Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Hello U.S. and A

Having been home for 48 hours, I've already delighted in some of the luxuries that make up American culture: last night I slept with my feet fully on the mattress. I had four free refills at a restaurant. This morning I took the car out of the garage and drove around, just drove around. I saw a bottle of air freshener sitting on the windowsill and decided to read the label—directions, purpose, storage and disposal instructions, precautionary warnings and potential hazards. Do you want to know why I did this? Because I could. Because I could. Ain’t English grand? Anyway, I promised you a final Israeli update, so here we go.

On August 16th, the Ra’anana Express train came to a grinding halt in the first round of the playoffs against the Natanya Tigers. We faced Columbian ex-minor leaguer Raphael Rojano who’d had arm problems for most of the season. Let’s just say he didn’t have arm problems come playoff time—a fastball around 90, a sharp slider, and a change-up that he saved for special occasions. Our best chance came in the last inning when we benefited from one of the worst judgment calls (see: oxymoron) I’ve ever seen. You’d think the officiating would have improved over the season…but no. Tiger center fielder Josh Doane caught a line-drive around his shins and our resident German ump (I won’t tell you his nickname) decided that he hadn’t caught the ball, but trapped it. Our batter, Donny “Boom-Boom” Mott Jr. was so sure that the ball had been caught he’d already retreated back to our dugout. Only after the Natanya coach started yelling at the ump did Donny realize the call and scamper to first base. U.S. Ambassador and league commissioner Dan Kurtzer took the field and overruled saying Boom-Boom had left the base path, thus he was out. Now there’s a true diplomat: he got his goal and managed to save face for the umpiring crew on a technicality. Sanity was restored and the Tigers quietly ended the inning, game, and season for the Ra’anana (Banana) Express.

I have no regrets about the season. We tried our best and came up a bit short. You can’t win ‘em all. And as our head coach Shaun Smith likes to say [insert Aussie accent], “It’s all about the process.” My college coach used to say the same thing and they’re absolutely right. What you get out of the path is just as valuable as what awaits you at the end. After putting in the work and seeking the counsel of some very smart baseball men over my lifetime, I feel like I’ve fulfilled whatever baseball potential was hiding inside and for this I am deeply indebted to everyone that’s joined me on this path.

The season having come to a close, I decided to do two things: exercise my vegetative state on the beach and travel a bit. The biggest change to report from the beach front is the sheer number of French tourists. Several factors contribute to this: firstly, during the month of August, basically every French person goes on vacation. Long live the French and their work ethic. Secondly, last summer nobody vacationed in Israel because of the Lebanon disaster. Thus, with the current state of relative political calm, every single French Jew came to Israel. Yes, every single one. There is nobody left in Paris for minion. But seriously, if someone could somehow find out what percentage of French Jews are in Israel right now, I would love to know because they are everywhere. Even the French are complaining that there are too many French. In any case, it was great for me because I got some practice polishing up on la belle langue.

So let me tell you about Eilat and Petra. Eilat is the Vegas of Israel, just without the gambling. It’s a ton of gaudy hotels and cheap touristy shops along the Red Sea that never seem to close. Most surprising though was the group of Orthodox Jews, with tzitzit and all, dancing to incredibly loud techno music on top of a pimped-out conversion van and encouraging others to join in their rave. I had to stop and ask someone about this because I just didn’t understand what was going on. Doesn’t Jewish Orthodoxy connote an internal piety and separation from secular culture? Apparently this is not the case with the followers of Rabbi Nachman from Uman, a learned man who lived some 200 years ago in what is now the Ukraine. This sagacious fellow urged his followers to dance and sing on his grave during Rosh Hashannah, the Jewish New Year. To this day thousands of Hasidic Jews make the pilgrimage to honor his request. My Israeli buddy Daniel Maddy-Weitzman (D..M. Dubbs for short) told me, rather skeptically, how people claim miraculous life improvements after dancing on the grave. So anyway, the pious (?) followers of Nachman have interpreted his teachings as dancing to loud music on top of automobiles. To each Jew his own.

The reason I went down to Eilat in the first place was to access Jordan and the ancient city of Petra. Petra is pretty cool—it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and also one of the new 7 Wonders of the World. I’m going to do my best to describe it to you, but honestly, there’s no way I’ll be able to scratch the surface or even do my tour guide Tariq any justice. I should be putting up some pics on facebook but you definitely want to google this place and if you’re ever in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, don’t miss it.

Driving to Petra from Eilat on the tour bus was kind of crazy. We passed several Bedouin goat herders who travel across Arabia by camel and tent. Can you imagine spending your life without internet access? Unrelated but equally interesting, King Abdullah’s smiling face is plastered on billboards in every single village, just to remind his people how handsome he is. There’s something strange about this but I can’t quite put my finger on it. Anyway, after some spectacular mountain views and being solicited for camel rides, we arrived at a narrow gorge where an earthquake millions of years ago formed a natural fortification to Petra’s entrance. When you’re walking down this magnificent passage you can’t help but feel like Indiana Jones, except for all the tourists taking pictures. Over the last several thousand years, Petra has been under control of many peoples: Nabataeans who worshiped pre-Islamic Arab gods, Romans, Arabs, and Christians to be sure. Its architecture was further influenced by the Egyptians and Persians who may also have had a stake in the city. What made Petra so strategically important was the fact that it lied on both the ancient spice and silk trade routes. If one thing is certain, those Petra merchants sat on nice rugs and ate some well-flavored hummus. The extraordinary part about Petra (and what allowed its preservation) is that the original inhabitants, the Nabataeans, constructed the town entirely by cutting stone out of mountain walls! We’re talking palatial structures carved out of stone with no jack hammers. Going to Petra is like taking a time machine back to the B.C’s.

Being back in the states, I’m finally starting to realize what a fantastic journey this has been. It seems like yesterday that I was ordering my first authentic falafel on pita and now I have to settle for the cheap imitations we have here in the US once more. I hope you’ve enjoyed my diatribes or at least used this as a means to procrastinate from something like paying the bills, an endeavor I should start figuring out pretty soon.


Wednesday, August 15, 2007

You know you've spent two months in Israel when...

We'll, the regular season is winding down and I am proud to say that the boys from Ra'anana have battled their way into the playoffs...along with every other team in the league. It was smart to include every team in the playoffs because if they had stuck to the original plan, a two-team playoff, the losing teams would have probably waved the white flag long ago. This way everybody has a chance and baseball can be an unpredictable game.

I know I've said this before but this league is unlike any other than I've experienced. Can you imagine a bunch of rough-and-tumble, tobacco-chewing baseball players taking pre-game to techno music blaring in the background? And then there's all the non-Jews who now sing Hatikvah, the Israeli National Anthem, before each game. One of my non-Jewish teammates went so far as to tattoo "baseball" in Hebrew letters across his arm. Perhaps the greatest difference is the fact that we play games six days a week. Of course, staying healthy is an issue, but the schedule has several benefits. For one, if you lose or just have a bad game, there's no time to whine or psych yourself out because you must immediately start preparing for the next game. And on the other hand, every day games allow the players to get into a very regular rhythm. This is also the first league I've ever played in where I know my competitors intimately. As an outfielder, you can talk smack to your buddy on second base like, "you better not run home on a base hit if you're smart." From the opposing dugout you hear things like, "if you get another hit, you're buying dinner tonight." While this closeness works most of the time, sometimes it backfires--like the time we almost got into a melee over a hit batsman and then had to share the bus back home. What would the bus driver have thought if he looked in the rear-view mirror to see people being chucked over the seats and punches being thrown?

As the dog-days of summer roll on, tension and frustration with self and league have become commonplace. A good example of said frustration may be viewed here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rHb2fVcKHkg . Pay special attention to the pitcher and also see if you can pick me out. The umpires have received the brunt of the players' frustration. And while these umpires are by far the worst I've ever seen in my life, I admire their perseverance, because if I was as bad as them, I would have quit a long time ago.

Knock on wood, the season is ending pretty well for me. For one, my limbs are all in tact--mainly because of the shiatsu massages I've been receiving from Tiger, the league physio(therapist). He calls me "magic carpet". Take from that what you will. My Jewish genes are inescapable. On the field, I seem to have found my happy place at the plate, something about breathing out of my eyelids and cutting down on strikeouts because they're fascist. I take it one game at a time and let my teammates handle the rest (note: if you haven't seen the movie Bull Durham, do).

As my time in Israel draws to a close, I've spent countless hours contemplating what I've learned and how I've grown. After spending so much time in this beautiful country, I'd like to think that I'll take a little bit of Israel with me when I go. That's why I came up with this list:

You know you've spent two months in Israel when....

...you consider 90 degrees a cold front.

...you start saying things like, "the 5.10 sheckel bus ride will get us back to the green village by 23:00."

...you consider Domino's a gourmet pizza option.

...you are no longer phased by the 7-minute mid-movie smoke break.

...you urinate wherever it's convenient.

...you feel cheated if you don't stay out until 6 a.m.

...you hear a Cindy Lauper techno remix and don't change the radio station.

...you say to yourself, "you know what, the male speedo really isn't that bad."

...you say to yourself, "I think I could survive on sunflower seeds and chick peas alone, and furthermore, more than one ice cube is really unnecessary."

Sunday, August 5, 2007

All-Star Game, Masada, Dead Sea, J-Roo

Where to begin? Let’s begin with Jerusalem a.k.a. J-Town a.k.a. J-Roo. I’ve now been to Jerusalem 2.5 times. The first time I went directly from the baseball field with my teammate Justin who lives there and studies at a Yeshiva, or bible school, if you will. Imagine two baseball players covered in dirt strolling through one of Jerusalem’s most religious neighborhoods. Let’s just say we were getting sideways looks from the hasids (religious men) as they stepped out of synagogue that night.

During this trip I visited the Kotel—the Western Wall. Here are a few little known facts: the Western Wall was actually a retaining wall for the now destroyed temple, but Western Retaining Wall doesn’t sound quite as snazzy. Also, the picture hanging above your bubie’s mantle shows only a portion of this iconic wall. What you don’t see is an indoor cave-like section where the wall extends. Inside the tunnel is a vast collection of torahs and prayer hot spots. Visiting the wall is a crazy experience. It’s not every day you see religious men engaged in prayer with army officers strapped with rifles marching behind them. Everyone at the Kotel needs a yarmulke (head covering), so if you left yours at home, the fine people at the Kotel provide cardboard hats, free of charge. Also, beggars run rampant at the wall. What a brilliant business move. How can you say no the needy when you’re at one of the most religious places in the world?

Trip #2 to Jerusalem was one of those standard walking tours with the guide who speaks four different languages. Thank goodness she only needed English and Spanish or it would have been a very long day. One of the things you must understand about J-Town is just how much history occurred there. At one point, we were standing above King David’s tomb which was also where the last supper occurred and also the site of a mosque built in medieval times. What’s more, apparently the rock where Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac and where Mohammed ascended to heaven was the same rock! What a coincidence! Those of you who strive for historical accuracy might want to disregard this paragraph.

My most recent trip to Jerusalem happened because we got lost coming back from Masada and the Dead Sea. My buddy who was driving asked me to get out and ask for directions. The only problem was I was shirtless wearing swimming trunks and sandals in yet another ultra-orthodox section of town. We ended up doing the “guy thing” and driving around aimlessly until we found the highway.

Among the many blessings I’ve had during this trip, I was honored to be named an IBL All-Star. The collection of players chosen for the game is, without question, the finest group of players I’ve ever been associated with and I’m just lucky to be able to mention my name in the same breath as them. The game itself was an absolute blast and I took some pretty sweet video recordings that I’ll cherish forever. Unfortunately, we lost a nail-biter, 6-5, and I got stranded on first base as the potential tying run after my Ra’anana teammate Matt Castillo hit a screaming line-drive to right field to end the inning. But, all in all, I think we gave the fans a great game.

One benefit of All-Star weekend is the off-time. As mentioned before, a few of us took this opportunity to see the Dead Sea and Masada. Besides myself, it was my Haverford roommate Nat, Josh Zumbrun (a pitcher who played at Air Force) and the lone Japanese player in the league, Ryoju Kihara, or Rio as we call him. I guess you’d have to be there to understand, but Rio was pretty hilarious on the trip. Imagine being on top of an ancient mountain fortress and all of a sudden your scrawny Japanese friend who speaks broken English disappears to explore by himself without telling anyone. Another classic Rio moment was when he we asked him why he’d dyed his hair completely blond. He said, “Rio dye hair because old hair no match color of Rio’s uniform.” How do you respond to that?

Anyway, for me Masada was the most mystical place in Israel. In a nutshell, the story of Masada is that during the final days the Jewish-Roman war in A.D. 72 the last of the Jewish revolutionaries were confined to a fortress at the top of this mountain overlooking the Dead Sea surrounded by the Roman infantry. Instead of being tortured, raped, enslaved, and killed at the hands of the Romans, all the 930+ inhabitants (except one woman and her kids) committed mass-suicide. Whether or not this was the right move according to the Jewish law is a hotly debated philosophical question. Of course, the issue is much much much more complex than I’ve described and is definitely worth the research and thought. Each year the Israeli Defense Force takes new members up for a ceremony where they pledge that Masada will never fall again.

We stayed up all night driving to Masada and climbed the mountain at dawn. The spectacular sunrise revealed a pristine view of the sea, the rugged mountains where the original Roman encampments are visible and the region where the Dead Sea has retreated over the years and formed a field of desolate peaks and valleys. Although these dry fields are beautiful, apparently the sea shrinkage, caused by the removal of water from the Jordan River, is devastating the Dead Sea economy. It sounds corny, but you can really feel something special in the air as you climb this mountain and explore the place where the Masada martyrs spent their final days. The pictures are up on Facebook.com and are too amazing for words. Everyone can join, so “friend me” if we’re not “friends” already.

After Masada we drove to a “beach” on the Dead Sea, but it was more like rocks leading into the water. People always talk about the strangeness of the Dead Sea, and let me tell you, they’re right. First off, the Dead Sea is the lowest place on earth-- woop-dee-woo. Secondly, the Dead Sea is the saltiest naturally occurring body of water in the world, which has several consequences for bathers. The negative: if you get it in your mouth it tastes like warm hydrogen peroxide with a hint of lemon and you want to vomit. If you get it in your eyes it burns rather badly. If you’re a baseball player with small cuts all over your body and/or athletes foot and/or other “bodily grievances” you can only stay in for 10 minutes before it feels like God is punishing you for that peppermint you stole from the convenient store when you were 8. But there are positives consequences as well: you cannot drown in the Dead Sea. Once you lift your feet from the sea floor you bob up and down like a cork. New swimming strokes also become possible. For instance, I invented a back stroke where one accelerates in the direction of one’s feet, not one’s head. Yeah, think about that. I can’t imagine this but apparently the water is supposed to be healthy for your body. The Dead Sea was Cleopatra’s place to rejuvenate, and word is she had good skin.

Over and Out, na-noo na-noo.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Caesaria, Gezer....

Let's go back to the well for some more cultural lessons: 1) When you're on the beach, beware of the paddle ball players. They are ruthless. They line up along the shoreline and smack at full force making it difficult to get in the water without feeling like you're a duck in duck hunt. The other day I saw a little kid almost get a concussion and I too have fallen prey to an errant shot. The worst part is that these numbskulls think they own the beach and won't apologize when they hit you.

2) The concept of standing in line hasn't reached Israel yet. They believe in "the swarm". If you don't put up elbows and perhaps give the occasional jab, you will lose your place in line. The only time I didn't have a problem was when I was getting on a bus carrying my baseball bat.

3) Despite what Americans believe, we do not have the most advanced technology in the world. To prove this, we take a voyage inside the Israeli bathroom. Israelis have expanded upon our two-knob shower design and have added another knob—the water pressure knob. Using this model, one can keep the desired temperature at all times and merely adjust the third knob to turn the shower on and off or adjust the strength of the shower. This goes right up there with the bagel guillotine and electric scissors.
4) Do not expect too much out of the socialized Israeli medical system: Ironically, days after my podiatrist father left Israel, my big toe became infected with an ingrown nail. After 14 or so days of soaking, it was time to try the clinic. You know you're in trouble when the first thing the supposed foot doctor asks you is: "so you are here for the allergy shots?" The guy sits me down, tells me he's a family physician, grabs the infected area with his bare hands and says, "you know what I don't think it's pussing quite enough to have this cut out but I can refer you to the general surgeon if you want." I am now seeking private podiatric assistance. And they've all gone to look for Ameeeerica. All gone to look for Ameeeeriiiiiica.
A few days back my old college roomie Nat (also in the league) traveled to Caesaria, a crazy archaeological spot with ruins dating back thousands of years. It was a prime port for several different kingdoms—Roman, Christian, Judeo—depending on who was successful killing who at the time. The coolest parts were the Roman coliseum, amphitheater for gladiator games, ancient town, estate remains (partially submerged in the sea), Crusader fortress and aqueduct all overlooking the Med. I spent most of this trip taking pictures of my college roommate Nat climbing like a monkey atop Roman arches. He has been trapped in the infant climbing stage for upwards of 20 years.

I also promised some of you I would describe one of the absolute craziest baseball fields I've ever experienced. For starters, this field is on Kibbutz Gezer—an old socialist agricultural community close to Jerusalem. If that isn't enough, the remains of Solomon's house are beyond left field. That's King Solomon. After you're done reading this sentence I want you to close your eyes and imagine a baseball field in Cuba or Nicaragua. That's about what Gezer field is like. Because it was an old softball field, the fences had to be pushed back causing all sorts of field damage. In the middle of right field there is an old light pole with a mattress wrapped around it so nobody will get hurt. We were thinking about stealing the mattress because it is undoubtedly nicer than the ones we sleep on. The bleachers and "dugouts" are covered by makeshift tarp awnings. Both dugouts are next to each other like in hockey (let's hope there's not a fight). The dirt in the infield is like quicksand and again because it is an old softball field the bases can be found in shallow outfield. It kind of feels like summer camp when we play there.

My team, baruch hashem, has been playing a lot better. We're slowing climbing our way up to a .500 record behind great pitching (our Dominican, Pie, should be playing serious pro ball in the States) and timely hitting. Personally, I'm hovering somewhere around .300 but that is subject to change with the wind. I hit my second home run yesterday. Our fans from Ra'anana started coming out in droves after our three-game winning streak. The community even held a Shabbat luncheon in our honor. Having fans is really sweet. They made up a cheer to the tune of "Hey, Hey, Goodbye" that goes "Ra'anana, Ra'anana, hey, hey…Ra'anana" which in retrospect wasn't the best idea considering the chant is so easily turned against us when we're losing. We prefer a derivation of an old Master P ditty: "Make em say, uhhh, uhhh, Ra'nanana."

Awaiting you next time: Yarooshala'im shel zahav (Golden Jerusalem) and much much more

Benyamin Menachem-Mendel Field

Saturday, July 28, 2007

One Crazy Game

Let’s start today’s episode with a few cultural lessons. Lesson number one: it might be unwise for Israelis to wear shirts with English slogans. Among countless examples, here is my favorite: “I [heart] me.” Someone please explain. Lesson number two: when traveling, extract 5.10 sheckles before getting on the bus. If you don’t, here’s what happens: first the bus driver shuts the door upon your unsuspecting body. Then, taking no pity, the driver (who looks like he’s been driving the same loop for 36 hours) hits the gas well before you have reached your seat. If you are not in full athletic position, you get slammed into fiberglass while digging for coins. The driver proceeds to take hairpin turns at 110 kilos per hour while everyone sits in silence because this is completely normal. Apparently Israel has more driving fatalities per capita than any industrialized country. Lesson number three: Jews are allowed to get tattoos. Everyone in Israel has tattoos. You can be buried in a Jewish cemetery if you have a tattoo. On a side note, pop rocks and soda don’t explode in your stomach.

Next on the agenda is baseball. The game I am about to describe is just as memorable as any I’ve ever played in. When the Ra’anana Express faced off against the Modi’in Miracle, the scouting reports pointed toward a pitching duel. It was Dominican versus Dominican and at this point the hitters had not been taking batting practice at all (see previous blog). Our ace, Esquire Pie a.k.a. The Attorney General threw the first no-hitter in league history. Somehow in the top of the seventh after walking three batters and going down 3-0 to the next guy he escaped by throwing two strikes and forcing the batter to roll over on a ball to third base. Amazing. The Miracle’s ace, Ol’ Maximo, had surrendered even fewer base runners and scattered only two hits. This game ended regulation in a 0-0 tie, but it did not go into extra-innings per se. You see, in the IBL, we decide ties by means of the home run derby and this was the first one in league history. After our derby batters outswung the Miracles’, we thought we’d won, but controversy was in the air. Supposedly, our first baseman, Scott Feller, had used a bat made of composite wood—a big no-no. However, since the umpire has previously checked the bat and found no problems, we were awarded the victory after all. As a side note, the bat was confiscated and will be placed in the IBL hall of fame (whenever it gets built).

On a personal note, the change from metal to wood bats has been huge. I’ve hit a few balls that would have been doubles (or home runs) with metal but were caught on the warning track in this wood bat league. It’s amazing how much the batters are able to “cheat” using metal bats. Using wood, your weaknesses are amplified and you are forced to become a better hitter as a result (hopefully). Being the purest that I am, I’d change all youth baseball to wood if I could. But because Louisville Slugger and Easton are making small fortunes manufacturing metal bats and today’s emphasis is so strongly geared toward power hitting, I doubt this will happen any time soon.

Lately, I’ve been starting to see the ball better. I’m three for my last five including a home run. Baseball is an amazing game because it’s all about the process. Baseball is one of those things that doesn’t lend itself to immediate gratification. In baseball it takes days, weeks, months, perhaps years to reap the fruits of one’s labor. Furthermore, once one reaches a certain level of expertise, it opens the door to new layers of growth. Many of you I’m sure have experienced this in other realms of life. Over the last year + I’ve often said to myself I wish I could be a sophomore in high school again knowing then what I know now. But obviously this is not how it works and paths often become more meaningful in retrospect. Enough fluffy stuff. Someone pray to the baseball gods that I continue hitting the ball.

Off the field, I’ve been doing a fair amount of site-seeing. When the fam was here (Jason on birthright and the ‘rents touring the country and watching baseball), we explored the ancient city of Jaffa, which lies just south of Tel Aviv. Actually, Tel Aviv owes its founding to Jaffa, Tel Aviv was founded when the Jews were thrown out of Jaffa by Muslims some 100 years ago. Additionally, I went to the Museum of the Diaspora, which is absolutely amazing for history dorks like moi. This place chronicles the history of the Jewish people from the time they were kicked out of Israel after the destruction of the temple until the founding of the Israeli in 1948. Here are some fun facts: the first synagogue in the western hemisphere was in Curacao. Sephardic congregations spread sand over the sanctuary floor to symbolize the exodus. And it’s actually not our fault that we deal in money a lot considering we weren’t allowed to own land for much of the last 2000 years. Lastly, Houdini was a Jew (where was that Adam Sandler?)

Peace in the Middle East

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Opening Night

Hello my sisters and brothers with different mothers. It’s story time once again. Aren’t you lucky? Let’s start with this tasty one. The evening before opening night my buddy Cameron and I found ourselves at an outdoor amphitheater in our “home village”. Who was playing? None other than Achilios—a rock cover band featuring local teenagers. This was a huge affair with lighting, a giant sound system, a fog machine, ticket-takers and the whole nine yards. Achilios was actually great instrumentally. The same cannot be said about their singing. Can you imagine “Knocking on heaven’s door” and “Californication” sung in middle-eastern accents? It was impossible to hold back the laughter.

Later that night a few of us went to an amazing outdoor beach-side bar. The Mediterranean water, which glowed blue florescence, was literally lapping up against this place. When we walked up, all the locals were dressed in the latest European fashions and I was donning khaki shorts and a polo. My teammate Steve walks right in front of the swarm surrounding the bouncer and says in English, “can we come in?” Just like that, all four of us were in front of a gorgeous bar to our left and outdoor swings to our right under the mild Tel Aviv night sky with an orange moon descending on the horizon (excuse the haughty length of this sentence). Slightly dumbfounded we later tried to piece together how we’d gotten in. As it turns out, Israelis LOVE Americans. Maybe because we protect them, maybe because we pour money into their economy, maybe because we’re just that cool, whatever the case may be, getting into a bar like this has never happened to me before. What’s more, when you’re out on the town, the locals are so very friendly and willing to engage in conversation. If you don’t believe me—guys, when’s the last time WOMEN have offered to buy YOU shots at a bar? Yeah, exactly.

Moving on, opening night at the diamond was something else. My team, the Ra’anana Express wasn’t playing but everyone associated the league was there as good-will ambassadors. There were well over 3000 people in attendance and standing-room only for the first pro game in Israel. Those most excited were the American citizens living in Israel who hadn’t seen baseball in years. For a while, I was sitting behind this English guy who couldn’t understand the concept of balls and strikes. I overheard him say, “I just don’t understand. In cricket if the batter watches the ball go past him, the game is over!” Another highlight was me looking foolish (shocking) by attempting to start “the wave”. I haven’t lost hope that this trend can and will traverse the Atlantic. Perhaps the most memorable part of the night were the autographs. The little kids were far more concerned with John Hancocks than the game itself. I must have signed 100 shirts, hats, programs, balls, arms, and shoes. One pour kid went to desperate measures by giving me a piece of concrete to sign. Some of these kids were really enamored by us “professionals”. One kid said, “I love this. In America you have to wait on long lines for autographs. Here it’s so easy.” Later that night we all went back and watched the game on “Israeli ESPN”. Some games are being televised back in the states—check your local listings. The camera crew did an unbelievable job considering they’d never tracked baseballs before.

As for the Ra’anana Express, we are currently struggling a little bit…and by struggling I mean leading the league in walks by our pitchers, strikeouts by out batters, and errors by our fielders. This lethal combination has lead to a one and four record. But let me give you a little better idea of what’s going on. The way the schedules have worked out, we have faced a #1 starter basically every game. We’ve faced Maximo Nelson (what a name) twice. Ol’ Maximo is a 6’9” Dominican who was once the third-rated prospect in the Yankees organization is only playing here because he lost his U.S. work visa for unspecified reasons. Ol’ Maxey brings it up around 93ish and will be playing in Japan next year. I am happily sitting at 2 for 9 on the season. My 0-1 (with a walk) day against Maximo today was a moral victory considering there is no batting practice in Israel (because there are no batting nets to accommodate such a thing). To give a non-baseball analogy, this is like going into a piano recital cold without practicing. But honestly, que sera sera. This is all for fun and right now it really is.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Silver Linings

Most everything has a silver lining, or at least a perspective that makes a difficult experience manageable. The first couple days of this adventure have been full of silver linings. The first such experience occurred before we had left the tarmac in Atlanta. The culprit: a faulty o-ring in the right engine. The consequence: a five-hour delay, much of which was spent sitting in the plane due to “de-boarding complications”. This in turn led to a ten-hour layover in Milan. What were the silver linings of this seemingly unfortunate situation? A ten-hour layover in Milan! We hopped off the plane, exchanged some greenbacks for Euros, and trucked around the gothically-surreal 14th century Duomo Cathedral and it’s environs. Later, at a square enshrining the master Leonardo DaVinci, we befriended a herd of bickering old Milanese politicos who were arguing just to draw attention. I think every town square has this group of loveable aged fellows. And I’m forgetting the most obvious silver lining: they discovered the o-ring on the ground instead of in the air.
I cannot think of a simple way to describe the place where the 120 IBL players are living. It’s a joint boarding school, independent village and community center, children’s recreation locale, farm, and breeding ground on a few hundred acres that has is fenced in with armed security 24/7. To tell you how random the place seems, I was running the other day and happened upon a fully-equipped circus tent. Yeah. We’re living in the standard-sized dorm room—only there’s 4 of us per room. The tap water is potable if you don’t mind Montezuma’s (Antiochus’?) revenge. The food makes Haverford’s dining Center seem like Tavern of the Green. It’s very very simple food. The best part: right now I’m sitting in my bed listening to Hannum Overdrive with earbuds as loud as it will go on my itunes and the AC literally sounds like the plague of locust that swarmed the people of Egypt during the story of Exodus. Also, we Americans take for granted the amount of water that is constantly at our disposal. This fact becomes painfully (literally) obvious when you have to walk a half-mile across a highway to buy ice after practice instead just getting it from the training room or jumping in an ice bath.
So what are the silver linings? First, it feels like summer camp again. People living in tight quarters have the ability to connect with each other in a meaningful way. My roommate whose head is closest to my feet is a 30 year-old (real) professional ballplayer who has spent time in Major League (MLB) spring training before. He loves the testament, old and new, just as much as anyone I’ve ever met. He’s incredibly curious about Jewish customs and I’m sure he will challenge me in several ways this summer. On the other end of the spectrum, one of my teammates is a newly-turned orthodox college kid from Long Island currently studying at Yeshiva Jerusalem. In certain ways, I’m very jealous of the extent to which the orthodox community LOVES their own lifestyle and the intellectual and spiritual struggle that it presents on a daily basis. I’ll probably spend a shabbot or two in Jerusalem checking out his scene. Leave it up to the Israeli Baseball League to promote religious discussion amongst baseball players, whodathunkit?. I haven’t even mentioned my Dominican catcher who knows approximately 47 words of English and how I taught him the English slang word, “SICK!” today. Games start soon. Stay tuned.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Greetings from Israel

Greetings Haverbubble. It’s been two months since graduation and I miss you already. This is Ben Field, class of ’07, reporting from the land of Israel, the land of milk and honey, the land of hummus and falafel, the land of incredibly bad drivers and incredibly beautiful women, and most importantly, the land of the new Israel Baseball League (IBL). Last winter Dean Kannerstein told the senior Jewish black squirrel baseball players that we’d been invited to try out for professional baseball in Israel. This was a no-brainer: play pro baseball, spread the game we love to a part of the world Jews are told to love since preschool, take a paid vacation before ever setting foot in an office, and perhaps most importantly, delay the “real world”. Travis Zier, Nat Ballenberg and I were the three Haverfordians picked to take the journey.

So here’s the nitty-gritty. This summer marks the inaugural season of professional baseball in Israel. The players were chosen primarily by Dan Duquette, former General Manager of the Boston Red Sox and Montreal Expos. Six teams representing different Israeli cities are competing against each other in a 40 game season culminating in a playoff series at summer’s end. We play six games a week with an off-day on the Sabbath. God said on the seventh day you rest, so the dudes abide. All the teams are currently owned by the same entity (the IBL), but the goal is to eventually sell the franchises and operate the league in the same way other professional leagues operate. This season, all the players are living together in a camp-like atmosphere outside Tel Aviv. For all the details, check out our sweet website: www.israelbaseballleague.com.

When I left for Israel I didn’t want to lose contact with my friends from the west, so I took the easy way out—I started writing a mass email. When the Haverblog people approached me I was three or four mass emails deep. Using the time management skills I learned at Haverford (a.k.a. avoiding excess work), here’s what’s going to happen: I am going to release these mass emails on a time delay and soon the blog will catch up to the email. I am hoping that this blog release will compete favorably with the release of the new Harry Potter book. My agent has informed me that the numbers appear promising. So what does the reader have to look forward to? Stay tuned for culture learnings for benefit glorious nation U.S.A., crazy travel stories, and some personal baseball accounts thrown into the mix. We’ll be in touch Haverworld.