FILED UNDER SOMETHINGISRAELI >> Sport
Today was the first day of Tee ball practice in Jerusalem - and my first day as coach.
Tee ball and its grown-up big brother, baseball, are something of an anomaly in Israel. The game is played by a small percentage of Israelis, generally those of North American heritage or descent: immigrants and their children.
The number of facilities for it are modest, at best. Only a few regulation fields exist in the country. In Jerusalem the "best" field is an artificial turf football and soccer field where ad hoc baseball diamonds are marked out in opposite corners, leaving short right field "porches" and endless left fields.
Israel has only a limited presence in international baseball competitions, but that could be said of many countries outside the Americas. The decision to drop baseball and softball from upcoming Olympics would suggest the sports have only limited followings (or is it latent anti-Americanism? Baseball is huge in Japan, Mexico, and the upcoming World Baseball Classic should build even more interest.).
On the surface, though, baseball, Tee ball and softball, couldn't be less suited to Israel. Baseball is the sporting expression of the American 19th century pastoral ideal. When stripped of its corporate sponsorships and steroid-pumped home runs, it is a game more suited for the grassy prairies of Iowa than the Holy Land's rocky hills.
The game's lyrical pace is not made for modern times at all, and seems particularly out of place in frenetic, cell phone-filled Israel, where people generally fail to savor the moment in their rush to get to the next thing.
Baseball requires large expanses of open, grassy space, and a significant amount of equipment, both of which are in short supply here.
Soccer, or football for the world outside the United States, is the local game of choice. It takes minimal equipment - many kids still play barefoot - and can be played wherever there is a square of open space.
Playgrounds, streets and schoolyards are clogged with soccer players from morning until dusk, and the sporting talk here is more of the World Cup than the World Series.
The anarchic, non-stop action of soccer is more suited to the local temperament, too.
One irony, of course, is that baseball is the most Jewish of sports. Its rule book is almost Talmudic in its complexity. Disputants cite arcane statistics over whether this player or that team is better than the other the way yeshiva students pick apart each other's position on one Torah portion or another. Not surprisingly, many yeshiva students are fanatic baseball fans.
So, it was with some trepidation that I agreed to coach a Tee ball team here in Jerusalem. The game requires the mastering of so many complex mechanical procedures - even without live pitching - that I despaired of explaining or demonstrating it to kids who are not growing up with baseball in the air.
Unlike many Israeli parents of U.S. origin I have been reluctant to push my lifelong interest in baseball on my kids. Even with the Internet and ESPN on local cable TV, it is difficult to follow baseball. Only diehard fans who spend hours searching online and reading former hometown papers are up on the latest trades, stats and rumors. I am sorry to say I didn't even realize spring training had begun until I began preparing for this week's Tee ball practice.
I have wanted my kids to follow local sports, and I can honestly report my kids and their friends are up on the local soccer and basketball teams, and can discuss the fortunes of Maccabi Haifa and Hapoel Tel Aviv in far greater detail than I. Other than the Yankees, few kids here can name any baseball teams (unless, of course, their father or mother are from Cincinnati or Boston).
But to their credit, the handful of kids who showed up for the first practice today were game to try. We started with basics you wouldn't even have to discuss in the U.S.: where the bases go, what they are called, and what is the game's object.
Taking a page from baseball documentarian Ken Burns, I described to them that the goal in baseball - unlike any other sport - is to "come home."
When I said that, I paused. Israel is home for Jews, whether they know it or not, and there has been a 2,000-year yearning to come home that we are now able to exercise. I smiled when I thought that, and the rest of the practice went smoothly.
Footnote (and I do mean foot note): After practice ended with a round of high-fives, I began gathering up the equipment. The kids took off down the field for the soccer goal standing there and began kicking around a pine cone. "I'm the goalie," one yelled in Hebrew, while the others tried to score on him. They were going back to their roots, as I was going back to mine.
Alan D. Abbey is Founding Editor of Ynetnews. His website is abbeycontent.com, and his email is firstname.lastname@example.org
Reproduced with permission: Ynet