(photo credit: Noach Lawrence)
Even in soccer-smitten Israel, youth baseball is bringing youngsters together - taking on seemingly formidable rifts of background and identity, and bridging these divides through simple camaraderie.
On this year's Cadet National Team, comprising the 18 best players aged 13-15 in the Israel Association of Baseball (IAB), boys hailed from religious and secular families alike. Players' hometowns included nine localities from Tel Aviv to Ra'anana to Kibbutz Gezer.
The squad recently returned from a weeklong, six-team European tournament in Reggio Calabria, Italy. Israel won the third place trophy. The team will not advance to 2008's European Championship - an honor reserved for Italy and Lithuania, the top two teams from the tournament - but coach Craig Dunning said, "I was very proud of the kids. They performed better at the plate than we have in some recent tournaments."
Israel won its opener 2-1 in an impressive pitcher's duel against San Marino. But in the second and third games, Israel fell 11-0 to Lithuania and 18-1 to Italy.
While Dunning said the loss to Lithuania was a surprise, Italy is considered a European powerhouse and Dunning seized the opportunity to give his second-string kids more playing time.
"It's the hardest part of my job," Dunning said, "knowing you've got a kid sitting on the bench who might not play that game."
Israel's boys bounced back. In Game 4, the squad defeated the Swiss team 10-3. Concluding the tournament, Israel vanquished Great Britain in an 8-6 come-from-behind "thrilling finale," Dunning said.
Nationwide, the 15-year-old IAB organizes 70 teams for 1,000 players aged six and up. Peter Kurz, secretary general of the IAB, foresees the IAB ballooning to a "phenomenon" of 1,500-2,000 players next year, amid buzz over the new Israel Baseball League, Israel's first foray into pro baseball.
Not all IAB players have endorsed Kurz's buoyancy. Cadet National Team pitcher Yosef Bentley, 13, predicts that in Israel, many people "will just make fun of baseball."
Kurz, however, believes baseball is right for Israel because the sport combines intellectuality, hand-eye coordination and teamwork.
"You don't have to be 6'10" to play," he said. "And Israelis are very good at team sports." He said that the IAB has grown 10 percent annually for the past several years.
Meanwhile, for the teenaged ballplayers, days on the road together mean more than baseball.
"It made us closer," 14-year-old pitcher Noam Litt said. He added that he is looking forward with excitement to a team reunion next month.
Litt described a game called "pajama ball," which has "all the rules of baseball, except you use a juggling ball, you use pajama pants as a bat, and you play on the roof of the hotel."
One might ask: How does one hit a ball with a pair of pajama pants? "I don't know, but we hit two home runs with it," Litt said.
Players described the way the team's boyish atmosphere erased social fault lines that, outside of baseball, might seem daunting.
"Except for baseball, I don't have religious friends," said team captain and top starting pitcher Ilan Susskind, 15, a secular Kibbutz Gezer resident.
On a team, he added, divides vanish. "If they're nice kids, I'll hang out with them," he said.
At the Italy tournament, religion occasionally presented "times when we were reluctant around each other," Litt said.
In the closing ceremony, held on Shabbat, Israel's religious players - slightly more than half the team - could not join the secular kids for a photo with the trophy. Meanwhile, secular players "cooperated to eat kosher," Dunning said.
Still, amid the companionship of a team on the road, the tournament "made all of us closer friends and narrowed [religious] differences," Litt said.
When religious ballplayers could not make a minyan, secular kids, "happily obliged" to fill in, he said.
"We listen to music. We play video games. It doesn't matter if you're religious or not," said first-baseman Yoni Alter, 13.
Not all rifts vaporize so easily. The team featured no Israeli Arabs.
"If there are Muslim kids who can play baseball, they should be on the team," Susskind said, "but I don't know how the religious kids would feel."
None of Israel's past seven cadet national teams has included an Arab, Dunning said, citing that "there aren't very many Arabs playing baseball."
He spoke of concerns that Arab families might have about their child joining a predominantly Jewish team, and vice versa.
But Dunning, who was born in Oklahoma and is a Christian pastor by profession, also described the Iamb's annual "peace clinic."
In this tradition, begun during the second antiradar, about 40 Arab youth from Jaffa gather with about 40 Jewish youth from Tel Aviv to play baseball.
Following practice drills, players formed half-Jewish, half-Arab teams for games, Dunning said.
For Dunning, the "peace clinic" is an example of baseball's power to influence players even after they leave the field.
"We try to teach [players] not to look for the easy path, but to invest in something bigger than themselves," Dunning said. "I think it's a Jewish value and an Israeli value."