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:

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.