BAPTISTS’ VILLAGE, Israel
The 14- and 15-year-old boys pat their gloves and stand alert across the infield, their knees bent and eyes shifting between home plate and the pitcher’s mound.
Coaches yell out the familiar phrases: “Nice play!” “Throw to first!” “Easy out!”
Then, from the dugout, a player shouts, “Yala, Uriah! Kadima!” — “Let’s go, Uriah. Forward.” Then in English, “Eyes on the ball!” and he turns to his teammate to chat in Hebrew.
“When I started playing baseball, I started understanding more English,” said Tal Degani, 14, a reserve right fielder for the Misgav Pythons, a youth team from northern Israel.
An Israeli native, Degani “found baseball on the Internet” and from there connected with the Israel Association of Baseball, which has organized youth and amateur competition across the country for 20 years.
Six hours later, in Jupiter, Fla., Israel’s national baseball team won its second qualifying game for the World Baseball Classic, defeating Spain, 4-2. Coupled with its 7-3 victory over South Africa in the qualifying round opener on Sept. 19, Team Israel needed one more victory in the modified double-elimination tournament to advance to the Classic in March.
Israel, however, was unable to pick up the victory, losing 9-7 to Spain in 10 innings on Sunday in the final game of the qualifying round. Israel and Spain finished with the same record in the tournament, but Spain advanced to the Classic.
With just three Israeli members, Team Israel’s core is professional Jewish players, active and retired. They include former outfielders Shawn Green and Gabe Kapler, who had to withdraw from the roster due to injury and is now the bench coach for manager Brad Ausmus, an ex-Major League catcher primarily for the Houston Astros.
Team Israel’s Major League makeup is a far cry from Israeli baseball, which is played mostly on sandlots and converted soccer fields by teenagers and about 75 diehard adults, mostly American immigrants and their children. The Baptists’ Village facilities, located in central Israel near Petach Tikvah, are some of the country’s only regulation fields.
The game remains far less popular than soccer and basketball, Israel’s two staple sports. Israeli basketball teams have won premier European competitions, while soccer rivalries arouse passion in bars and living rooms nationwide.
A professional baseball league, the Israel Baseball League, existed for one season in 2007, but it folded in bankruptcy after a championship run by the Beit Shemesh Blue Sox from a heavily American suburb of Jerusalem.
“Baseball cannot survive on the Anglo population by itself,” said Leo Robbins, who coached youth teams for more than a decade and now umpires games. “Our base for the last 20 years has been immigrants who just came over. Their friends, they don’t come to play baseball because they haven’t been exposed to it.”
The Israel Association of Baseball runs on a budget of approximately $380,000 per year, and even though baseball is traditionally a summer sport, games here are played in the cooler months of September through June. Kids aged 5 to 18 can play, and teams generally include 12 to 20 members. The baseball association also includes a small league for adults.
Still, the group’s secretary-general, Peter Kurz, is optimistic about baseball’s chances here. He notes that since the Israel Baseball League’s one season, the number of kids playing baseball in Israel has grown 30 percent, to approximately 1,000.
“The only reason we’re playing in this tournament is to promote baseball in Israel,” he said. “The only reason the WBC invited us to compete in this tournament is all the hard work our senior national team has done over the past 20 years.”
Their bid for the Classic was not the first time Israel fielded a national team in international competition. It regularly sends teams to tournaments in Europe and the United States, and recently Israel hosted the qualifying tournament for the European Championship, where it placed second.
Kurz also is counting on a proposed baseball stadium in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ra’anana to jump-start the sport’s popularity in Israel. The $4 million project would include a gym, “a clubhouse, a place where guys want to come. You’ve got to have a place where guys can hang out, talk to each other, learn,” he said.
Unlike Kurz, Robbins doesn’t see success in the world tournament as a catalyst for growth here. Rather, he envisions a program that would bring baseball to schools through a team of coaches. The league will “start to snowball” if a couple thousand children nationwide get a taste of baseball, he said.
“It’s getting out there and showing those kids how fun it is,” Robbins said. “You’re not going to do it by having them see the game. They have to feel what it’s like to catch a ball, to hit a ball.”
Watching games can help, though, said Arye Zacks, who coaches two teams in central Israel’s Modi’in, because it exposes young fans to the array of possible scenarios in baseball.
“There’s a lot of baseball situations that the kids don’t recognize because it hasn’t happened to them in a game before,” he said. “A kid growing up surrounded by baseball, they’re familiar with it because they’ve seen so many games on TV.”
But for all the talk of televised games, professional facilities and international championships, Pythons coach Yaniv Rosenfeld said his top priority is what he calls “Zionist baseball,” giving as many Israeli kids as possible a chance to play.
Turning to the field again, Rosenfeld shouts at his pitcher, “Ktzat ricuz!” A little concentration! “It’s all about pitching the strikes!”
Behind him, waiting on the bench, Degani said, “I love this game. I love to bat and the team’s unity.”