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Cynthia Werthamer: Yerrrrrr Out! Baseball Fails to Take Hold in Israel

August 1, 2012

Reviewed in this Essay:
Pitching in the Promised Land: A Story of the First and Only Season in the Israel Baseball League, by Aaron Pribble. 2011, University of Nebraska Press, 237 pages.

Who’da thunk that baseball, that quintessential American pastime, could get transported to the biblical land of Israel — where fans eat glatt kosher hot dogs and the Friday games have to start at 10 a.m. so that everyone can get home in time for the start of shabbat?
The answer, at least so far, is that it couldn’t. But one man’s view of the quixotic effort, and its unintended emotional repercussions, is told in Pitching in the Promised Land.
Aaron Pribble, an American high school social studies teacher who has pitched baseball in independent leagues and in France, gets signed up for the inaugural season of the Israel Baseball League (IBL) in 2007, and sees it as the chance of a lifetime — not only for himself, but perhaps even for the possibility of peace in the Middle East. In his description of opening day, Pribble takes note of a sign that an elderly man is holding up:
Jews returning to Israel. Baseball in the Holy Land. World Peace. __
Alevay (if only), as they say in the old country. Instead of engendering world peace, however, Pribble and his ballplayer colleagues encounter miserable playing conditions, meager accommodations, monotonous food, and a measly number of Israeli fans. League founder Larry Baras, a successful Boston businessman who invented a cream cheese–filled bagel, hoped the IBL would be, as Pribble puts it, “a positive contribution to the state” of Israel. “Little did any of us know,” Pribble adds, that “it would be easier for Baras to inject cream cheese into a bagel than America’s pastime into the Holy Land.”
This is the ominous note on which the book opens, as some hundred and twenty decent-to-excellent players from around the world (the U.S., Dominican Republic, Canada, Australia, even a few from Israel) converge on the league’s housing complex at the beginning of the eight-week, forty-five-game season, in hope of kick-starting, or restarting, their careers in baseball.
The IBL has only six teams, playing at three ballparks: the Bet Shemesh Blue Sox, Modi’in Miracle, Netanya Tigers, Petach Tikva Pioneers, Ra’anana Express, and Tel Aviv Lightning (for which Pribble pitched). The foreignness of baseball among Israelis leads the league to find shortcuts and enhancements to sugarcoat the game for the uninitiated. “The rules of the IBL are a little different,” says the IBL website, “all aimed at enhancing fan experiences. Our games are seven innings in duration and in the most exciting innovation of all, if games are tied after seven innings, they are decided by a Home Run Derby! Baseball in Israel. It’s nothing but fun!!”
The players, as well as the investors and administrators, fervently want baseball to catch on among the natives. When “Hatikvah” (“The Hope”), Israel’s national anthem, is sung on the field during the, ahem, fifth-inning stretch, Pribble and his colleagues become optimistic, not only for their own careers, but indeed for a check-mark on the old man’s poster. A Hebrew-English mix of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” a festive atmosphere, and plenty of cheering has Pribble surmising that perhaps baseball “was going to catch on here after all. That is, if no one got hurt.”
Of course, someone does get hurt — more than one, but one seriously — because of unsafe conditions on the diamond (in a former softball stadium) and an improperly implemented warm-up. Reynaldo (“Rey Rey”) Cruz, Petach Tikvah’s center fielder, is struck in the head by a line drive during batting practice as he stands by his team’s dugout, which is very close to the field. No batting cage is in place around the hitter to protect the other players. Cruz is knocked unconscious and remains in the hospital for several weeks before being sent home, his baseball career finished.
Nevertheless, the league’s administrators and managers manage to get the ball rolling, as it were. Among them are some heavy hitters: The commissioner of the IBL is Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Israel; the director of baseball operations is Dan Duquette, former general manager of the Montreal Expos and Boston Red Sox; Ron Blomberg, longtime New York Yankee and the first-ever designated hitter, manages the Blue Sox (“the Yankees of Israel,” as they’re known); Art Shamsky, who batted .300 with the 1969 “Miracle” Mets (who rose from the basement of the National League to win the pennant and defeat the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series) manages, appropriately enough, the Modi’in Miracle; Ken Holtzman, three-time World Series pitcher with the Oakland Athletics and also a longtime Chicago Cub, manages the Pioneers (and gets so outspokenly frustrated with the IBL that he leaves before the season ends).
Pribble does not detail the reasons for the league’s demise, just notes some of its operating problems — notably, a strike threat by the IBL’s sizable number of Dominican players when the first paychecks are less than promised. (Commissioner Kurtzer, looking uncomfortable, argues the short funds are “a good-faith down payment on the outstanding balance.”) While more checks do eventually arrive, Pribble goes on, many players don’t receive their final payment of the summer, and Pribble’s own last check bounces — twice. “A supplementary check mailed a year later would also bounce, resulting in the loss of a quarter of my total salary, never to be recompensed.” This is the closest Pribble comes to telling his readers that financial difficulties were an integral part of IBL’s failure.
The lack of press coverage and Israeli fan base are also disheartening. While American ex-patriates eagerly welcome the arrival of baseball in Israel, native Israelis remain clueless about the sport, and the IBL’s family-fun enticements lack any educational value about the sport. Even the American Jewish press is sloppy and out of the loop: One interview with Shamsky about the inaugural season declares the Netanya Tigers winners of the IBL’s championship game (which was actually won by the redoubtable Bet Shemesh Blue Sox).
Still, anticipation and joy have their share in Pribble’s narrative, as when he describes a moment on the mound when time stops:
In the bottom of the seventh I picked up the baseball . . . I was rubbing it up when the horizon caught my eye. . . . The softball lights had just come on. Looking out past first base I noticed the sunset. I didn’t expect it to come so soon, and it caught me by surprise. In spite of my current task I stole a moment, drank it in. . . . As the sun set over the valley below, its light painted the western sky in reds, yellows, and oranges. I turned and look left past the raised plateau of Kibbutz Gezer, beyond the sunflower fields, toward the tomb of Solomon, former ruler of the Kingdom of Israel.
At another point, he and a few team buddies decide to visit the city of Ramallah and other parts of the West Bank, in the company of an American friend of Pribble’s who lives there. The pitcher notices two kids playing in the street, and gives them a baseball from his bag. Though the boy to whom he offers the ball doesn’t understand English, Pribble demonstrates a throw and says, “Yalla,” the all-purpose Arabic word, adopted by Israelis, that means “let’s go,” “come on,” and “goodbye.” He and the kid start playing catch, and another boy comes over, while still more watch from windows above the street. When Pribble leaves, he motions to the first boy to keep the baseball, and as he walks away, boys are tossing it around. “Goose bumps shot down my arms, tingling the back of my neck,” Pribble recalls. “We had merely given one baseball to a couple kids, and maybe it was only symbolic, but the seed of baseball was planted in Palestine. . . . The path to peace might be ninety feet and four left turns.”
In fact, the political situation in the Middle East is a constant backdrop to the action, literally and literarily. Pribble begins many chapters with epigraphs taken from news reports: of Arab prisoners being released, deaths in Israeli-Palestinian skirmishes, and negotiations between the Israeli government and Palestinian Authority.
Then, of course, there’s baseball. Some of Pribble’s descriptions of down-to-the-wire competitions have all the drama of the radio play-by-play:
I nodded, wound up, delivered. He swung, fouling it over the short chain-link backstop. This time Wigg [the catcher] wiggled four fingers, calling for a change. I shook. He called for a fastball away. I shook again. He finally put down three fingers, the pitch I was looking for, and I began my windup before so much as nodding in recognition. It was sharp, like I worked on days prior, and as the slider dipped down out of the strike zone their catcher swung over the top for strike three.
While Pribble’s book could do with less foreshadowing (“At the time I did not know our fates would intertwine in this very spot after the championship game . . .”), his retelling of the ups and downs of the IBL’s first season bears a unique perspective. His personal quest for his own Judaism, and his place in the hallowed game of baseball, shows that for him and many others, baseball is a religion every bit as valid as other belief systems — and for that, we baseball fans can be grateful.

Cynthia Werthamer, a neophyte baseball fan by the standards of some long-timers, nonetheless enjoys writing about baseball, Judaism, foreign places, and dogs, among other subjects.