It was "an omen from G-d," said Manager Art Shamsky, after his team made history by winning Israel's first-ever professional baseball game. A good time was had by all.
The atmosphere at the Israel Baseball League's (IBL) opening game was a combination of down-to-earth fun and "Are we really making history here?" musings, as over 3,000 people came out to Petach Tikva on Sunday to gleefully escort professional baseball into Israel.
The Modiin Miracle beat the Pioneers of Petach Tikva, 9-1. The season involves six teams playing 45 games each, with an All-Star and championship game scheduled, respectively, for mid- and end-season. The players, earning only $2,000 each for the 8-week season, appear to be happy for the opportunity to play pro ball in Israel.
Wearing a baseball uniform with my name across the back in Hebrew - what an opportunity! - Ron Blomberg
The opening game itself appeared to be just a side show for many, with fans strolling around or picnicking behind the stands, talking to players and other visitors, and lazily taking in the experience of taking part in history being made.
Or is it? As pitchers threw, batters hit, fielders caught, and runners dashed, the unanswered question in the minds of all was, "Will baseball really catch on in Israel?"
At present, baseball in Israel appears to be like a young rookie with all the tools necessary to make it in the big leagues. Most notable among these is a strong fan pool comprising American olim (new immigrants), many of whom say they grew up on baseball, and a young "farm system" in the form of some 70 teams in the 20-year-old Israel Association of Baseball. But will the game's slow, considered pace attract fans in sufficient numbers to make it a commercially viable enterprise?
Indications vary. One of the Israeli cameramen filming the game, asked how he was enjoying the job, blurted out, "It's boring!" An Israeli high schooler who apparently caught a love of the game from his two years in "shlichut" in Texas, says he has not been able to convince his friends to come on out to a game - though he has not yet given up.
But the excitement of most of the crowd at the opener told a different story. Young and old, religious and not, American and other - almost everyone exuded excitement and anticipation. An Israeli reporter from Globes was interested in almost every aspect, from why a hitter who had singled to the outfield rounded first base from the outside instead of running straight to the bag, up to the extent that hitters controlled where they hit the ball. Young Israelis - mostly ex-Americans, granted - competed amongst themselves to see who could obtain the most players' autographs.
Some of the most enthusiasm seemed to emanate from a crowd of 100 residents of Tiberias and the environs, employees of the Daltronics antenna manufacturing company. They and their families were treated to a day at the game by their boss - the owner of U.S. Major League Baseball's Arizona Diamondbacks, Jeff Royer. A member of the IBL's Advisory Committee, Royer proudly showed off his 2001 World Series Championship ring to fans before the game, and was honored in pre-game ceremonies as well.
The game itself began with a fair measure of excitement. The Modiin Miracle, playing as the "visiting" team even though it shares a home field with the Petach Tikvah Pioneers, led off with two runs in the first inning, and never lost its lead. Two runners - one of whom reached base on the first of four Petach Tikvah errors - scored when Eladio Rodriguez, a catcher from the Dominican Republic, laced a long triple to right-center field.
The game blew open in the third inning, when the Miracle from Modiin managed to turn only two hits - both singles - into no fewer than five runs. They were helped along by four walks and two sacrifice flies. Meanwhile, inning by inning, Petach Tikvah was going down quietly, making little trouble for Modiin pitchers Matt Bennett of Australia and Audy Alcantara of the Dominican Republic. The serenity of their "offense" was disturbed only by a solo home run by Ryan Crotin of Amherst, NY, among four other harmless hits. The game ended softly with a ground out by right-fielder Ben Dashefsky of New York.
Holtzman, Shamsky, and Blomberg
Petach Tikvah manager Ken Holtzman - a former Chicago and Oakland pitcher with more wins (174) than any other Jewish pitcher in the majors, including two no-hitters - took the loss in stride. "As a hard competitor for many years," he told Arutz-7 afterwards, "of course it's no fun to lose, especially the way we did. But having said that, I'm very glad that this league has begun here in Israel, and is on its way. I personally am happy to have a role in bringing baseball here... If they had asked me to help start a new league in, say, I don't know, South Africa, I wouldn't have agreed; but to do it in Israel is a great opportunity. We don't play on Shabbos - hey, I'm Jewish - and I'm looking forward."
He'll have another chance tonight, when his team faces Modiin yet again. Modiin manager Art Shamsky - who batted .300 for the 1969 World Champion Mets and once hit four consecutive home runs - was pleased with his team's performance. "It looks like there's no reason we can't go 45-0 this year," he told them. Asked what he felt about having won the first professional baseball game in the Holy Land, he told Arutz-7, "It's an omen from G-d." He did not elaborate.
Meanwhile, another IBL manager seemed to be the most lively of all. Former Yankee Ron Blomberg - the first-ever Designated Hitter who wrote a book about his life in baseball and as a Jew entitled "Designated Hebrew" - entertained many of his former and possibly future fans before the game with his catchy enthusiasm. "I'm a very proud Jew from the south," he said, "from Atlanta, Georgia, and I want to be a part of baseball in Israel; I wouldn't go anywhere else... I love the idea of starting a league here. I guess I just like being first - the first draft choice [in the 1967 amateur draft], the first Designated Hitter, and now this. Wearing a baseball uniform with my name across the back in Hebrew - what an opportunity! I guess the Man up there is looking after me."
Arutz-7 asked if he plans to promote Israel when he returns home after the season. "Oh, absolutely," he said, "especially in my YMHA baseball camp. I can tell you that this league is not just an Israeli thing, but all over, everyone is talking it up. It's a big hit all over."
Among the IBL players is Aryeh Rosenbaum, a pitcher on Blomberg's Beit Shemesh Blue Sox. A member of the Bnei Yeshurun synagogue in Teaneck, New Jersey, Rosenbaum studied after high school at Yeshivat Shaalvim for a year and a half before returning to Yeshiva University, where he played on the college baseball team. "But now that I am playing in this league," he said, "I am no longer eligible for college ball, so I lose two years of college play - but there's no question that it was worth it." Thinking seriously of making Aliyah, Aryeh admits he didn't have the best record on the YU team - "we didn't have such a great record" - but "I guess I had a good tryout, so I made the team."
Other religiously-observant players in the league are Dovid Green of New York, a 2nd baseman on the Pioneers, Joey Sherman from Brookline, Mass., a pitcher on the Tel Aviv Lightning, and others.
Israel is well-represented in the new league, with 13 players from Kibbutz Gezer, Kfar Saba, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Ramat Gan and Givatayim. The Dominican Republic does even better, however, with 14. Others hail from the Ukraine, Columbia, Japan, Canada, and of course from the United States.
What can baseball do for Israel? Most people say it can do a lot, actually - such as promote competitive and physical sports for youngsters, increase Aliyah possibilities from North America, help smoothen Aliyah for those who are already here, bring some joy to a country beset by war and tensions, and promote teamwork, precision and calmness on the Israeli sports scene.
What can baseball do for Israel? Some say a lot; others are not so sure.
Others are not so sure. "Do we really need to import the big-bucks, beer-jlubbing, hero-worshipping culture of American baseball into the Holy Land?" asks one observer. "This is simply a Greek-like fan-culture with little redeeming value. Did we yearn to leave the Exile for 2,000 years merely so we could build a copy of it here in Israel? It's very nice that the league doesn't play on Shabbat, but I'm afraid that during the week, children will grow up idolizing players, as they do in the U.S. at great cost in time and money, instead of going out to play themselves or otherwise occupy themselves constructively."
In either event, a better translation of English terms into Hebrew is necessary, and would add to the catchiness of the game. For instance, an outfielder cannot be called the tedious "sachkan chatzer chitzoni" (player of the outer field), but rather something lighter such as "chutz-nik." Similarly, an infield fly simply cannot be "high ball in the inner field," but must be more along the lines of "me'ofef pnim."
The IBL seasons continues Monday evening with three more games: the Beit Shemesh Blue Sox hosting the Netanya Tigers in Gezer Field, the Raanana Express visiting the Tel Aviv Lightning at Sportek, and a Miracle-Pioneers replay in Petach Tikvah. Play ball!
(Photos: Ezra HaLevi)