIC3.2). It has beaches (PIC4&5). Israel is arguably second only to the silicon valley as far as technology goes. The Dead Sea has been a spa retreat since the time of Cleopatra (PIC6). Jerusalem is arguably the most spiritual and religiously historic city in the world (PIC7). Haifa is reminiscent of a miniature San Francisco and has the most beautiful gardens I've ever seen (PIC8). And Tel Aviv, 10 minutes from where we lived is a fantastic cosmopolitan beach city that reminds me of Miami, only safer (PIC9). Unfortunately, the housing provided to us, Hakfar Hayarok, or The Green Village wasn't exactly an oasis of luxury. Much like Chautauqua, the kfar is one of those places that is best understood from first hand experience, but I'll try to elaborate: during the non-summer months, the Kfar serves as a boarding school. All players from all different teams were intermingled together and lived in dorms that would have been comfortable for two people. The only problem was that we had 4 people per room (PIC10). Say hi to my roommate Cameron.The beds we slept on weren't really beds at all, but glorified pieces of foam placed upon wooden planks about 2/3 the size of your normal twin mattress. And at first there were more people than "beds". In the morning, our alarm clocks would be the violent peacocks who roamed freely throughout the grounds (PIC11). When my buddy Nat arrived wit a busload full of players, everyone thought the bus driver ad gotten lost and was just turning around at the Kfar. When they realized they were in the right place, Nate Fish jumped off the bus and said, and I quote, "this is the nicest prison I've ever been to." We didn't realize the full extent of our "situation" until we stepped into the cafeteria. Now again, for those of you who have not been to Israel, you must know that the cuisine there is phenomenal. Israelis are connoisseurs of salads and have mastered the art of hummus. Their equivalent of fast food are the delicious shwarma and falafel stands that are the gathering spots in every town. It litreally makes me hungry just thinking about it. Unfortunately, we had none of this delectable food at our disposal. We shared our rice with the birds that swooped in from the cafeteria windows. The pasta was always hard and the joke was that the poultry being served was the solution to the problem of peacock overpopulation. It took us all just a few meals to realize that bottled water was a necessity at the Kfar. Use your imagination if you must. I ended up losing about 12 pounds, which worked out great for the beach but wasn't so good being an athlete. The only inexcusable aspect of the Kfar was that there was absolutely no ice at the Kfar for the first 2.5 weeks of the season. And of course, I sprained my ankle almost immediately. Usually I would have to hobble a half-mile to ice my ankle at the Delek Dragon convenience store, so I use the phrase "convenience store" loosely. But for all the inconveniences of the living arrangements, the Kfar turned out to be all right in the end due to some perhaps unplanned benefits. In general, it was smart to house all players in the same location. When you bring over 100 foreigners to a far-off land, the last thing you want to do is isolate them from each other. In my opinion, one of the only reasons we got through the growing pains of the first year is because we had one another to turn to during the trying times. I also will credit the companionship fostered by our living situation for preventing some potential on-field fights. I remember one game in particular where my team, the Ra'anana Express (PIC11.05) decided to exact revenge on the Petach Tikva Pioneers for running up the score in a previous game. Our pitcher, Max, who didn't speak a lick of english decided to throw at the Pioneers top player, Ryan Crotin, in two consecutive at-bat. Needless to say, Ryan wasn't altogether pleased with this situation and showed it by taking his bat with him on his way to first base, making threatening gestures mixed with profanities. Because of the language barrier, there was little Max could say back, and shortly thereafter all the players were croweded around the infield ready for disaster to strike. But then I think we had a collective realization: wait a minute. We all live together. I have to ride back with the same bus with the same daredevil Israeli busdriver (PIC11.1) and eat the same hard pasta with these guys after the game. We can't actually get into a fight here. And lastly, the Kfar was convenient for league-wide communication. One thing the administrators neglected to do was set up a way to communicate information to all personnel. The only way word got around was by word of mouth, Basically a throwback to the days of hilltop to hilltop shofar blowing If the IBL didn't house everyone together at the Kfar we would have all essentially been like the son at the sedar table who is "incapable of asking". In a nutshell the Kfar was a throwback to the days of summer sleep-away camp where at first you might complain that it's too primitive, but at the end you love the experience.
Once the initial shock of our surroundings had worn off, it was time to get down to business. It was time to get down to doing what we were being paid to do, play baseball. The only problem was the Kfar had no practice facilities to speak of other than a bumpy soccer field. Whatever preparations the players had made to be in tip-top shape prior to boarding the plane were minimized by the disorganization when we touched down in Israel. We were told that a batting cage for the Kfar had been shipped from the states, but apparently it got held up at Customs. Being the adaptive creature that I am, I resorted back to a childhood trick used when it was too cold to play outside. We rolled up all our socks and used them as balls to throw to each other for batting practice. Not ideal--but better than nothing. By the time opening day rolled around, about 5 days after we arrived, my team the Ra'anana Express had practiced on an actual baseball field exactly once. This is opposed to my college days when the only thing that kept us off the field was the sun going down. You see, baseball facilities in Israel were essentially non-existent prior to the IBL except for one field at the Baptist Village called Yarkon, or the Yark. The Yark was easily the nicest baseball complex in the country and equivalent to your average high school field here in the States(PIC12). It was built by a Baptist missionary who had more money than he knew what to do with. If you build it, they will come AND they will pay, to the tune of $1000 every time we stepped on that field. And with rates like that, you can't just hop over to the ballpark and take practice any time you want. The second field was a transformed softball field at Kibbutz Gezer, or the Geez as we called it. For the non-jews in the audience, a kibbutz is essentially an Israeli commune providing food, home and community for thousands of Israelis and Jewish emigres from around the world. Many kibbutzim revolve around agriculture and they are theoretically self-sustaining. But the culture of the kibbutz has changed dramatically since the formation of the country 60 years ago. With the westernization of Israel, kibbutzim now play a less dramatic role in the overall landscape of Israeli culture than they did when the country and its economy were in its infancy. Nevertheless, the kibbutz culture will forever be entwined in Israeli history and IBL history for that matter. So imagine you're in the bleachers at a softball diamond on a kibbutz with little kibbutznik children running around wearing their tzitzit and baseball glvoes(PIC13), Because softball fields are significantly smaller than baseball fields, our 90 foot bases are pushed to the back of the softball infield and our middle infielders are playing out in the softball outfield. You then look out to the outfield and see the fence has been pushed back beyond a hill that the outfielders now have to navigate while catching fly balls. Then you look toward right field and realize there is a huge metal light pole right where the fielder usually plays and a mattress is wrapped around it so nobody gets killed running for a pop fly (PIC14). And I know you can't see the mattress very well from this picture, but incidentally, it was a better mattress than the ones we slept on. But after all this, you sit back the real beauty of Kibbutz Gezer emerges. You look out beyond left field to see the remains of King Solomon's 3000 year old summer castle. (PIC15)Then you look out past the sunflower patch in centerfield and someone shows you where the MACcabees camped prior to the Channukah revolt against the Syrian-Greeks. Now correct me if I'm wrong, but the field at Gezer brings the phrase "historic ballpark" to a whole new level.
My team, the Ra'anana Express, was one of six teams in the league, each representing different Israeli cities. We were slated to play over 40 games in 7 weeks during the summer. That comes out to be 6 games a week on average, the same as a major league schedule. And, considering each of the 6 teams had small rosters of 20 people, minimal rehabilitation facilities, and no minor league system, from which to pull reserves, it was an ambitious schedule to say the least. You might have noticed that I've only described two fields thus far. If 6 teams are playing games, nearly every day, then that would require how many fields? 3. The third field at Sportek, or the Tek as we called it, was located in a posh, centrally-located Tel Aviv park, which should have been great for marketing purposes (PIC16). This all seems well and good, except for the fact that the field wasn't ready until 1/3 of the season was over because the politicians were fighting about who was going to remove all the dirt after the season(YOUTUBE VID). And because the field obstructed one of the park's precious soccer fields, it took a special call to the Mayor of Tel Aviv by US Ambassador and league commissioner Dan Kurtzer just to get the field quasi-functional for the third week of the season. This delay put teams in an exhausting tailspin trying to catch up on games by playing double-headers in the 90+ degree Israeli sun. The FIELD at Sportek is a story all to itself. The Sportek infield was grade D construction dirt, kind of like the beef you get at Taco Bell. It was not uncommon to find a brick or a piece of rebar in the dirt as you were taking ground balls. And it became common courtesy for us outfielders to pick out a rock or two on our way to our positions. Because the parkkeepers refused to give up one of their soccer goals, it made the dimensions of the field about 330 feet to left, which is normal, 390 to center, also normal and, ehh, 240 to right, essentially the size of a little league field. But to tell you the truth, when it was all said and done, we were simply happy to be playing baseball.
Well, we eventually got some of these kinks worked out, so I'll go ahead and tell you about some of the games. One of the most memorable ones was a game I didn't even play in--it was opening night and the teams that weren't scheduled to play showed up to take part in the fanfare. Over 4000 fans crammed into the Yark and all 120 league players, Jews and non-Jews, Americans, Israelis, Dominicans, Venezuelans, Canadians, Austrailians and a single lonely Japanese guy lined the foul lines to hear Hatikvah sung for the first time at a professional baseball game in Israel. It TRULY was an international league. During the game, I must have signed 200 autographs and for the first time in my life I had A LITTLE bit of sympathy for celebrities who get hounded by the popurattzi. I remember one youngster saying to me, "I love this. It is so much easier getting autographs from IBL players than Major leaguers like Derek Jeter." And while we didn't have any Derek Jeters, I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say that the range of talent in the league was as broad as any league in baseball history. On one end of the spectrum you had some players, most of them Israelis, who wouldn't have made my high school team. BUT it was essential to have them if we were to accomplish our goal of expanding baseball in Israel. And to be fair, some of the Israelis were actually good. Dan Rothem, of the Tel Aviv Lightning was an all-star pitcher, and one of my teammates, Daniel Maddy-Weitzman, will play ball for my alma mater, Haverford this upcoming year. But these were the exceptions to the Israeli ballplayer rule. Then, on the opposite end of the spectrum there were some remarkably talented ballplaers like my Kfar roommate, Greg Raymundo, who had been called up to Major League spring training in years past and Maximo Nelson, who was the third-rated prospect for the Yankees before an immigration scandal jeopardized his career.
And as a sidenote: now would be a good time to mention the slight rule modifications of the IBL: games go 7 innings not 9. Instead of the 7th inning stretch, there is the 5th inning call to minion. All Friday games are played in the morning, usually with a fan who stands up and screams, "hey pitcher hurry up and throw the ball to the plate, it's almost shabbos already." And strangest of all, ties are decided by home run derby not extra innings. The home run derby is when a few batters from each team take pitches thrown gently from their own pitchers and the winner is the team with the most homers. The derby is basically useless for determining the better team, but the league just didn't have enough pitching to sustain extra-inning games.
So one night we were facing the Modi'in Miracle's stud Maximo Nelson and countered with our own pitching ace, another dominican, Esquire Pie. Now Maximo stood about 6 foot 9 inches tall and I was PERSONALLY behind a radar gun when he was clocked throwing 96 mph. On our side, Pie was no slouch either (PIC17). He had the single most devastating pitch in the league: the split-finger circle change-up, which basically looked like the ball disappeared as it was coming at you. This pitch was only possible because Pie had freakishly big hands. On this night, no one was going to touch either pitcher. And both pitchers brought no-hitters into the 4th inning. We somehow strung together a few bloop hits and ended Maximo's bid at his no-hitter, but Pie behind his unhittable pitch recorded the first no hitter in league history. But there was no celebration because we were tied 0-0 after 7 innings, and we were about to have the first game-deciding home run derby in professional baseball history. After our first baseman "Stay Hot" Scott Feller hit 3 homers in the final round, we started jumping up and down to celebrate the UNUSUAL win. But, alas, things got EVEN weirder. As we were leaving the field, the Miracle's coach Art Shamsky (who by the way has a World series ring with the '69 Miracle Mets) filed a protest claiming that "Stay Hot" Scott had used an illegal bat made of artificial wood. We left the field not knowing who had won. Days later, Ambassador Kurtzer awarded us the victory stating that although the bat was technically illegal, it had been ok'ed before the game by the home-plate umpire, so our victory stood. Throughout the summer, this same umpire proved over and over again that his incompetency went far beyond an inability to recognize bats. And what made his situation doubly unfortunate was that he happened to be a German umpire in a largely jewish league. I've decided not to tell you what his nickname was. And that my friends is the story of the SINGLE strangest game I've ever played in.
As we reached the dog days of summer, it became evident that my team the Ra'anana Express was not one of the top teams in the league. Unfortunately, our infield defense was not strong enough to keep up with the top teams three teams. Also our bats were hotter than the Negev Desert one day and colder than the Tel Aviv fruit smoothies the next. But that doesn't mean the on-field experience wasn't enjoyable. As far as personal play goes, I was fortunate enough get hot at the plate early on and become the everyday left fielder. I kept on telling myself, just make it to the all-star break and then you'll have a few days to heal your ankle and your back and get some time off for your arm, which kept on telling me, if you tweak me one more time, it really might be the end. Well, the good news was that my bottle of tylenol and I made it to the all-star break largely unscathed. The bad news was that I had no time to heal because the coaches had done me the increadible honor of selecting me to the all-star team. The all-star game was televised throughout the land, and was, without a doubt, the most talent I've played with in any one game. Tons of fans showed up and we put on a really good show.
Because baseball is a game of statistics and because if I don't lose the modesty for a moment and tell you my stats, then my dad who is sitting in the back of the room definitely would take every opportunity to do so during the oneg. So to spare him this annoyance, here you go: In 40 games I had 38 hits, 5 homers, 9 doubles, hit .330 and was fifth in the league with 35 runs batted in. And to keep with this theme of vanity for just a second, I have another clip that will show you just how much fun we had with each other on the field One of my secret weapons was that I had my cameraman Nat record many of my at-bats in Israel, just as he had done the last 4 years at Haverford. This way I could make mechanical changes during and in-between games. He often decided to add color commentary to avoid boredom(18 VID).
The funny part about the league was, back in the states, fans were keeping up with league statistics more than in Israel. My parents ran into my second grade hebrew teacher who they hadn't seen in 15 years and she immediately recited my current batting average and home run count. Before and during the season, I must have done a dozen interviews for radio and print, including the Chautauquan Daily. Even my blog got picked up by Atlanta's Jewish Times. The league was all over the press in the States, especially when they drafted Sandy Koufax, the most famous Jewish pitcher of all time, with the last pick in the draft. Koufax regrettably declined signing the contract. Then the league asked him to throw out the first pitch opening day, and being the recluse that he is, he declined this as well. BUT UNLIKE THE AMERICANS, the Israelis didn't fully understand what the buzz was about. Unfortunately, although P.R. genius Marty Appel promoted the BEMOSES out of the league in America, he neglected to duplicate this in Israel, where we really needed the press. And it was mostly the American ex-pats living in Israel who became our returning customers. You see, baseball is a game of subtleties. If you don't understand what a defensive shift is, if you don't understand the difference between a curve ball and fast ball, and why you don't always have to apply a tag to the baserunner, if you don't understand these things, the spectator will not derive the same amount of pleasure and the game might seem too slow compared to the two most popular Israeli sports, soccer and BASKETBALL. And the thing is, in America, parents have been teaching their children about baseball for generations. Even if you're not a baseball fan, most American's still know that the Yankees play in New York and the Red Sox play in Boston. This sort of INHERITED GENERATIONAL baseball fascination hasn't reached the middle east yet. It would be kind of like trying to impose democracy in a country where that concept doesn't even exist. But I digress. The question for the future of the IBL becomes whether this American baseball spirit can gain steam in Israel. One reason for hope is that, to some degree, Israel has become a cultural America Jr., following our trends of giant shopping malls, fast food chains, and hollywood movies. So if these trends are already popular, why not baseball too?
As the season started winding down, we ran into some interesting dilemmas, most of which stemmed from the financial burden of administering the league. For one, we were losing a lot of baseballs and wooden bats. And for young Israeli children who barely knew the rules of the game, half the draw was asking us for the remains of broken bats and screaming at us from the bleachers, "Hey you, give me ball." Apparently english manners get lost in translation. Our bat-girl, Tali had acquired a collection of about 40 balls that we asked her to donate back to the cause at the end of the season. Eventually the financial situation became so desperate that the league started doling out a 50 sheckle fine to any player seen throwing balls over the fence to fans. After buying a couple thousand more baseballs, Director of U.S. Operations Martin Berger told us that if we lose these balls, we're done, and the season's over. Equally as desperate was the bat situation. When we got to Israel, we all knew right away that there weren't enough of our breakable wooden bats to last the summer. An average of two bats per player just wasn't going to cut it. Eventually we were forced to share bats. Now sharing a bat for a baseball player is kind of like asking a Jew to share a plate of food at break fast. You JUST don't do it. And god forbid you BROKE someone else's bat!! That would be the equivalent of setting the break fast table on fire. It was getting desperate, but then like manna out of the sky, the league bought replacement bats, purchased at reduced price. That was a glorious day, or so we thought. We were all really excited and we could not believe how light the wood was...so light in fact that every one of those bats shattered or was thrown in the trash by the end of the week. I've never seen bats that were so incapable of receiving contact. In fact, my team broke three of ours in the batting cage before our first game with them. By the end of the season, the only bats remaining were ones that had been shipped from home. Another issue was that the league ran out of money to 1) pay the television station that had been broadcasting our sunday night games and 2) pay the park employees who cut the grass at Sportek. So these workers did what all contract employees do in this situation: they just stopped showing up for work. The same problem also happened to the league physical trainers, but my favorite bald, tatooed, Israeli male therapist/masseuse named Tiger just couldn't turn his back on 120 aching athletes.
Now would be an appropriate time to mention that the primary reason the Dominicans came to Israel was to send money home to their families. And what an eye-openning experience this was for me considering I wasn't destitue and was just some American out of college having a good time. The Dominicans really needed the money and when the league defaulted on player salaries, it was a huge issue for the Dominicans. Twice during the season, we threatened to strike until we were paid. This is probably the closest I will ever get to begin part of a socialist workers revolt. The first time our labor union convened at the Kfar behind Bet Shemesh player Alan Gardner who also happened to be a lawyer. Some of us carried camcorders to document the historic moment. Commissioner/Ambassador Kurtzer showed up and basically threatened to end the season unless we put on our uniforms. Once we figured out that the IBL hadn't exactly stiffed us, but more or less, just failed to communicate to us, their payment plan, we laced up our cleats and were back to being good soldiers. But the second time we threatened to strike, it really was plain and simply that the league didn't have the cash. At this point, Chief Operating Officer Martin Berger came down to the D.R., the spot where the Dominicans played their afternoon dominos, and basically begged them not to strike, promising payment as soon as possible.
But even with these problems in mind, the players never failed to realize just how fantastic an experience they were having. And just to illustrate this: by the end of the season, almost every player told the league they would have interest in coming back for season 2. At the end, we even had an awards ceremony to lampoon what a ridiculous and hectic summer it was. It was called the Shnitzel awards, and real, cold chicken cutlets were handed out like Oscars or Grammys. If I ever caught myself complaining about the league's growing pains, I would say to myself, this league has allowed me to explore ISRAEL. It gave me the mystical opportunity to visit Masada and Jerusalem. It let me connect to a people with whom I share thousands of years of history. The league let me continue the baseball dream for yet another season. And when baseball takes off in Israel, I can tell my grandchildren that I was there in the beginning, giving pointers to little kibbutznicks before games.
In closing, did the first season of the IBL advance U.S.-Israeli relations? No. Not at all. Did the IBL ease some of the tensions in the Arab-Israeli conflict? Not even close. But, the IBL did ultimately do what it had set out to do: offer a connection between American and Israeli culture. The message of the IBL was this: baseball is America's game and we want to share it with you. The previous two summers in Israel had been engulfed in violence. But, during the summer of '07, the IBL tried to symoblize the opposite: a fun, peaceful respite from the hustle and bustle of daily Israeli life. Maybe, just maybe, baseball can be an avenue where little Jewish and Muslim children can learn a new sport together, leaving all other baggage at the door. Because, after all, baseball is landing in the middle east with an entirely clean slate. And maybe it would useful to see the IBL in the same light as we see Israelf: a project with a tumultuous beginning that has innumerable reasons for us to support it. So, we've arrived at the 60th birthday of Israel and what a glorious anniversary it is. And now you're wondering how on earth you're going to show your solidarity this year. Well, I have an idea. Instead of donating a tree (and as a sidenote you should know that Israel is the only country in the world that has more trees now than it did 60 years ago?!), so instead of donating a tree, buy a plane ticket, and go to Tel Aviv to catch a ball game and a kosher dog. The plan is for games to start in a couple of weeks and I hear there are still some good seats available. Thank you.
I would like to dedicate this speech to the memory of my step-grandfather Joe Dechert. Joe sold newspapers for pennies during the Great Depression, fought on a battleship in the Southeast Pacific during World War II and then was a civil servant for over 40 years. Joe was a Catholic who never missed mass and went on pilgrimages to as far as Portugal and Israel. I never caught him without a book, which subsequently gave him the widest range of historical knowledge of any human I've ever spoken to. He had a kind, gentle soul and a contagious laugh. Even after Alzheimer's set in, he would still talk about how much he enjoyed the Chautauqua symphonies and two-scoop of chocolate ice cream from the Refectory. Joe was the absolute epitome of the Greatest Generation and also the spirit of Chautauqua. I want to close by quoting my favorite author of his generation, John Steinbeck, whose words show how much he will be missed, "it is so much darker when a light goes out, then it would have been if it had never shone."
Friday, January 4, 2008
It’s been a while since I wrote one of these, maybe because my life is less interesting than that of a professional baseball player in a far-off land. Not everyone can maintain superstardom forever. As crazy and hectic as
Oh, the great outdoors! One thing I’ve been doing out here is spending time on an organic farm harvesting vegetables. The farm is owned by a young entrepreneurial friend of ours who sells locally to restaurants and loves having company while picking everything from broccoli to cabbage to turnips. My mom might faint if she knew I’ve grown a taste for raw veggies picked right off the stem. Mother, now you know. If you go to this farm with the wind blowing life into these veggies I swear you feel like you’re in a Van Gogh and the rest of the crazy hectic world just drifts away. And the dorkdom continues.
Running is another outdoor activity I’ve been pursuing. I know. I know—I’m kind of a hypocrite. You may have witnessed a former self saying things like, “a runner’s pleasure is a true athlete’s punishment,” and “go grab a ball you wannabees.” I’ll stick to my guns by saying that running still does not pass the sport litmus test: anything developed strictly as a survival mechanism cannot be considered a true sport (not running, fishing, hunting, swimming, and absolutely not the biathlon). But nevertheless, running is a great activity for many reasons. The single worst part about team sports is blame. With running (unlike baseball) there’s no coach that called the wrong play or teammate that couldn’t hold his weight. With running, it’s your pair of legs; and the watch doesn’t lie. There’s also the endorphin rush. Primarily, I’ve been running over this sweet new bridge that connects
I dedicated my last run to thinking about the Wire, critically known as the greatest show ever written for television. If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor: go to the library and rent season one. It unfolds like a book, so give it a few episodes to develop. It will give you a new lens on the inner-city, drug trafficking and politics. It’s truly a remarkable feat. One great thing about being free from the (yes I’m going to say it) burden of scholastic endeavors is that it’s allowed me to catch up on books and movies I’ve been meaning to explore. Here’s the creme de la crème: Tuesday’s with Morrie (how did it take me this long to read?), V for Vendetta (viva la revolution), No Direction Home the Dylan/Scorsese documentary (you know you’re a good poet if you can make Ginsberg cry), Jews, God and History (man, we’re awesome), and again, The Wire.
It’s kind of crazy but just as I started watching the fourth season of the Wire, which deals with the ills of inner-city youth culture my paperwork came through allowing me to start tutoring middle school math. When that school bell rang for the first time it was almost like I was experiencing the Wire firsthand. I remember how disgusting middle school was and then sprinkle on some low socioeconomic status and I can’t imagine how hard it must be for some of those kids. If anyone has any tips on teaching algebra, for the love of God, call me.
What else is there “to whereabout” about? For one, my guitar is sounding less and less like the ritual slaughter of a young calf. And I suppose there’s my job as a valet at the hideously fancy Charleston Place Hotel. In a nutshell, the job gives me the opportunity to be where I want to be and do what I want to do. Also there are certain perks to the job: I’ve driven every sweet car known to man, so if you want my (literally) professional opinion: Lexus has the smoothest ride. BMW is the ultimate power sports car. Daimler Chrysler has ruined Mercedez. Jaguars look great and drive like poo. Masaratis are Italian Buicks. Bentley’s are classy but say ‘pretentiousness’ and Ferrarias and Porsches purr like kittens. My favorite is my buddy Alan’s 5-speed Jetta that’s been refitted to run on vegetable oil. Talk about bang for your buck. Try $0/gallon, son. All he does is goes to McDonald’s and asks for their veggie oil waste. Now that’s reducing your carbon footprint!
A toute a l'heure,
Tuesday, August 28, 2007
Having been home for 48 hours, I've already delighted in some of the luxuries that make up American culture: last night I slept with my feet fully on the mattress. I had four free refills at a restaurant. This morning I took the car out of the garage and drove around, just drove around. I saw a bottle of air freshener sitting on the windowsill and decided to read the label—directions, purpose, storage and disposal instructions, precautionary warnings and potential hazards. Do you want to know why I did this? Because I could. Because I could. Ain’t English grand? Anyway, I promised you a final Israeli update, so here we go.
On August 16th, the Ra’anana Express train came to a grinding halt in the first round of the playoffs against the Natanya Tigers. We faced Columbian ex-minor leaguer Raphael Rojano who’d had arm problems for most of the season. Let’s just say he didn’t have arm problems come playoff time—a fastball around 90, a sharp slider, and a change-up that he saved for special occasions. Our best chance came in the last inning when we benefited from one of the worst judgment calls (see: oxymoron) I’ve ever seen. You’d think the officiating would have improved over the season…but no. Tiger center fielder Josh Doane caught a line-drive around his shins and our resident German ump (I won’t tell you his nickname) decided that he hadn’t caught the ball, but trapped it. Our batter, Donny “Boom-Boom” Mott Jr. was so sure that the ball had been caught he’d already retreated back to our dugout. Only after the Natanya coach started yelling at the ump did Donny realize the call and scamper to first base. U.S. Ambassador and league commissioner Dan Kurtzer took the field and overruled saying Boom-Boom had left the base path, thus he was out. Now there’s a true diplomat: he got his goal and managed to save face for the umpiring crew on a technicality. Sanity was restored and the Tigers quietly ended the inning, game, and season for the Ra’anana (Banana) Express.
I have no regrets about the season. We tried our best and came up a bit short. You can’t win ‘em all. And as our head coach Shaun Smith likes to say [insert Aussie accent], “It’s all about the process.” My college coach used to say the same thing and they’re absolutely right. What you get out of the path is just as valuable as what awaits you at the end. After putting in the work and seeking the counsel of some very smart baseball men over my lifetime, I feel like I’ve fulfilled whatever baseball potential was hiding inside and for this I am deeply indebted to everyone that’s joined me on this path.
The season having come to a close, I decided to do two things: exercise my vegetative state on the beach and travel a bit. The biggest change to report from the beach front is the sheer number of French tourists. Several factors contribute to this: firstly, during the month of August, basically every French person goes on vacation. Long live the French and their work ethic. Secondly, last summer nobody vacationed in
So let me tell you about Eilat and
The reason I went down to Eilat in the first place was to access
Being back in the states, I’m finally starting to realize what a fantastic journey this has been. It seems like yesterday that I was ordering my first authentic falafel on pita and now I have to settle for the cheap imitations we have here in the
Wednesday, August 15, 2007
I know I've said this before but this league is unlike any other than I've experienced. Can you imagine a bunch of rough-and-tumble, tobacco-chewing baseball players taking pre-game to techno music blaring in the background? And then there's all the non-Jews who now sing Hatikvah, the Israeli National Anthem, before each game. One of my non-Jewish teammates went so far as to tattoo "baseball" in Hebrew letters across his arm. Perhaps the greatest difference is the fact that we play games six days a week. Of course, staying healthy is an issue, but the schedule has several benefits. For one, if you lose or just have a bad game, there's no time to whine or psych yourself out because you must immediately start preparing for the next game. And on the other hand, every day games allow the players to get into a very regular rhythm. This is also the first league I've ever played in where I know my competitors intimately. As an outfielder, you can talk smack to your buddy on second base like, "you better not run home on a base hit if you're smart." From the opposing dugout you hear things like, "if you get another hit, you're buying dinner tonight." While this closeness works most of the time, sometimes it backfires--like the time we almost got into a melee over a hit batsman and then had to share the bus back home. What would the bus driver have thought if he looked in the rear-view mirror to see people being chucked over the seats and punches being thrown?
As the dog-days of summer roll on, tension and frustration with self and league have become commonplace. A good example of said frustration may be viewed here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rHb2fVcKHkg . Pay special attention to the pitcher and also see if you can pick me out. The umpires have received the brunt of the players' frustration. And while these umpires are by far the worst I've ever seen in my life, I admire their perseverance, because if I was as bad as them, I would have quit a long time ago.
Knock on wood, the season is ending pretty well for me. For one, my limbs are all in tact--mainly because of the shiatsu massages I've been receiving from Tiger, the league physio(therapist). He calls me "magic carpet". Take from that what you will. My Jewish genes are inescapable. On the field, I seem to have found my happy place at the plate, something about breathing out of my eyelids and cutting down on strikeouts because they're fascist. I take it one game at a time and let my teammates handle the rest (note: if you haven't seen the movie Bull Durham, do).
As my time in Israel draws to a close, I've spent countless hours contemplating what I've learned and how I've grown. After spending so much time in this beautiful country, I'd like to think that I'll take a little bit of Israel with me when I go. That's why I came up with this list:
You know you've spent two months in Israel when....
...you consider 90 degrees a cold front.
...you start saying things like, "the 5.10 sheckel bus ride will get us back to the green village by 23:00."
...you consider Domino's a gourmet pizza option.
...you are no longer phased by the 7-minute mid-movie smoke break.
...you urinate wherever it's convenient.
...you feel cheated if you don't stay out until 6 a.m.
...you hear a Cindy Lauper techno remix and don't change the radio station.
...you say to yourself, "you know what, the male speedo really isn't that bad."
...you say to yourself, "I think I could survive on sunflower seeds and chick peas alone, and furthermore, more than one ice cube is really unnecessary."
Sunday, August 5, 2007
Where to begin? Let’s begin with Jerusalem a.k.a. J-Town a.k.a. J-Roo. I’ve now been to
During this trip I visited the Kotel—the Western Wall. Here are a few little known facts: the Western Wall was actually a retaining wall for the now destroyed temple, but Western Retaining Wall doesn’t sound quite as snazzy. Also, the picture hanging above your bubie’s mantle shows only a portion of this iconic wall. What you don’t see is an indoor cave-like section where the wall extends. Inside the tunnel is a vast collection of torahs and prayer hot spots. Visiting the wall is a crazy experience. It’s not every day you see religious men engaged in prayer with army officers strapped with rifles marching behind them. Everyone at the Kotel needs a yarmulke (head covering), so if you left yours at home, the fine people at the Kotel provide cardboard hats, free of charge. Also, beggars run rampant at the wall. What a brilliant business move. How can you say no the needy when you’re at one of the most religious places in the world?
Trip #2 to
My most recent trip to
Among the many blessings I’ve had during this trip, I was honored to be named an IBL All-Star. The collection of players chosen for the game is, without question, the finest group of players I’ve ever been associated with and I’m just lucky to be able to mention my name in the same breath as them. The game itself was an absolute blast and I took some pretty sweet video recordings that I’ll cherish forever. Unfortunately, we lost a nail-biter, 6-5, and I got stranded on first base as the potential tying run after my Ra’anana teammate Matt Castillo hit a screaming line-drive to right field to end the inning. But, all in all, I think we gave the fans a great game.
One benefit of All-Star weekend is the off-time. As mentioned before, a few of us took this opportunity to see the
Anyway, for me
We stayed up all night driving to
Over and Out, na-noo na-noo.
Monday, July 30, 2007
2) The concept of standing in line hasn't reached Israel yet. They believe in "the swarm". If you don't put up elbows and perhaps give the occasional jab, you will lose your place in line. The only time I didn't have a problem was when I was getting on a bus carrying my baseball bat.
I also promised some of you I would describe one of the absolute craziest baseball fields I've ever experienced. For starters, this field is on Kibbutz Gezer—an old socialist agricultural community close to Jerusalem. If that isn't enough, the remains of Solomon's house are beyond left field. That's King Solomon. After you're done reading this sentence I want you to close your eyes and imagine a baseball field in Cuba or Nicaragua. That's about what Gezer field is like. Because it was an old softball field, the fences had to be pushed back causing all sorts of field damage. In the middle of right field there is an old light pole with a mattress wrapped around it so nobody will get hurt. We were thinking about stealing the mattress because it is undoubtedly nicer than the ones we sleep on. The bleachers and "dugouts" are covered by makeshift tarp awnings. Both dugouts are next to each other like in hockey (let's hope there's not a fight). The dirt in the infield is like quicksand and again because it is an old softball field the bases can be found in shallow outfield. It kind of feels like summer camp when we play there.
Awaiting you next time: Yarooshala'im shel zahav (Golden Jerusalem) and much much more
Benyamin Menachem-Mendel Field
Saturday, July 28, 2007
Let’s start today’s episode with a few cultural lessons. Lesson number one: it might be unwise for Israelis to wear shirts with English slogans. Among countless examples, here is my favorite: “I [heart] me.” Someone please explain. Lesson number two: when traveling, extract 5.10 sheckles before getting on the bus. If you don’t, here’s what happens: first the bus driver shuts the door upon your unsuspecting body. Then, taking no pity, the driver (who looks like he’s been driving the same loop for 36 hours) hits the gas well before you have reached your seat. If you are not in full athletic position, you get slammed into fiberglass while digging for coins. The driver proceeds to take hairpin turns at 110 kilos per hour while everyone sits in silence because this is completely normal. Apparently
Next on the agenda is baseball. The game I am about to describe is just as memorable as any I’ve ever played in. When the Ra’anana Express faced off against the Modi’in Miracle, the scouting reports pointed toward a pitching duel. It was Dominican versus Dominican and at this point the hitters had not been taking batting practice at all (see previous blog). Our ace, Esquire Pie a.k.a. The Attorney General threw the first no-hitter in league history. Somehow in the top of the seventh after walking three batters and going down 3-0 to the next guy he escaped by throwing two strikes and forcing the batter to roll over on a ball to third base. Amazing. The Miracle’s ace, Ol’ Maximo, had surrendered even fewer base runners and scattered only two hits. This game ended regulation in a 0-0 tie, but it did not go into extra-innings per se. You see, in the IBL, we decide ties by means of the home run derby and this was the first one in league history. After our derby batters outswung the Miracles’, we thought we’d won, but controversy was in the air. Supposedly, our first baseman, Scott Feller, had used a bat made of composite wood—a big no-no. However, since the umpire has previously checked the bat and found no problems, we were awarded the victory after all. As a side note, the bat was confiscated and will be placed in the IBL hall of fame (whenever it gets built).
On a personal note, the change from metal to wood bats has been huge. I’ve hit a few balls that would have been doubles (or home runs) with metal but were caught on the warning track in this wood bat league. It’s amazing how much the batters are able to “cheat” using metal bats. Using wood, your weaknesses are amplified and you are forced to become a better hitter as a result (hopefully). Being the purest that I am, I’d change all youth baseball to wood if I could. But because Louisville Slugger and
Lately, I’ve been starting to see the ball better. I’m three for my last five including a home run. Baseball is an amazing game because it’s all about the process. Baseball is one of those things that doesn’t lend itself to immediate gratification. In baseball it takes days, weeks, months, perhaps years to reap the fruits of one’s labor. Furthermore, once one reaches a certain level of expertise, it opens the door to new layers of growth. Many of you I’m sure have experienced this in other realms of life. Over the last year + I’ve often said to myself I wish I could be a sophomore in high school again knowing then what I know now. But obviously this is not how it works and paths often become more meaningful in retrospect. Enough fluffy stuff. Someone pray to the baseball gods that I continue hitting the ball.
Off the field, I’ve been doing a fair amount of site-seeing. When the fam was here (Jason on birthright and the ‘rents touring the country and watching baseball), we explored the ancient city of
Peace in the Middle East
Peace in the Middle East