February 10, 2017
By Jonathan Mayo, special to Jewish Baseball News
I never thought the two sides of my life would ever come together. Baseball and Israel. I mean, for most of my life, that would be like peanut butter and tomato sauce.
Jews and baseball, now that’s long been a thing. That “Great Jews in Sports” pamphlet they joke about in the movie Airplane? I had that book. There was the documentary Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story, written by the great sportswriter Ira Berkow. Throughout my career covering baseball – two decades’ worth at this point – I’ve long sought out Jewish players and talked to them about their background. I vividly remember standing behind the batting cage at Shea Stadium talking to Shawn Green about how he grew up calling his grandparents Bubbe and Zayde without totally understanding why.
But baseball and Israel? My favorite sport that I’ve been lucky enough to turn into a career, and the Jewish homeland where I studied for a year before college? The American national pastime, c with the nation my sister calls home (on Kibbutz Lotan)? No way, no how.
There has been some baseball in Israel over the years, mostly brought over by Americans who moved there. There was an ill-fated attempt at a professional Israel Baseball League that lasted just one season in 2007, but the country wasn’t ready.
But now, maybe it is, which is unbelievable to say. I recently returned from a life-changing trip to Israel with professional baseball players. There were 10 in total – 9 active and one retired – on the trip, along with significant others, children and friends. About two weeks’ worth was crammed into six days of touring. Historical sites, meeting dignitaries, floating in the Dead Sea, a lot of good food and even a little baseball-related activity. The players soaked up every bit of it.
They weren’t just ambassadors of the game, which was the most important objective in many ways. They were ambassadors of American Jewry. Many of these players suited up for Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic qualifier, held in Brooklyn last fall (Israel won). They all had spoken how proud they were to play because they were Jewish. Now, after this trip, the connection, their bond to Israel, is exponentially stronger. All of them spoke of wanting to come back (7 of the 10 had never been before).
They also spoke of the impact they could have on the growth in Israel of the sport they have loved so long. They made two baseball stops on this whirlwind tour. One was at Baptist Village, where the country’s only real baseball field stands. The players took some batting practice, and then they took questions from the crowd, mostly kids eager to hear every word.
Then there was a groundbreaking at Beit Shemesh for what will be the first full-fledged baseball facility in the country. There were a few hundred, again largely from the younger set, on hand to get autographs and pictures with these Jewish ballplayers. Many of them were American, or their parents were American, and having baseball to play was painted as a way to help them ease into life in a new country and culture.
I was lucky enough to witness all of this first-hand. And I have Jewish sleepaway camp to thank. I went on the trip – organized by the Israel Association of Baseball and Jeff Aeder, who founded the website JewishBaseballMuseum.com – to help make a documentary film about the trip, about Team Israel, and maybe a little bit about these players exploring their Judaism and building a bond with the Jewish homeland. It’s called Heading Home, and the professional filmmakers are from Ironbound Films. Ironbound’s CEO is Jeremy Newberger, who I met at Camp Young Judaea Sprout Lake some 30 or so years ago. We’re embarking on a KickStarter fundraising campaign to raise money so we can follow the team’s exploits in the World Baseball Classic in South Korea in March and include that footage in the film.
Baseball in Israel is still very much in its infancy. There won’t be a coda to the film with an Israeli in the Major Leagues. Playing in international competition this March might help push it closer to toddlerhood, but there is still a long way to go. The touring players understood this wasn’t going to happen overnight, that it could take 15-20 years to take hold. Whether the end game was to produce professional-level players from the country was beside the point. Just growing the game, helping people – their people – learn to play it and love it, that would be the biggest Dayenu for all of them.
But players saw a fit there, no matter how foreign the game might seem right now. Baseball, one of them told me, is a game of failure. It will knock you down repeatedly, and success comes to those who keep getting back up. It requires a resilience few people have, a trait the players all saw in the Israelis who welcomed them warmly.
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Jonathan Mayo has been a reporter for MLB.com since 1999, covering Minor League prospects and the Draft. He spends his spare time trying to make sure he knows who every Jew in baseball is. Follow him on Twitter or at MLB.com.