Ten-year-old Eitan Weiner is counting the days until the baseball season begins on Friday, September 23 in the Sharon region. He belongs to the Juvenile division Ra'anana Renegades (for 10 to 12 year-olds) and last year he was part of the Minors (for ages eight to 10). Eitan is one of approximately 1,000 children and youngsters most of Anglo origin who take part in Israel Association of Baseball (IAB) Youth Baseball in Israel each year.
Other youth divisions within the Regional Leagues are Cadets (12-14) and Juniors (15-18). Adults belong to the Senior League and their ages range from 18 to 30-plus, with the eldest being in their mid-50s. There are presently two Senior leagues, comprising a total of 10 teams.
Eitan's father, Jeff Weiner, a Petah Tikva resident originally from Philadephia, has been coaching his son "informally" since his eighth birthday and admits that seeing the boy on the field is "a dream." Weiner attributes a recent deepening of his son's interest in the game to the summer of 2004, when they took a trip to the US.
"It was in summer 2004 that Eitan developed a strong affinity for the game and its magic," says Weiner. "I took him to a Phillies game in Philadelphia and he was enraptured." It was an eventful game and Eitan witnessed different types of play which his father patiently explained to him.
"He even saw a triple play. That's rare. It was a game with a bit of everything," says Weiner, who still remembers the first time he himself picked up a bat, "at the age of eight at Camp Masad in the US." Another memory was created for Weiner when Eitan picked up his father's worn out baseball mitt and slipped his little hand inside it, saying: "Bring it on, Abba!" At that moment, Weiner decided to sign his son up for Youth Baseball.
"He loves it," says Weiner, "the sport, the uniform, the thrill of being on a team. "
The highlight of last year's season for this father and son was the All Star game at Kraft Stadium in Jerusalem during Hannuka, which is when the inter-regional tournaments are held.
Baseball is much more than "popular culture," says Weiner. "It transports you to another place. You get away from all the nonsense, from all the stress of everyday life. You go into a beautiful world. It takes me back to my childhood, to that magic. I love to see my son's interest in the game. In a sense I feel that I live on through it."
This sense of a father's love of the game seeping through to the next generation is also true for 18-year-old Itzik Levi, son of Mel, the Sharon regional director of Youth Baseball. Itzik feels that to "have a sport" is an important part of the development of a young man.
"Baseball has always had a big influence on my life," says Itzik, who is also goali for the Hapo'el Ra'anana youth team. "I always played, it's just 'been there.' I have had a lot of opportunities to play here in Israel."
These opportunities are available thanks to dedicated individuals such as his father, who have made a point of fighting for the future of a sport they consider to be much more than a game.
Mel Levi defines the game as a team sport composed of discipline, concentration and respect. He compares it to soccer, in terms of the far greater respect accorded the umpire in baseball.
"Our goal is to teach sports and sportsmanship," he says. "There is value in sports and teamwork and working together. Playing on a team requires discipline. You don't see the haranguing of umpires that you see in soccer."
"It has no room for physical violence and is also graceful," says Weiner.
"It has a certain rhythm, slower than other ball games, but not too slow; it takes strategy but also skill; you need coordination but also brains," says Haim Katz, vice president of the Israeli Association of Baseball.
"It may seem to the casual observer that a lot of the time most of the players are not involved, because only one is batting," says Weiner, "but the truth is that they all have to be prepared for every eventuality."
Katz says there is no better sport to bring Anglo and Israeli Jewish youth together than baseball. "When you have a common 'language,' you build a bond," he says. He noticed this particularly during the Maccabiah, where he became aware of "a camaraderie among the parents, a family atmosphere shared by Canadian, American and Israeli families."
"Playing baseball in Israel helps with absorption," says Levi. "You feel the connection with Americans, but it is also becoming part of Israeli culture."
Katz recalls such Jewish baseball giants and household names as Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax, calling baseball "the most Jewish sport in America." In fact he says, it was adopted by all immigrants, and connections with it have historically assisted in their integration into American society.
"They would learn the game, learn to talk about it, root for a team in a city, identify with the city, with the culture, it was a passport and the sport itself has a charm that other sports do not have as much," says Katz.
Israel Association of Baseball
The creation of the non-profit Israel Association of Baseball (IAB) in December 1986 formally recognized the presence of baseball in Israel, which had begun to be a force to be reckoned with in the early 80s. It is dedicated to the promotion and development of baseball in this country, creating an infrastructure by teaching it to the youth.
The IAB is a member of The Israel Olympic Committee, The Confederation of European Baseball (CEB) and The International Baseball Federation (IBAF) and recognized by The Israel Sports Authority.
Although the League activities stretching from September to June are the main thing, says Katz, baseball "clinics" are also an important part of the whole. Clinics are held whenever the opportunity arises, says Katz.
During the Maccabiah Norman Ringold, formerly the baseball coach at the Bronx High School for 30 years and now coach at Yehsiva University held a series of clinics. In October a group of baseball instructors from the US will be conducting clinics in the Sharon area.
There are two kinds of clinics, explains Katz, those for coaches to learn how to teach baseball and those for "kids."
There are also the Baseball Peace Clinics, now in their third year, sponsored by the Peres Center for Peace, the IAB and the Yarkon Sports Complex which bring together Muslim, Christian and Jewish youth. Plans are going ahead to put together a Jewish-Arab team of youth from Tel Aviv to participate in the League.
Baseball fields come in two sizes, explains Katz. There are the smaller fields which are used for softball and for younger kids and then there are the "regulation size" fields for ages 13-15 and up.
Presently, says Katz, there are only two regulation-size baseball fields in Israel, these are the Ra'anana field and the first "field of dreams" in the Middle East, the Yarkon Sports Complex at the Baptist Village. The Yarkon has night lighting, dugouts, fences, stands, a batting cage, pitching machines, scoreboards, bathrooms and a kiosk selling hot dogs, just like in the "old country."
In addition to local tournaments between the teams, there are also opportunities for players who join national squads, to take part in international tournaments. Israel's Cadet and Junior National squads have competed in festive international tournaments in Italy, and in their first-ever appearance in an adult baseball tournament, the Seniors in Team Israel won against Finland, Hungary and Switzerland. These victories were due to players Dan Rotem and Shuki Friedman who had grown up playing baseball in the Sportek in Tel Aviv and are now studying in the US on baseball scholarships.
The practices and games take place on Fridays. For more information contact Sharon Regional Director Mel Levi, 0522 993 534, (09) 742 0111; Haim Katz (Tel Aviv) 0544 331 429, (03) 699 3148; Bruce Maddy-Weizman (Ra'anana), 0522 955 693, (09) 774 9057; David Sommer (Netanya), 0528 372 468; Ira Slomovitz (Kfar Saba) 0545 330 230, (09) 767 6707; Leon Klarfeld (Zofit) 0544 668 860; Sam Pelter 0522 224 767, (09) 748 1191, Jerusalem/Efrat Regional Director Ellie Render, 0545 461 011, (02) 672 7974; Shefla Regional Director, Jay Zauder (08) 979 0550
The Jerusalem region is seeking coaches, please contact Ellie Render, 0545 461 011, (02) 672 7974
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