If you see a man with a white beard and a red baseball with an iconic wishbone “C” logo in Jerusalem, it most likely is David Friedman, a 62-year-old history lecturer who made aliya with his family more than three decades ago.
While people wearing baseball caps are not uncommon in the capital, Friedman’s work in Major League Baseball as an international scout for the National League’s Cincinnati Reds is definitely not typical.
Friedman’s work for the American baseball team has taken him around the globe – to Taiwan, Ireland, South Africa and most recently, Uganda.
“I’m pretty sure that I’m the only international scout for Major League Baseball in Israel,” Friedman told The Jerusalem Post
in a recent interview.
“I’m not even from Cincinnati and I’ve never even been to the Cincinnati Reds ballpark,” added Friedman, who has been a baseball coach for 24 years and a scout for the Reds for the past three years. He has been involved with the Israeli baseball scene for 22 years, serving as a board member for the Israel Association of Baseball and a four-time Israel national team coach.
So how did this veteran coach from Givat Ze’ev become an international scout for an Ohio baseball franchise? While Friedman was living in the United States coaching high school and college baseball, he made a friend who eventually went to work for the Cincinnati Reds. At the 2013 Maccabiah Games, Friedman had an idea. There were two baseball players taking part in the Maccabiah baseball games that looked like they had considerable talent.
He asked his friend if he would be interested in hearing about two particular baseball players playing at the Maccabiah.
“My friend was interested, so I wrote to him about these two players, and then thought, what the heck? I’ll just write to the front office of the Cincinnati Reds and tell them about these players directly.”
Friedman sent in his report, but didn’t hear anything. Two months later, however, he got a letter relating that the operators of the front office for the Cincinnati Reds were impressed with Friedman’s talent evaluations.
“They asked me if I’d like to be part of the team’s international scouting staff. I thought someone must be playing a joke on me,” said Friedman with a big smile.
“That’s how it started – it’s truly a fluke the way things worked out.
“I feel like I’m living a childhood dream,” said Friedman, who grew up in Minnesota playing baseball through high school. He taught his two sons to play baseball, too.
The Cincinnati Reds officially designated Friedman’s scouting region to be Europe, the Middle East and Africa, although he has scouted in other countries outside those regions as well.
As an international scout, the Reds cover Friedman’s travel and lodging expenses. If he is able to get an international player signed onto the team, he explained to the Magazine, he gets a certain percentage of the player’s contract.
Scouting involves teamwork as well.
When Friedman sees a player with potential, whether in Israel or abroad, he contacts fellow scouts in Europe and keeps them informed about that particular player’s performance.
“I also do video analysis for the Reds. For example, if there’s a prospect in Europe, a fellow scout will send me video footage and ask me what I think. The international scouts are in contact a lot via email.”
While Friedman has recommended players, he hasn’t gotten a player signed – yet.
IN EARLY January, he spent a week looking for baseball talent in Uganda. He spent a few days sitting in the summer Uganda sun on a small ridge overlooking three makeshift baseball fields to watch 25 students, aged 14 to 18. There were no benches to sit on, no bleachers, only grass and sand, recalled Friedman, who was scouting for talent together with colleague and international scout, Alper Bozkurt of Germany.
Friedman had scouted seven Ugandan baseball players the previous month in Cape Town, South Africa.
“My organization wants to keep an eye out on the development of these young men, in the hopes of finding the diamonds in the rough,” he said.
“I had never experienced anything like Uganda before,” Friedman added.
“The kids there are playing baseball in 100-degree [37°C] heat for a good five to six hours with absolutely no shade on the baseball field. We got sunburned!” As in all Third World countries, there is a shortage of basic baseball equipment, like catcher’s gear. Metal bats are used instead of wooden ones, which break, and it’s expensive to import them, explained Friedman.
“Even playing with minimal equipment, Uganda’s Little League baseball team has been able to accomplish impressive results,” he said. “The kids play their hearts out.”
Unlike other countries that Friedman has scouted, Uganda is a poor country with high rates of malnutrition and malaria.
Many of the young baseball players in the country come from impoverished single-parent homes.
According to Friedman, the man who helped make baseball possible for Ugandan youth is New York native Richard Stanley, a retired chemical engineer and part owner of a minor league baseball team, who began to get involved with developing baseball in Uganda in 2002.
The American philanthropist’s donations provided for the purchase of land near the Ugandan capital of Kampala, where he built a baseball complex with five baseball fields, along with a boarding school known as the Stanley School for the country’s best athletes to study math and sciences. He also personally provided the equipment for the players to use, including baseballs, softballs, bats, helmets, and gloves.
“Stanley is doing things there similar to what others, like Sam and Tiva Pelter, did here in Israel in the early 1990s, laying a foundation for a baseball program to take root,” said Friedman.
Friedman commented that Uganda and Israel are latecomers to the world of baseball and share similar growing pains.
“Israel and Uganda have similarities in our baseball stories. Finding cheap sources for equipment, having quality fields to play on, finding sources for overall financing and piquing more national interest are areas of needed growth in both nations.”
Uganda’s Little League baseball team gained worldwide attention when it beat the Dominican Republic, a baseball powerhouse, last summer in the Little League World Series. (Around 37 percent of the foreign-born players in Major League Baseball in 2014 came from the Dominican Republic according to a Washington Post report).
“Uganda reminds me of what Israel may have been like 100 years ago, a place with a lot of untapped potential. Today Israel has shown what it is able to accomplish, and Uganda seems to be entering that point of change as well,” elaborated Friedman.
One of the highlights of the trip for Friedman was meeting with the Ugandan minister of physical education and sports, Lamex Omara Apitta, a parliament member, who came to meet Friedman and discuss the development of sports and baseball in his nation.
“Mr. Apitta received us warmly and expressed the hope that baseball can grow in his country. He was also very curious to meet me, as someone who traveled all the way from Israel to see the baseball program in his country.”
A documentary film crew from the United States also traveled to Uganda to chronicle the development of baseball there, as well as to interview Stanley and the two Reds scouts, Friedman and his German colleague, Bozkurt.
Friedman told the Magazine that he was impressed with what he saw in the young players in Uganda.
“When I’m scouting, I look for around four or five different elements needed to play baseball well, including speed, arm strength, accuracy in throwing a ball, and a positive attitude.”
“You have to have mental strength and a real love for the game, which the Ugandan kids definitely have, to be able to concentrate in such hot weather and play with such enthusiasm. To be able to beat a Little League baseball powerhouse like the Dominican Republic is an amazing accomplishment.”
“It will be interesting to see how the program grows in Uganda, and I hope to be there in the near future to see more results,” said Friedman, who believes that follow-up work to sign baseball players from Uganda into Major League Baseball is possible.
“The Ugandan program believes it can become competitive with the Caribbean nations in providing talent for professional baseball. If they can keep the program growing, time will tell.”
FRIEDMAN HIMSELF would like to continue scouting for another 10 years.
“I would love to do even more scouting once I’m fully retired,” said Friedman, who has taught history and English in Israeli high schools and colleges.
But he does note the physical difficulties of the job.
“I don’t know if anyone over 70 would like to be traveling to Uganda to scout kids in 100-degree heat that often, but this past scouting experience was a real adventure.”
It’s the kind of adventure that David loves, says his wife, Margalit.
“Big boys have to play, too,” she told the Magazine
“Every adult should have something that’s really fun, that they’re really passionate about. How many people get to do this kind of thing?” For Friedman, working as international scout has a serious side as well.
“When I enter a field to scout, in my mind I become an ambassador. An ambassador of the Cincinnati baseball club, and of Major League Baseball, then of my family and of my people, Israel,” he told the Magazine.
“All of this follows me when I travel. Baseball may be an international sport, but its players and employees do indeed represent our various nations."
“I am hopeful that I can be a positive reflection of the Reds, which is a high-quality organization, as well as an honorable representative of our country.”