Fundamentally Freund: The great Zionist sport

Despite its great qualities and its vast potential to serve as a vehicle for inculcating character in much of today’s youth, baseball simply doesn’t get its due here in the Jewish state.

Kids playing baseball 311 (photo credit: Michael Freund)
Kids playing baseball 311
(photo credit: Michael Freund)
As the temperature begins its steady, annual climb, a familiar scene is playing itself out each week on several fields – some of them grassy and others much less so – all across this great land.
Each Friday, bands of young people chattering in a mix of English and Hebrew don uniforms bearing names such as the Sharon Twins or the Hashmonaim Titans, and storm onto the turf with all the determination of the Third Marine division hitting the beaches at Iwo Jima.
Some have tzitzit dangling in the wind from underneath their attire, while others may have only the faintest inkling of what those strings might mean. But regardless of their level of observance or background, they are here to play, and to play hard as a team, aiming for that ultimate combination: a dash of fun and a taste of glory.
Don’t be fooled, however. This has nothing to do with such mindless pursuits as chasing a soccer ball back and forth or hurling a spherical object toward the rim while being guarded by a two-meter-tall leviathan.
This is serious stuff, my friends, a bit of playful utopia. It is baseball – yes, baseball – right here in the Holy Land.
As a coach of the first-place Ra’anana Flames in the Juveniles league, along with my co-conspirator Stu Schapiro, I have the pleasure of spending Friday afternoons watching a new generation of the bochurim (or boys) of summer sprout up amid the rocky and uneven soil of the local playing field.
There are moments to be savored, such as when your child steps into the batter’s box with the bases loaded and the game on the line. The pressure is intense, and I don’t know who is more nervous as the pitch heads for the plate – my 12-year-old son or his 41-year-old dad.
In this sense, watching the games can be like a form of some much-needed aerobic exercise, as I feel my heartbeat quicken when the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand, and then soar with delight at the crack of the bat as my son drives in all those runs and crosses the plate.
Phew, I think I need to sit down now and take a deep breath or two.
There is also the amusing aspect of listening to baseball talk in the language revived by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda a century ago. “Eyzeh home run!” (What a home run!), or “Rutz le-second base” (Run to second base) are surely phrases that Babe Ruth or Willie Mays never could have imagined.
And yet, oddly enough, this quintessentially American game feels very much in place here in the land where the prophets once walked and our ancestors glimpsed the divine.
TO THE uninformed observer, baseball can appear tedious or dull, akin to watching paint dry or tuning in to a congressional hearing. But the reality is quite different. Baseball is a game of elegance and grace, of tidy structure and messy chaos all bound together into one cluttered and evocative package. In short, it is a parable for life itself, packed as it is with all the emotion and complexity, the highs and lows, of human existence.
It is a sport that relies as much on the mind as it does on muscle, for at its center lies the duel between pitcher and batter, as each tries to outwit the other in a stimulating battle of wills.
More significantly, baseball is the perfect means for instilling a range of Jewish ideals and principles, such as discipline, patience and humility, as only an informal activity such as sport can do.
Consider the reports on rampant corruption that have been filling the airwaves of late, as various politicians and officials allegedly sought to bend the rules governing society. Baseball teaches its adherents that there is a clear distinction between fair and foul, with a bright white line stretching all the way to the outfield marking the boundary between the two.
Or, as the legendary Chicago White Sox owner Bill Veeck once noted, “Baseball is almost the only orderly thing in a very unorderly world. If you get three strikes, even the best lawyer in the world can’t get you off.” Isn’t that a lesson that every young Israeli needs to learn?
Unlike other sports, baseball also infuses its players with respect for the delicate balance between the individual and the collective. Every batter stands alone and takes his swings, unavoidably confronting his personal responsibility for success or failure. There is no ducking into the crowd or pointing the finger at someone else. Hit or miss, you – and only you – are accountable for what you do.
But teamwork is no less important nor is giving your all for the greater good.
In the big leagues, a player’s name can be found on the back of his uniform, but it is the moniker of his team that is emblazoned on the front, signifying that no matter how big a superstar he might be, he nonetheless remains merely a part of something larger than himself.
Accepting responsibility for one’s actions, giving of oneself for others – these are precisely the ideals that need strengthening in Israeli society, perhaps more today than ever before.
But despite its great qualities, and its vast, untapped potential to serve as a vehicle for inculcating character in much of today’s youth, baseball simply doesn’t get its due here in the Jewish state, and it is time for that to change.
MY TEAM, the Flames, is part of the annual league that is run by the Israel Association of Baseball (IAB), which for nearly 25 years has been promoting the game throughout the country on a shoestring budget.
Headed by Haim Katz, Mel Levi and a cast of other impassioned devotees, the IAB organizes local and national teams and tournaments, provides clinics to train coaches and umpires, and teaches baseball fundamentals both on the field and off.
This is not just the exclusive preserve of immigrants from English-speaking countries. You would be surprised to see just how many native Israeli kids come out to the ballpark to play, even as their parents stand dumbfounded on the sidelines, scratching their heads as they try to figure out this unfamiliar game.
And while the league does its best to provide the necessary equipment and maintain proper fields, the challenges are daunting. The base-paths are often littered with stones, and a shortage of balls means that every one driven foul into the bushes must be retrieved.
Baseball is now where tennis was in this country some two decades ago: underfunded, underappreciated and under the radar screen. But just as tennis eventually took off, with courts sprouting up across the land, the same can and will hold true for baseball. With just a little more effort, and a modest investment, the game could become a national pursuit.
Sound like a pipe dream? Perhaps.
But if only a small fraction of the resources being poured into spanking new soccer fields and glittering basketball courts were to go toward developing baseball, the game could flower here unlike ever before. Not only would we have more home runs being hit in Hebrew, but a lot more kids would be learning about the importance of integrity and fair play.
And though Theodor Herzl most likely never attended a good, ol’ fashioned ball game, I’m still convinced that baseball is the ultimate Zionist sport. Just ask any runner stranded in exile on first base what his goal is, and he won’t hesitate to tell you: Yes sir, Coach, I want to come home again.
The writer is an avid New York Mets fan who still cherishes having attended Game 7 of the 1986 World Series.