Essay: What's 'balk' in Hebrew?

A veteran baseball fan wonders if Israel really needs this change of pace.

baseball 88 (photo credit: )
baseball 88
(photo credit: )
Tzipi and I were living in Israel some three years when we met up with some vacationing friends from the States. "So," Yitzi asked me as we were strolling along the Netanya promenade on a pleasant summer evening, "you've been here for a while. What do you miss the most?" I gave the question a bit of thought before answering. "Well, I guess it would be my parents, Stella Dora Swiss Fudge Cookies and baseball." And then, after a pause for effect added, "But not necessarily in that order." I can't say in all honesty if I was kidding or not. Until Internet became an integral part of my life, I found baseball-less summers increasingly difficult to endure, and often felt frustrated by not knowing what was going on over at Yankee Stadium. Now, of course, things are different, and if the seven-to-10 hour time difference between here and North America makes watching or hearing games in real time somewhat impractical, I'm at least up to date with the scores, statistics, injuries, trades and politics of the game - a game I grew up with and am thoroughly enchanted by. Dying a slow death, archaic, irrelevant and a dusty relic of a bygone generation are just some of the ways baseball has been described over the past 10-15 years. Yet, despite strong competition from football and basketball, it remains the most widely analyzed, discussed and written about sport among Americans - the corpse, despite dire predictions, is still kicking away, with no hint of slowing down anytime soon. Odd, then, that I'm not eagerly waiting for June 24, the day that Ehud Olmert is scheduled to throw out the ceremonial first ball inaugurating the 45-game schedule of the Israel Baseball League. It's not that I'm not intrigued by the thought of Israel joining Latin America and the Far East as a potential source of Major League talent. I am. But the guys that will be taking the field here are the ones who were left on the sidelines, which, I'm afraid, will be reflected by the level of play. And while an errantly fielded ground ball or a collision between two outfielders happens even in the big leagues from time to time, I've very little patience for sloppy baseball. Take, for example, Scott Cantor, a 51-year-old suburban New Yorker who hopes that he and his fastball will make it big playing here this summer. Cantor is actually pursuing two goals simultaneously - living in Israel and playing professional baseball - and for that I have nothing but admiration. But if he couldn't get his two-seamer past the quick reflexes of batters 30 years ago, it's not terribly likely he'll do so now. Yet he somehow did okay during the tryouts and made the cut. The standards for the IBA cannot be overly intimidating. NOR WILL I fall for the shtick of bringing here as managers and coaches Jewish players who did in fact make careers as Major League players. Art Shamsky, Ken Holtzman and Ron Blomberg may have had their moments - and, alas, no more than moments - playing in the summer sun or under the lights, but they've no proven history of success in leadership roles, nor have they evidenced being particularly astute in the strategy, mechanics or techniques of the game. And while it's all well and good that they're Jewish, I can't recall if any of the three were ever faced with the decision of having to play a crucial game on Yom Kippur - as were the legendary Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax. I somehow suspect, though, that if they were, they would more readily heed the umpire's call to "Play Ball" rather than go off and beg forgiveness for whatever sins and transgressions they had committed. Not that some legitimate heavyweights of the game aren't involved in this effort. A previous Boston Red Sox general manager, Dan Duquette, agreed to accept the position of director of baseball operations, and Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig will provide his experience and expertise by serving on the league's board of advisers. And though his experience with baseball was, like mine, as a fan sitting in the grandstands, Daniel Kurtzer, the former ambassador to Israel, will be the commissioner of this fledgling experiment. Larry Baras, the guy who came up with the idea for the Israel Baseball League and got the ball rolling back in July 2005, can't be faulted for overlooking the importance of putting the management of the league into good hands. Those who will be running the show, no doubt, have their eyes wide open and are thoroughly aware of the challenges waiting for them as they stand in the on-deck circle. The challenges include generating fan interest and advertising revenue. A taste and appreciation for the game is not something easily acquired, and drawing the attention of Israelis away from the on-going movement and action of soccer and basketball won't be easy. Marketing plans are no doubt ready to come off the drawing board, with tag lines, gimmicks and billboard displays to raise the Americanization of Israel one notch higher. Unfortunately, despite the optimism, the venture, I'm afraid, is being looked at as, in the words of The New York Post, a mix of matza balls and curve balls. Skepticism at best, folly at worst. LET'S, THEN, hope for the best and wish the league and its players well. Shortening the game from nine innings to seven and having ties broken by a home-run derby rather than burden novice fans with extra innings are reasonably innovative, and fielding two out of the league's six teams from the heavily Anglo-American population center of Jerusalem makes good sense. And should Yitzi return and again ask me what I miss most, baseball won't be on the list, not with the majors a click or two away and the IBA off and running. Anyone interested in importing Stella Dora Swiss Fudge Cookies? The writer is a technical communicator.