What is it with Jews and baseball? Perhaps the attraction is so strong because in the days of tenement housing and xenophobic neighbors in early 20th century America, throwing in their lot with a team and going to the ballpark with thousands of their fellow citizens helped newly arrived Jews feel more American.
As renowned novelist Philip Roth, author of The Great American Novel, a book about a fictional American baseball league, put it in an essay published in The New York Times on opening day in 1973: for Jews, “Baseball was a kind of secular church that reached into every class and region of the nation and bound millions upon millions of us together… Baseball made me understand what patriotism was about, at its best.”
Or perhaps the reason is even more subconscious. Maybe it’s because baseball, like Zionism, is about coming home.
Whatever the reason, Jews have loved the game with such a fervor that a group of immigrants in 1980 founded the IAB, the Israel Association of Baseball, which now consists of over a thousand players in leagues all over the country.
The IAB was also instrumental in bringing a delegation of 10 Jewish baseball players from the United States to visit Israel in January. Jeff Aeder, a prominent figure in the Chicago real-estate market and founder of the Jewish Baseball Museum, helped to fund the trip, and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson lent one of his private planes to fly the group over.
But these weren’t just any Jewish baseball players. They are representatives of Team Israel, the 28-person squad that will be representing the Jewish State in the World Baseball Classic, an international tournament that begins on March 6 in Seoul, South Korea.
Israel became eligible to play in the 16-team tournament by first beating Great Britain and Brazil in the qualifying round which took place in Brooklyn in September, before blowing out Great Britain 9-1 in their rematch and final game. Israel will take on South Korea in the first game of the WBC on Monday.
When the group was touring the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and eating hummus at Abu Shukri in Jerusalem’s Old City, The Jerusalem Post Magazine caught up with them for their thoughts on their chances in the tournament, Sandy Koufax, and whether baseball can get off the ground in Israel.
IKE DAVIS, a first baseman who most recently played for the New York Yankees and signed a contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers during the offseason, towered above the rest of the group at nearly six feet four inches (193 cm.) tall.
For Davis, baseball is a family business.
His father, Ron, was a relief pitcher for 11 years playing for five teams. Ike and Ron are the 197th father-son combination that has played in the major leagues.
Working his way around a mouth full of tobacco, Davis spoke to the Magazine about his impressions of Israel: “Living in the US, you think that everyone hates everybody. You feel like it’s a dangerous place. But when you come here, you see Christians, Jews, Muslims in Jerusalem almost kind of getting along. It’s kind of weird to think about but it’s true. And it’s really good to see that. I wish it could be like that more around the world,” he said.
Earlier in the week, the group broke ground for a baseball field in Beit Shemesh. Davis said that he was excited for Israeli kids to glean the same life lessons from the sport that he and his teammates have.
“Baseball is a great life building tool: how to deal with failure, and teamwork, and all these things that you get out of playing a game that’s really tough,” he said. “Look at my job: You’re a Hall of Famer if you fail seven out of 10 times.
You’re one of the best players ever. You know how hard that is?!… So it’s almost like we’re trying to bring here what we hold dear for kids to experience the same kinds of things as we did through baseball.”
Ryan Lavarnway, one of the team’s catchers who most recently played in the major leagues for the Atlanta Braves, and who signed a minor league contract with the Oakland Athletics in November, echoed Davis’s sentiment. “I hope [kids start playing here],” Lavarnway said. “I love the game of baseball, and I know what it’s done for my personal development and the amazing things it’s done for me in my life, so I would love to share that with more and more people.”
Cody Decker, who plays first base, third base, outfield and was just signed as a catcher for the Milwaukee Brewers organization, was once called by renowned ESPN anchor Peter Gammons “my new favorite person,” after Decker produced a viral video in which he pranked one of his teammates by convincing him over the course of months that a pitcher on their team was deaf. He is the team’s jokester, with the charisma and wit of an actor – perhaps a remnant of his childhood theater classes.
Decker is also optimistic for the future of baseball in Israel, but warned that it wouldn’t be a change that would happen overnight. “Something like that is a slow process,” he said. “You get a team like us and you do well, and people get on board with it, they get behind it, and now you start creating more interest in the game. It’s almost one of those things that takes 20 years… Kids now will start picking up a bat more and playing more, and by the time they’re 15 maybe they’ve got some real talent.
I’m very optimistic about it.”
But he also thought that the effect of popularizing baseball in the country has a bigger impact than just on the Jewish communities in the United States and Israel; he believes it’s beneficial for the game itself: “It’s not just good for everyone here, it’s good for baseball. Adding a whole new talent pool to a game is a big thing… Baseball’s just a stupid game, but it does have a way of uniting people – it unites cities, it unites enemies to become best friends, but it’s just one of those things that has the power to do amazing [work].”
FOR NEARLY all of the players, it was their first time in the country. Some have family here and some had traveled here for bar mitzvas or for funerals when they were very young.
“I didn’t have preconceived notions – I didn’t know what to expect,” said Lavarnway. Or as Decker put it: “I went in with a borderline blank canvas. I knew it was going to be beautiful, but I didn’t expect it to be so modern. It’s exceedingly picturesque.”
It was Davis’s first time in Israel as well – not that he didn’t want to come earlier, but being a baseball player means that he wasn’t able to take a week or two off to visit the Holy Land; a Birthright trip just wasn’t in the cards.
“When you’re playing sports, missing 10 or 12 days is pretty hard to do when you’re playing as intensely as we were,” he said.
Asked how he found Israel now that he’s finally made it here, rounding a corner in the Jewish Quarter, he responded: “It’s a lot cleaner and more beautiful than I thought it would be… I expected it to be more ruin-y and older… but it’s still so pretty and clean, and that was really surprising.”
It was the same story for Decker: “I got offered to do Birthright when I was in high school, and I was excited to do it, but then during the school year I was playing baseball, and at the time I was also in the theater. Then you get into the off-season – summer break, I had to go play baseball for multiple teams, and that’s when college recruiting was going on and possibly getting drafted was going on, so I couldn’t take a break. All my vacations growing up were never fun vacations. They were baseball vacations.”
But he said that having to wait for what he called his “baseball Birthright” made it even more special. “To be able to see what we’re playing for is amazing,” he said. “We did the Western Wall yesterday, it was one of the most powerful things I’ve ever done.”
WHEN YOU think of Jews and baseball, you think of Sandy Koufax, and when you think of Koufax, you think of his dilemma.
In 1965, Koufax was scheduled to pitch for the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 1 of the World Series. But he decided to sit out because it fell on Yom Kippur. Koufax wasn’t observant, but his decision was championed by Jews the world over, and due to his pitching heroics in Games 2, 5 and 7, the Dodgers won the series anyway.
However, the players who spoke with the Magazine said that they would play if they were in Koufax’s cleats.
Davis said that he thought sitting out wouldn’t be a genuine gesture. “I haven’t been a really religious person [even during] the holidays… I don’t follow religious guidelines, so I would feel [like I was] misrepresenting me as a person by not playing. Honestly, a lot of people would want me to… but I would feel like I was doing it untruthfully,” he said.
Davis went on to rave about being able once to spend some time with Koufax: “It was awesome,” Davis gushed. “He’s a really nice guy. He was really genuine and easy to talk to, and I was in awe just because he's one of the best players of all time… He’s one of the ones who started [the idea] that Jewish people can be really good athletes.”
Decker, whose family celebrated the High Holy Days and Hanukka, never had a bar mitzva because he was given the choice of Hebrew school with his friends on Thursdays or baseball practice, and chose the sport that would later provide him with a career. Decker was a bit more reticent about his answer, but even so, decided he would have to take the field.
“Part of me has to say yes, part of me has to say no. But I’ve worked my whole life to play in the World Series… I’ve played with broken bones, torn ligaments, I gotta play… I love playing,” he said.
ISRAEL HEADS into the next round of the World Baseball Classic as a very heavy underdog, against teams that have established baseball programs in their countries. Even if they are able to make it into the next round, they will have to face baseball powerhouses like Japan and Cuba.
All that said, the team is optimistic.
Decker said that he liked their chances of winning during the first round “a lot.
This is a team that can play. Everybody one through nine can play. We have bigleague guys, minor-league guys, some independent-league guys… Pitchers can get outs, every hitter can hit. Every hitter one through nine can change the game with one swing of the bat.” And he acknowledged that while they might be the most impressive group of names on paper, it’s not always about that: “A tournament like this, it’s like [Major League] baseball playoffs. Whoever is hot at that time is the team that’s gonna win. It’s not necessarily the best team.”
Lavarnway echoed Decker’s sentiment: “I’ve never participated in an international tournament of this size before, so I don’t know what to expect, but I certainly know that we have a good team and a great group of guys, so I like our chances.”
The next round of games will see a dark horse of a group representing the Jewish state take the field against formidable foes. But stop me if you’ve heard that one before.