Playing hardball

These girls show they can bat and throw like anyone else.

Women's softball league 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Women's softball league 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Describing herself as being “very competitive by nature,” Beit Shemesh resident, public relations executive and mother of five Dena Wimpfheimer had enough of just running on the treadmill for exercise.
So this past spring Wimpfheimer dusted off her glove and after an eight-year hiatus, rejoined her teammates on the Beit Shemesh Fireballs, one of the three teams which make up the small but growing women’s windmill fast-pitch softball league, under the auspices of the Israel Softball Association. The league is comprised of two seasons, a spring season with 18 to 20 games and a fall tournament.
While she played softball in competitive leagues in high school, the setting is a bit different now for Wimpfheimer, who sets up a Pack ‘N Play playpen in her team’s bullpen so that she can bring her infant to the games, and feed the baby between innings while still being a part of the team.
But don’t let the midgame feedings fool you into thinking that these ladies are soft. Jeff Perry, who has been the coach of the Fireballs since the league’s inception in 2001, and also serves as an ISA board member and its director of umpires, says the players are very competitive.
He explains that when the approximately 50 women in the league, who range in age from 16 to 50, “get out there on the field, they give it their all and strive to do what it takes to win.”
In addition to the Fireballs, Perry says that the other two teams in the league include the Tel Aviv Tigers A-team as well as the Tigers B-team. The Tigers B-team consists of junior national team players under the age of 19 who represent Israel in international softball competitions.
Not only do the youngsters compete abroad, but there is an adult women’s national team as well, which has had some success both here and abroad. The team won the bronze medal at this past summer’s Maccabiah Games, and while not medaling had a respectable showing at the recent European Softball Championships.
Adriana Luchansky, who immigrated from Argentina 11 years ago and lives in Rosh Ha’ayin, serves as the full-time national program director at the ISA. She is also the head coach of three women’s teams – the national team, the under-19 national team, and the Tigers B-team in the league itself.
Luchansky says that before making aliya she was not only a player herself, but a pitcher on the Argentinean national team, involved in serious international competitions.
Now a grandmother of two, she stopped playing competitively at the age of 35, to focus on coaching the women’s teams in addition to running after- school programming for children in various communities throughout the country, especially those with a high Anglo presence, including Beit Shemesh, Ra’anana and Hashmonaim, in order to teach them the sport.
While no doubt deliberately targeting immigrants to recruit from Anglo communities as potential participants in the league and in the youth programming, Perry says that a solid percentage of his players, “are native Israelis who learned baseball/softball from their childhood.”
He says that one of his players in particular “is a native Israeli who grew up in Kibbutz Gezer [which is home to one of the few official-sized baseball/softball fields in the country], and since she lived near the field, she learned growing up, playing baseball with the boys and then graduating to women’s softball. Her knowledge of the game comes from growing up in a kibbutz which supports the sport.”
Luchansky says that the after-school youth programs, which started three years ago, now boast over 100 participants – both boys and girls. She says the program is growing “but we need more [regulation] fields and more coaches.” She also says that “while it’s hard to compete with other sports in this country,” she believes the sport is expanding, since “Israelis are starting to learn the game.”
Another major figure assisting in the development of softball/baseball for men, women and youth throughout the country is Ami Baran, the ISA’s executive director. Baran, who lives in Moshav Maor in the North, the site of a newly built field that hosted this past summer’s Maccabiah baseball/softball tournaments, says it has been a struggle developing the game in this country, but believes it’s starting to spread.
Baran, a veteran immigrant from Chicago and a multisport athlete who was Israel’s javelin champion in the 1980s, nearly securing a spot for the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, says he is “now building a youth program with the help of the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund in the North called ‘Friends of the Field,’ in order to connect Israeli youngsters with programs” which he dubs “ball and glove” (meaning either baseball or softball). He hopes to spread the program to other locations as well.
Baran believes that the development of the sport will create jobs in Israel, with people able to make a living serving as full-time coaches in the various leagues.
In regard to the women’s league specifically, his goal is to assist in expanding the league from its current field of three teams to eight or nine teams representing various communities around the country.
Wimpfheimer also feels strongly that the league can grow. “Absolutely,” she says. “It can grow and thrive with so many people who grew up in the States wanting to join, with so many pockets of Anglos here familiar with the sport and so many Israelis who love the sport. It’s a natural fit.”
She asks, “What about a field in the Gush [Etzion]? Modi’in? How great would it be if fields popped up in these areas? This would encourage more teams to be formed.”
Wimpfheimer describes how her team, the Fireballs, communicates during games both in Hebrew and English, offering each other encouragement using both languages. From the Hebrew slang “Yalla, mami” to “It’s just you and me” (often used by a catcher when trying to get a pitcher to focus), she says there is an “interesting dynamic” on the field. But bottom line, says Wimpfheimer, “I love the game.”
Batya Jerenberg, who lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh and has played for the Fireballs for the past 12 years straight, says that while she may be the oldest active player out there, “thank God, I’m still one of the better hitters on the team.” She says she will keep at it “until I can’t hit or run anymore,” and “as long as I’m a productive player,” she will stick with the sport.
Growing up as a self-described tomboy with baseball always as her favorite sport, Jerenberg, who like Wimpfheimer also had to dig out her glove in order to try out for the team back in 2001, says that “from the first time I heard the sound of the ball hitting the mitt at the tryout, I was hooked. There was just that sound.”
She says that while she remains competitive, wanting her team to win, she has become more concerned with the teams on the field playing a good game. “I want an even game, I want a good game. If it’s a good game, I’m happy. I’m probably still one of the most intense players out there, but as I grow older, I want to lie back and enjoy the game.”
Describing the five-hour commitment involved in every game – between the game itself, travel time and other preparations, Jerenberg says that it’s all worth it.
“I love the game. I wouldn’t do it [commit] if I didn’t want this.”