By Adam Brill/JNS.org
While his teammates are at bat, Ido Peled flashes a toothy teenage grin, his cap tilted slightly off-kilter, and affirms that his favorite club is the New York Yankees. The 13-year-old reveals that he first became interested in the game by watching baseball movies.
But Peled isn’t an American teen who was immersed in the national pastime from infancy. He’s Israeli through and through, as are his parents.
Ido was one of more than 100 kids ages 8-14 who took part in the Israel Association of Baseball’s (IAB) recently held annual summer training camp. Since its first pitch was thrown seven years ago, the camp has helped foster consistent growth for a sport that was previously foreign to Israel.
Increasingly, it’s Sabras like Ido, not just Anglophone transplants, who are taking the field. Nate Fish, the self-styled “king of Jewish baseball,” said there has been “really good progress” in drawing in new recruits, particularly Israeli teens, since he started as the IAB’s national director two years ago. As kids in an array of bright colors and hats watched from the sidelines of one of Israel’s few baseball diamonds in the Baptist Village, east of Petah Tikva, the plink of aluminum bats punctuated adolescent shouts in Hebrew and English.
Fish made aliyah in 2013 and in recent years has been visiting Israeli schools to introduce the quintessentially American game to gym classes. For every 300 kids, two or three might sign up and start playing regularly in the IAB’s yearlong baseball league (which is separate from the summer training camp), contributing to its steady growth.
“We’re creating a culture of baseball,” Fish said.
“They hear about baseball because of Fox (the American TV network) and they know the American influence, [then] they hear about Israel being in the European Championships and in the World Baseball Classic,” IAB President Peter Kurz said. “The game’s catching on more and more.”
Since launching in 1986, the league has grown to 80 teams in 15 different towns, with players ranging in age from 8 to adult.
Some of the kids attribute their love of the game to its emphasis on teamwork.
“You have to work as a team,” said Ela Levitt, 13, a bashful but affable first baseman from Tel Mond, a small town near Netanya. Levitt noted that unlike soccer, in which a few stars dominate the pitch, in baseball everybody bats, throws, runs, and catches during a game.
Building on the theme of the game’s inclusiveness, the IAB recently launched a new initiative called “Baseball For All,” which brought 30 Jewish and Arab teens from Modi’in and Ramle together to learn the sport. After a day on the diamond, racial cliques dissolved.
“It’s our little contribution to coexistence,” Kurz said. Now, an Arab team from Ramle will be joining the ranks of the IAB league.
Along with the sport’s rising popularity, Israeli baseball faces its own unique set of hurdles. Mandatory army service draws players away in their prime at 18. The IAB’s head umpire had to devise a ground rule to address game interruptions by rocket alert sirens during last summer’s Israel-Hamas conflict in the Gaza Strip. (The ball is immediately dead where it stands, the players run for shelter, and the count is cleared once the all-clear is given.)
But the main challenge the league faces is room to grow. While player numbers keep rising, the number of fields can’t keep up. The Baptist Village and Kibbutz Gezer have the only dedicated baseball diamonds in the country, and another is under development in the Jerusalem exurb of Beit Shemesh, with assistance from the Jewish National Fund (JNF). Other municipalities, however, are reluctant to play ball with a sport that is still relatively unknown in Israel.
“We have to make do, because Israel is a land-challenged country,” said Margo Sugarman, the IAB’s secretary-general.
Despite the challenges, the future for Israeli baseball is bright, said Dean Kremer, a 19-year-old college pitcher who became the first Israeli picked in the Major League Baseball draft earlier this year.
Kremer grew up in Stockton, Calif., but spent his summers playing baseball in Israel. Ten years on, the rising baseball cadets “could be really good, they could compete internationally really well, as long as this generation sets the tone,” Kremer said.
Avi “Jewkie” Rosenblum, a 22-year-old Israeli national team player who was coaching the junior baseball players at the summer camp, concurs. Fresh off the national team’s victory at the Acropolis Cup in Athens, Rosenblum surveyed the next generation of Israeli baseball players and proclaimed with a massive grin that the future of Israeli baseball is “legit.”
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