Take me out to the ball game, in Israel

There were no peanuts and Cracker Jacks but over 3,000 nostalgic fans came out to root for the home team.

baseball 88 298 (photo credit: AP)
baseball 88 298
(photo credit: AP)
They came in carpools from Ra'anana. They came in convertibles from Beersheba. They took public buses from Jerusalem and got off on the highway at rush hour, walking a mile in a heat wave without a word of complaint. How long had they been waiting for this? Standing patiently in a single line at the gate, but hopping up and down with excitement, they turned to the people around them and beamed in unison. Everyone knew how momentous this was. Once inside, they rushed to stands that offered memorabilia of teams which had never played a single game - and practically cleaned them out. Some jogged off to a clear patch of grass, a safe distance away from the crowd, and started playing catch. As if they were preparing to take the field themselves, they pounded their fists into leather mitts that had last seen action in another time. In another country. In another life. Officially, they came to see the Petah Tikva Pioneers "host" the Modi'in Miracle in the first game of the first season of the first professional baseball league in Israel. Declaredly, they had come to support and celebrate the arrival of the sport they never forgot to the country they always loved. But really, deep down, they had all come for one simple pleasure: To feel like a kid again. The Israel Baseball League, the creation of American Jewish businessmen and Jews connected to Major League Baseball, is different in its Israeli incarnation from the American original. For the most part, that's a good thing. The games go seven innings instead of nine, with ties decided by a home run derby instead of extra innings. There are no multimillion dollar prima donnas here - the players will make $2,000 for a 45-game season, plus modest expenses - and most of the 120 players are North American Jews. Only a dozen are Israeli (immigrants or children of immigrants, actually), while several have come from the Dominican Republic, and a few hail from other countries. One thing pleasantly lacking from Sunday's ceremonies was any sense of pretense, from the players and the fans alike. The latter walked into the teams' dugouts at all points during the game, either to ask players for autographs or to tell the former Major League stars serving as coaches how they used to idolize them way back when. It was as if every player were a bar mitzva boy, forced to endure the pinching of his cheeks by distant relatives. There were other Israeli touches, of course. Instead of drinking Gatorade from a cooler, the players swigged Mei Eden spring water from 1.5-liter bottles. Instead of peanuts, the concession stand sold peanut-flavored Bamba snacks. Instead of the seventh-inning stretch, a minyan was organized during the fifth. (The game was held at the Baptist Village in Petah Tikva, which the league is careful to call Yarkon Park instead.) Sometimes the differences were downright awkward. After the requisite formalities of introducing the men behind the league, for example, Sunday's festivities began in earnest as all six teams - the Pioneers, the Miracle, the Netanya Tigers, the Ra'anana Express, the Tel Aviv Lightning and the Beit Shemesh Blue Sox - lined up on the foul lines for the singing of the national anthem. That is, for the singing of "Hatikva," the anthem of a nation that 90 percent of the league's players do not call home. They stood at attention - keeping their caps on, instead of holding them over their hearts, as they would if they were in America. The crowd of more than 3,000 adoptive Israelis - no doubt enthusiastic "Hatikva" singers in other situations - was practically silent. The whole thing seemed so out of place that, for a moment, all the naysayers' claims of the inappropriateness of transporting this quintessentially American game to Israel felt sadly correct. But as soon as the anthem ended, the crowd roared "Play ball!" and everything was right again. When the first Modi'in batter lifted a pop fly to Petah Tikva first baseman Shuki Friedman, both benches were empty, with every player and coach on their feet. The stands were the same. From one end of the field to the other, it seemed, there was a sense of relief, of reassurance, that a professional baseball game was indeed under way in the Holy Land. IN THE Pioneers' dugout, though, that relief was short-lived. Abel Moreno, Petah Tikva's Dominican pitching ace, had trouble finding the strike zone. And when he thought he found it, the home plate umpire was calling balls anyway. As manager Ken Holtzman grew upset over the calls at the plate, Moreno fired a scorching fastball right down the middle. Then, on the next pitch, Miracle catcher Eladio Rodriguez smacked a triple that scored two runs. As Moreno's teammates shouted encouragement to him, the crowd savored the lingering "crack!" of the wooden bat meeting the baseball, and the Modi'in baserunners charged triumphantly across home plate. If the game had been accompanied by a soundtrack, this was where John Fogerty would have come in. Specifically, the cheesy "thwack-thwack, thwack-thwack-thwack" sound effect and folksy guitar lead-in to his classic paean to baseball, "Centerfield." Every bit a staple at ballparks around the States as hot dogs and beer, Fogerty's "Centerfield" evokes the boyish glee of the runner's scamper around the bases and every player's overriding desire to get off the bench and into the game. Well, beat the drum and hold the phone - the sun came out today! We're born again, there's new grass on the field. A-roundin' third, and headed for home, it's a brown-eyed handsome man Anyone can understand the way I feel. Oh, put me in, Coach, I'm ready to play today. Put me in, Coach, I'm ready to play today. Look at me, I can be centerfield! When Modi'in's players rounded third and headed for home, the Pioneers did know how they felt, and they wanted to feel it too. "Let's go get those runs back!" they encouraged each other as they filed into the dugout. There was only one problem: the team couldn't find its allotment of batting helmets. To keep things moving along, the Miracle sent over a bunch of their own helmets. Until the sixth inning, when someone discovered the Pioneers' helmets sitting in a cardboard box on the grass about three meters behind their dugout, Petah Tikva batters went to the plate wearing Modi'in's orange-and-blue "Mem" logo on their foreheads. There were other glitches, too (although none was as bad as finding out the next day that one of the three fields planned for use in the summer's games would not be ready for use for at least a week). League officials couldn't provide ice to soothe the pitchers' shoulders between innings. The play-by-play over the PA system was spotty, passing over entire at-bats and becoming irrelevant. When they weren't simply absent, the guards who were supposed to secure the dugouts were inept, letting kids file in and molest the players with autograph requests. On the whole, the Pioneers took these things (as well as my presence on their bench, coordinated in advance with the league) in stride. For at least half the game they even welcomed all the children. As the team's bat boy posed for a picture with one of the Petah Tikva players, catcher Dustin Melanson, who sported a large crucifix, jumped over and silently made the "bunny ears" sign behind his teammate's head. It was one of those silly things that teammates are supposed to do to each other, and significant because the teams had met only a few days before. For strangers only days removed from their arrival in the country, the players also showed some heart. As the incessant parade of autograph seekers grew to be unbearable and really distracting to the players, a little boy gingerly stepped his way around the legs of much larger kids (and adults). Holding aloft a baseball with fingers that barely held it steady, eyes wide and mouth agape with awe, the boy stared at the athletes as if they were superheroes. He couldn't even form the words "Would you sign my ball?" - but he didn't have to. The players melted at the sight of him. SOME STANDARD ballpark entertainment stunts were introduced - such as the bat race, the main purpose of which is simply to make the contestants dizzy. This it did with great efficiency, sending three kids stumbling about and laughing. Around then, the Pioneers began to play as if they, too, were dizzy. The shortstop and second baseman crashed into each other trying to field a pop fly. Moreno surrendered costly walks and followed them with pitches that Miracle batters gleefully slapped all over for hits. Fielders squandered sure outs by throwing the ball away. On one play, several Petah Tikva players started walking off the field as if they had gotten the third out, though there were only two. Only three innings into the game, the Pioneers found themselves in a 7-0 hole. Most confused, however, were the Israeli journalists assigned to cover the game. Worst off were the photographers, who could not merely comment on the English spoken so freely among the crowd, and who seemed totally befuddled by their task of documenting the action. One such suffering photographer - a veteran who has kept his cool during bombings and warfare - placed a frantic call to his editors, stammering, "Someone has to help me with the captions for this, because I have no idea what's going on in this game!" Kneeling next to him was a colleague, imploring the first photographer to tell their editors that he was injured and needed to be replaced immediately. "Tell them to come rescue me," he said. "I'm dying here." Even after Pioneer third baseman Ryan Crotin hit a towering home run, the photographers were clueless. Turning to a cameraman who had just filmed Crotin's trot around the bases, one photographer asked, "Was that a touchdown?" THE BATTER'S PRAYER is short: "One good pitch. Just give me one good pitch over the middle of the plate, and I'll smack that ball so far…!" Batters need this prayer because so much of their efforts end in failure. It's so bad that reaching base a mere 30 percent of the time is considered excellent. Hitting 40 home runs over the course of a Major League season - that's more than 600 chances, for a success rate of 7% - will make a player a hero. In fact, anyone who can hit even half as many homers in six months of baseball can make a very good living. There are very good reasons for this. Imagine Roger Federer trying to hit a tennis ball with the handle of his racket, and you start to comprehend how difficult it is to hit a baseball. Add the fact that the batter has but half a second to locate the ball as it leaves the pitcher's hand, estimate its trajectory and speed, and swing a wooden bat weighing just over two pounds to the exact point where the ball will pass over the plate, and it becomes almost impossible to hit a baseball. Almost. In the bottom of the fourth inning, Crotin's prayer was answered. As the crowd cheered the league's first home run, all of the powerfully built 28-year-old's teammates rushed out of the dugout to greet him at home plate. Suddenly, the Pioneers had a burst of hope. As the next batter crouched into his stance at the plate, a few of the Pioneers' players worked themselves into a crouch of their own, bouncing gently to loosen up the knees, pretending to hold a bat and staring down the pitcher. As the batter swung under a high fastball, they swung too - imagining, however, that, instead of "whiffing," they had connected on a crushing hit that sent the ball soaring over the left field fence. This is the Perfect Swing Fantasy - indulged in by every kid who ever mimicked a real-life slugger, jumping in front of the television and pretending to unload the mightiest swing that baseball has ever seen. From the look in their eyes, it was clear that several of the fathers in the stands at Yarkon Park were doing this in their heads. AS FAR AS bright spots go, that was about it for Petah Tikva. The game ended in a 9-1 Modi'in victory - but that wasn't nearly as important as the fact that the game was played at all, and everyone knew it. For a league trying to prove that it can last in Israel, there were at least as many encouraging signs as causes for worry. Turnout of more than 3,100, for starters (the league originally planned on 1,000 fans showing up). Hundreds hung around after the game, chatting with the players and waiting up to an hour for autographs from Holtzman and Miracle manager Art Shamsky, both owners of World Series rings. The fans didn't seem to mind that the players won't have much of a connection to the cities that they ostensibly represent, as they are being housed at the Kfar Hayarok youth village in Hod Hasharon. Neither did they mind that there was practically no sense of rivalry yet. On opening night, players from all six teams enjoyed the opportunity to mingle with each other at Yarkon Park - and to mingle with the fans, who greeted them all with equal zeal. These weren't former Major Leaguers playing with a top minor league team, clinging desperately to the hope that a big league club will give them a call soon. They weren't guys with a thousand hits to their credit, not guys who were used to seven-digit contracts. Of the guys taking the field in Petah Tikva and Kibbutz Gezer this summer, few have ever been close to playing in the Majors. For some, a four-year career at a decent college was the most exposure they ever got. A handful of players here are still young enough and talented enough to dream of making a roster, say, with a AA club. Most, though, seem to understand that this is as good as it gets: pocket change, room and board and a free trip to a far-off country where everyone reads from right to left. There'll be too much humidity and too little ice, plenty of kosher hamburgers but hardly any beer. And when the championship comes, the natives won't understand what all the fuss is about. But they'll get the chance to hit a baseball - and the fans will treat them like heroes for it. The Israel Baseball League will take them back to another time, to another country, to another life. Back to when they were baseball players. Who wouldn't want to extend that a little longer? And who wouldn't want to cheer them on? Big League Jew Of the six inaugural teams of the Israel Baseball League - the Netanya Tigers, Ra'anana Express, Tel Aviv Lightning, Modi'in Miracle, Petah Tikva Pioneers and Beit Shemesh Blue Sox - three are led by men with Major Leagues cache, men with bona-fide credentials in "The Show." While the name Modi'in Miracle refers to the Maccabees, the Hanukka heroes who hailed from Modi'in, the Miracle's uniform and logo are clearly inspired by the New York Mets. That's no accident: manager Art Shamsky won a World Series title with the Mets in 1969. They were called the Miracle Mets not only for their surprising championship victory over the Baltimore Orioles, but for the fact that they even made it to the playoffs at all. Late in the season, the Mets were so far behind the division leading Chicago Cubs that their situation seemed bleak. The Cubs collapsed down the stretch, though, while the "Amazin's" won 38 of their final 49 games to streak into history. Coincidentally, one of the members of that 1969 Cubs team which gave way to the Mets was Ken Holtzman - manager of the Petah Tikva Pioneers. Holtzman carries a noticeable paunch now, but he was once a svelte and efficient pitcher who tossed two no-hitters for the Cubs. Later in his career, Holtzman pitched the Oakland A's to victory in several World Series games. Although some of his other records have since been broken, Holtzman is still the winningest Jewish pitcher in MLB history. Beit Shemesh, although called the Blue Sox, has a strong New York Yankees motif in its uniform. This is in deference to manager Ron Blomberg, whose place in baseball history is secure as the first designated hitter. The move made sense because a series of injuries significantly limited Blomberg's playing time, but his high success rate in clutch hitting situations made him a valuable offensive weapon. Blomberg has written an autobiography called Designated Hebrew.- S.S.