Baptists Village, Israel — The 14- and 15-year-old boys pat their gloves and stand alert across the infield, their knees bent and eyes shifting between home plate and the pitcher’s mound.
Coaches yell out the familiar phrases: “Nice play!” “Throw to first!” “Easy out!”
Then, from the dugout, a player shouts, “Yala, Uriah! Kadima!” – “Let’s go, Uriah. Forward.” Then in English, “Eyes on the ball!” and turns to his teammate to chat in Hebrew.
“When I started playing baseball I started understanding more English,” said Tal Degani, 14, a reserve right fielder for the Misgav Pythons, a youth team from northern Israel.
An Israeli native, Tal “found baseball on the Internet” and from there connected with the Israel Association of Baseball, which has organized youth and amateur competition across the country for 20 years.
Six hours later, in Jupiter, Fla., Israel’s national baseball team won its second qualifying game for the World Baseball Classic, defeating Spain, 4-2. Coupled with its 7-3 victory over South Africa in the qualifying round opener on Sept. 19, Team Israel needed one more victory to advance to the WBC in March. Israel was scheduled to play Spain again on Sunday in the double-elimination tournament.
With just three Israeli members, Team Israel’s core is professional Jewish players, active and retired. They include former outfielders Shawn Green and Gabe Kapler, who had to withdraw from the roster due to injury and is now the bench coach for manager Brad Ausmus, an ex-Major League catcher primarily for the Houston Astros.
Team Israel’s Major League makeup is a far cry from Israeli baseball, which is played mostly on sandlots and converted soccer fields by teenagers and about 75 diehard adults, mostly American immigrants and their children. The Baptists’ Village facilities, located in central Israel near Petach Tikvah, are some of the country’s only regulation fields.
The game remains far less popular than soccer and basketball, Israel’s two staple sports. Israeli basketball teams have won premier European competitions, while soccer rivalries arouse passion in bars and living rooms nationwide.
And while a professional baseball league, the Israel Baseball League, existed for one season in 2007, it folded in bankruptcy after a championship run by the Beit Shemesh Blue Sox from a heavily American suburb of Jerusalem.
“Baseball cannot survive on the Anglo population by itself,” said Leo Robbins, who coached youth teams for more than a decade and now umpires games. “Our base for the last 20 years has been immigrants who just came over. Their friends, they don’t come to play baseball because they haven’t been exposed to it.”
The Israel Association of Baseball runs on a budget of approximately $380,000 per year, and even though baseball is traditionally a summer sport, games here are played in the cooler months of September through June. Kids aged 5 to 18 can play, and teams generally include 12 to 20 members. The IAB also includes a small league for adults.