Israeli baseball pushes for the big time
Nate Fish is excited. Things are off to a good start at this ”Baseball for Beginners” practice, where 11 young Israeli boys are putting on mitts and pulling baseball caps over knitted yarmulkes.
”All right, now we’ve got everybody in the dugout like a real team!” he yells. Then he turns around to look at the diamond that his players have helped set up, and his voice drops. ”Home plate is backwards, guys,” he says.
In sports-mad Israel, where basketball and soccer are hugely popular, baseball is still mostly a curiosity for kids like these. Fish, a former minor leaguer who played alongside with Yankees third baseman Kevin Youkilis in college, is trying to change that.
On Aug. 1, he became the first paid full-time national director of the Israel Association of Baseball, which is making a major new push to expand the reach of the sport beyond its base of American expats and their children.
”We have to change the identity of baseball in Israel a little bit,” Fish said. ”We have to make it cool and we have to make it exciting and athletic.”
Fish, a youthful 33-year-old third baseman from Shaker Heights, Ohio, fits the part.
In his blog, part travelogue and part absurdist comedy, he styles himself the ”King of All Jewish Baseball.” He arrives at the practice in workout gear and runs around the field like a high school coach, yelling instructions and keeping the kids moving from drill to drill. He wants them active, engaged and, in the brutal summer heat, sweating.
”The misconception is that baseball is slow and that baseball is boring. Baseball is fast,” Fish said. ”For anyone who thinks baseball is boring, put them in the batter’s box and zip a 95 mph fastball past them and see if they’re still bored.”
Fish’s recent clinic, held in this Jewish settlement outside of Jerusalem, showed just how far he has to go. Misthrown balls flew around the unmowed field, whose track is ringed with a concrete barrier that’s more health hazard than warning. One boy who thought he’d hit an inside-the-park home run – thanks to several fielding errors – celebrated until Fish delivered some bad news: He was out, having missed every base.
The baseball association, the sport’s governing body in the Jewish state, estimates there are 1,000 baseball players at most among Israel’s almost 8 million residents.
Fish’s arrival is the third major push to promote baseball in Israel over the past decade. In 2007, a group of American supporters launched the Israel Baseball League, a professional league comprised almost entirely of foreign players that folded after one season. Last year, Israel fielded a team for the World Baseball Classic. The team, managed by former major leaguer Brad Ausmus, was eliminated in a qualifying round.
Fish was involved in both of those efforts, playing for the IBL’s Tel Aviv Lightning and last year’s World Baseball Classic squad. Earlier this summer, he coached the American junior team in the Maccabiah Games, a sort of Olympics for Jewish athletes held in Israel every four years.
With his American experience and Israeli connections, Fish seems like a perfect fit for the task of growing baseball in Israel. ”I believe in the project and I like the people and I think it’s a cool opportunity,” Fish said. ”How often to you get to be in charge of baseball in a country?”
But the obstacles are large at all levels, from funding concerns and lack of facilities to the most basic details.
The ”Baseball for Beginners” sessions are designed to introduce young kids to the fundamentals of the game. But while Fish, who does not speak Hebrew, tried to work slowly, he often lapses into rapid-fire instructions that sail over the heads of his players along with their errant throws. To help, Efraim Keren and his 15-year-old son, Nadav, walk the field translating and correcting mechanics.
”We haven’t been successful in reaching the rest of Israeli society,” acknowledged Keren, a New Jersey native who is a past national director of the baseball association. ”And it’s quite a challenge to bring an American guy who speaks no Hebrew to reach out to the Israeli public.”
Instead of focusing on restarting a professional league or a similarly big splash, Fish is leading a grassroots push for ”more baseball and better baseball.” The association is focusing on improving coaching standards and building new baseball diamonds, of which there are currently only four in Israel. In many places, games are held on makeshift fields plopped down in public parks or farmlands, with no backstops, base paths, dugouts or pitching mounds.
Fish also spent much of the summer giving presentations to gym teachers, and was rewarded with the right to hold baseball clinics in Tel Aviv schools. Giving kids broad exposure to playing, he said, is key to pushing baseball out of its American box and into the Israeli mainstream.
Itamar Elispur, a 14-year-old from Jerusalem, is one of the few Israeli baseball players who didn’t learn the game from an American parent. Introduced to the sport by an American uncle, he said none of his friends at school play the game, but when he shows them highlights online they are interested in learning more. He said he hoped that the game could be taught in gym class and promoted better.
”If they play it in school or we have more games, maybe they love it,” he said. And his mother, Tal, said she enjoyed the English practice he gets on the field.
Finding new players is also critical for another reason: money. Israeli baseball is largely dependent on player dues to stay afloat. With his full-time salary on the books and hopes for expansion, Fish estimates that the group now needs to expand enrollment 25 percent every year.
On the practice field, there were small signs of progress. Second-grader Nadav Sina, playing baseball for the first time ever, ended a scrimmage with the game’s only clean catch. And as Keren handed out Popsicles after the hot practice, another boy walked up to Fish.
”When’s the next practice?” he asked.