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Israeli baseball: the ups and downs

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. (JTA) – As October approaches and baseball fans look ahead to the World Series, my mind is still on the multi-layered dream I lived this summer as a player in the inaugural season of the Israel Baseball League.

I signed autographs for smiling children and excited adults, helped to introduce a sport I love to a country I love, and made friends with ballplayers from around the world who share my passion for baseball. I had daily conversations with World Series-winning major leaguers, read about IBL games daily in Hebrew and English newspapers, and spent the summer doing what millions of fans fantasize about but only a select few get the chance to do.

It doesn’t get much better than that.

Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t a perfect summer. Most of the 120 players were housed and fed at Kfar Hayarok, a youth village just north of Tel Aviv where about 1,000 students live and attend school. The facilities were modest at best. The first weeks were rough. There was no place to work out, no physiotherapy on campus.

The food was a problem, the laundry situation was a mess, games were postponed due to unplayable fields, there was no ice for the players, one of my teammates was hit in the head by a line drive that ended his season, paychecks were postponed for a few days and I played for the Petach Tikvah Pioneers – in addition to all these other mishaps, I felt the pain of losing far too often.

The players were frustrated, but the situation improved as the season progressed. The players and league officials started meeting on a regular basis, and changes were made. One by one things came together and by midseason it was all about playing ball.

Experiencing the frustration of the league’s growing pains was worth it. I am grateful to have been chosen to be a member of a select fraternity that shared this summer of breathing life into the dream of bringing professional baseball to Israel.

Judging by the attendance and fan enthusiasm at many of the games, thousands of fans were grateful, too – next year there will be more. Whether you hail from or play for Petach Tikvah doesn’t matter, this summer we were all pioneers.

Now that I am back stateside I keep thinking back on a glorious summer. I see the 6-foot-7 Dominican Maximo Nelson in the dugout before the game fooling around with a giggling 7-year old batboy with ritual fringes hanging from his sides. On the far side of the dugout sits “Miracle Met” Art Shamsky looking at his lineup card. I hear a teammate ask if I am finished stretching and ready to have a catch. I see the sun setting at the field at Kibbutz Gezer as the fans cheer their beloved Blue Sox.

I hear Australian, Dominican, Israeli, American, Japanese and Canadian accents in the dugout. I feel the excitement and tension of being on the mound in a tight game. I see long home runs, diving catches, headfirst slides and nasty curve balls. I hear American Israelis explaining to native Israelis the rules and joys of baseball. I see fans davening the afternoon Mincha service by the concession stand. I hear the guys sitting around at night playing cards and talking baseball. I miss the sound of “Hatikvah” being played before each game as the Israeli flags wave on the outfield fences.

On second thought, maybe it was a perfect summer.

Ari Alexenberg, 46, was a player and coach in the Israel Baseball League this summer. In the off-season he lives in New Hampshire, where he integrates technology, sports, art and marketing as an entrepreneur and manager.

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