3,112 fans from across Israel converged on the Baptist Village outside of Petach Tikva for the opening game of the Israel Baseball League. The baseball was real, the hotdogs were Kosher, and the kids had a great time. All around the diamond, children, many of whom at their first ball game ran around collecting foul balls, and getting anybody wearing a uniform to sign them. These players, many of whom were passed over in the recent draft got to feel like they were in the big leagues, or at least the Cape Cod league.
The game started with the players rubbing off a bit of rust, errors and sloppy play seemed the norm at the beginning, but soon the play ran smooth. There were strikeouts as slick curveballs got the edge of the black, double plays were made to look easy, and the deep outfield fences kept all but one rocket by Ryan Crotin in play.
The teams on the field were as diverse as any pro team in the States. Some of them were college grads passed over in the recent draft, others were in school and choose to play their summer ball over here in Israel rather then hanging out in Kansas or Westchester, and there were a few pro-ball veterans who had finished off their careers and made aliyah. Players were recruited from all over the world, and just as in American baseball, the Latin American players made themselves known. Maximo Nelson, a tall, lanky Dominican player was rumored to throw 96mph heat, though he seemed to struggle a bit with his control. One player told me that the guy had major league stuff, but simply hadn’t broken into the American farm system because the State Department wouldn’t give him a visa.
Aside from the regular ball players, what made these teams specials were the Jewish guys. While they often seemed a bit shorter, these players were perhaps the happiest. Some of them were sabbath observant American kids, with tools, who had never gotten to play competitive ball before, and then there were the Israelis. They were few, but the crowd gave these guys the biggest hand. Having grown up in Israel they somehow managed to learn the game and now were given a stage of their own.
Clive Russell, the director of Major League Baseball’s operations in Europe, the Middle East and Africa was on hand at the game, and he seemed quietly impressed. He had been to Israel before, but this game was the best he had ever seen both in terms of talent and as far as the crowd. He was pleased that baseball was on its way here, and gave Israel a solid chance at fielding a team for the next World Baseball Classic, but he said the Israeli league needs to wean itself off its dependency on American ex-patriots. “In Italy,” he told me, “there is a league that plays level A ball, and 80% of the players are home grown.” This league, by comparison only had a smattering of native players, and the fans, well, there were many that couldn’t speak Hebrew, and I doubt anyone didn’t know English.
The league has a lot of upside, and as long as they can keep it profitable it should last. Baseball season is off-season for the country’s main sports obsessions – soccer and basketball, and that means that the games are getting lots of attention on the local sports stations. Surely any kid with half a sense of adventure would choose to travel to Europe to play than get put up in a barn in order to compete in a summer league in Iowa. And with the growing popularity of baseball around the world, a European championship might not be so far in the future.
Meanwhile, play ball!