(photo credit: )
'Not until there is baseball in Israel will the Messiah come! Nathan, I want to play center fielder for the Jerusalem Giants!"
So says "Jimmy Ben-Joseph," a young American-born ba'al tshuva yeshiva student living in Jerusalem, to American-Jewish author Nathan Zuckerman, literary alter-ego of Philip Roth, in the latter's exuberant 1987 novel The Counterlife. Although Roth most likely created Jimmy Ben-Joseph (ne Lustig) as a means of neatly combining two of his principal obsessions, baseball and the Jewish state, the character possesses a verisimilitude that the novelist was probably not fully aware of.
Bringing baseball to Israel has in fact been a mission that many American olim have pursued for several decades with a zeal that, if not quite messianic, has certainly been motivated by something more than just sporting interest.
It was American-Israelis who started the first softball leagues here, built the "field of dreams" diamond equipped with lights for night play at Kibbutz Gezer; and started up the first Israeli little league program. Now, in the most ambitious effort yet to fulfill Jimmy Ben-Joseph's dream, they are starting up what is being billed as the country's first professional baseball league. Though it will be the Jerusalem Lions instead of Giants, the six-team Israel Baseball League (IBL) is scheduled to have its first pitch thrown out next month.
The rosters will be comprised of primarily imported players who have played professional, semi-professional or minor-league ball elsewhere. In a neat publicity stunt, the league founders "drafted" 71-year-old Sandy Koufax into the league earlier this year, a prospect somewhat less likely than the Messiah showing up to bat clean-up for the Lions. They succeeded in enlisting as team managers no less than the near-holy trinity of Jewish players once worshiped by fans like myself, who grew up in the late 1960s: ex-New York Met Art Shamsky, ex-Yankee Ron Blomberg and ex-Oakland Athletic Ken Holtzman.
Along with a love of the game, the league's founders and supporters are explicit in acknowledging ideological motivations in trying to establish professional baseball in Israel. The Jewish National Fund is helping to fund financial sponsors for the league, whose commissioner is no less than former US ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer.
According to a recent article from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency: "The opportunity to show Israel not only as a country at war but as a country involved in sports - quintessentially American sports, at that - could help Americans bond with Israel, the country's deputy consul in New York, Benjamin Krasna, told JTA. 'Sports is such an important part of America, if you can touch Americans through sports, they can see that Israel is not just a fortress,' Krasna said, adding that exposing new audiences to Israel is an important part of this initiative."
COUNT ME among those American-Israelis who welcome the new league and wish it the best of success.
This ex-New Yorker can't quite say he pines every day for the lost thrill of rooting for the Mets and Yankees on their home turf, but I've done my own share of transplanting an appreciation of the game here in the Holy Land. Years ago I played a season on one of the teams in the softball league, but decided that too many on-field fights and arguments between teammates taking it all way too seriously were only adding to the ongoing conflicts here in the Middle East.
Exactly 20 years ago, as a rookie reporter for this newspaper, I covered the very first official little league game in Israel, played on the now built-over sports field behind the Jerusalem YMCA. Throwing out the first pitch - and showing a surprisingly strong arm - was then-mayor Teddy Kollek, who told me that day: "The more new sports we bring to Israel, the better it will be for politicians - because then there will be more news reporting of sport than of politics."
Teddy was wrong, of course - politics was then, and continues to be, the real sport of Israel. Also overconfident that day were the organizers, who confidently predicted that the little league would develop a whole generation of home-grown major league baseball talents. As it is, the new IBL will boast only a handful of Israeli-born or -raised players on its roster, almost all the children of American immigrants.
One has to wonder whether a sport as tightly regulated and deliberately paced as baseball is really suitable for the Israeli national character. That the Japanese came to love baseball makes perfect sense; that your typical Sabra would have the patience to wait for a good pitch, and not argue just about every single call made by the umpire, requires a little seventh-inning stretch of the imagination.
I ALSO have to add a note of skepticism as to what degree a professional baseball league "could help Americans bond with Israel," as Krasna suggests. How much does the Japanese love and proficiency for baseball really help Americans "bond" with that country; or for that matter Taiwan, which now regularly bests the US in World Little League play? No nation, for example, has held greater relative success in baseball than Cuba, yet the likes of Luis Tiant and Orlando Hernandez haven't quite replaced Fidel Castro and Che Guevara as iconographic Cubans in the American imagination.
AÏ€s it happens, just last month the non-profit organization The Israel Project (for which I work) conducted a poll in which the American public was asked which attributes they considered most important in an ally of the US. Coming in first were such expected values as "works for peace" and "works to protect its citizens from terror attacks"; coming in dead last, at just 3 percent of respondents, was "Has people who like the same kind of sports, music and culture as we do."
However, it's also true that only 13% of Americans thought that latter statement was a trait that accurately characterizes Israel, demonstrating that many Americans don't yet understand how attuned Israel is to American culture, including such sports as basketball. So if the IBL at the very least helps show sports-loving Americans that we Israelis are not all just a bunch of Uzi-toting rabbis, it'll be scoring a few runs for our team.
It may not influence US Middle East policy, and it definitely won't bring the Messiah - but if Israel's new baseball league gives this fan the chance to once again root for the likes of Art Shamsky and Ron Blomberg, then by all means, let's play ball!