Menlo Park Legends Manager David Klein teaches baseball in Tel Aviv
Baseball metaphors are plentiful in the United States: getting to first base, coming out of left field, being thrown a curve, having two or three strikes against you.
Such metaphors likely go unheard in Israel, where soccer and basketball are popular, says David Klein, who visited Israel in 2011-12 and manages the Menlo Park Legends semi-pro summer team. Outside of the U.S. ex-pat community in Israel, baseball is almost unknown, he says.
He tried to change that at several middle schools in Tel Aviv over five months, starting in September 2011. His motive, he says, was to give back to the Jewish community and to baseball. He acquired funding for the five-month internship, but the baseball part would prove tougher. Baseball, like cricket, is famously opaque to the uninitiated.
"It's extremely hard to explain, especially in Hebrew," Mr. Klein told the Almanac. "That was actually very challenging. That was the hardest part."
He spent a month learning enough Hebrew to talk about baseball. On seminar days, he would rise at 7 a.m., load 50 baseballs, 30 gloves and some bats and cones into an equipment bag, get a cab, and ride off to conduct two- and three-day seminars at the schools. He used gifts of baseball cards as incentives for the kids' efforts to understand the game.
A seminar would start with a discussion of throwing and catching, then hitting, then tying it all together with the rules, and followed by a simple game, he says. Most of the classes took place inside gyms.
"Ninety-nine percent of the kids had never even picked up a glove or a baseball bat, nor had they ever seen a baseball game in their lives," Mr. Klein says. Putting on a baseball glove may seem straightforward to us here, but to Israeli kids it was a mystery. Why? "I don't know," Mr. Klein says.
"They don't know baseball. It's not cool there," he says. "(But) they have a sense of wonder and are very, very interested in American culture. They are very, very interested in American values."
Every week, out of the several hundred kids he talked to that week, four or five would indicate an interest in playing in Israel's nascent Little League, he says.
"It's a small and growing sport in Israel," Mr. Klein says. Israel has three full-size baseball diamonds and a few Little League fields; nationwide about 1,200 kids play, mostly from families that emigrated from the United States, he says.
An attempt to form a professional league faded in 2007; they had trouble attracting fans and funding, Mr. Klein says.
Mr. Klein, a Menlo Park resident, played at Menlo-Atherton High School and is in the school's baseball Hall of Fame. He played catcher for the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Getting some help
In January, near the end of his sojourn, Mr. Klein took his seminar south by bus to Ofakim. Ofakim is a few miles east of Sderot, a town often cited in news reports as being a target for rockets launched from the Gaza Strip, a Palestinian population center.
Rocket attacks are "a daily threat," Mr. Klein noted. "There was always the possibility that it could happen. Life there is not easy and it gives you a new appreciation for what we have here."
Also on the bus that day were 30 to 40 young adults, ages 18 to 26, visiting from the United States on an all-expense-paid 10-day BirthRight trip. They had volunteered to help Mr. Klein teach kids about baseball. Eleven in the group were college baseball players; the rest had playing experience. The group was split evenly among men and women.
Thousands of young Jewish adults visit Israel on BirthRight trips every year, Mr. Klein says, adding that this was the first trip with a baseball theme.
During the two-hour bus trip, Mr. Klein drilled the group in baseball-related Hebrew phrases, and read aloud 10 minutes of news about U.S. Major League baseball. "I wanted to keep the baseball vibe alive," he says.
The plan had been to bring together students from a Jewish/Israeli school and an Arab/Israeli school. It didn't work out, but they did engage a school that had both Jewish and Arab Israeli students.
Under Mr. Klein's direction, the BirthRight group split up and ran 20-minute clinics on base running, hitting and catching. The highlight for many BirthRight members: seeing a kid make his or her first catch. "They said it was absolutely priceless," Mr. Klein says.
A slow game, slower
So what did he learn?
"It's interesting how different cultures and their cultural norms translate to the actual game play," Mr. Klein says.
In Japan, he says, players keep their emotions under control. Nobody throws helmets. Managers don't engage in face-to-face shouting matches with umpires. Everything is by the book.
With the rocket attacks and the antagonism of Middle East politics in general, Israelis take time to enjoy life, Mr. Klein says. They're not always on time. They walk slowly and can spend two hours or more on a meal. Public buses "come whenever they want."
Baseball, too, is laid back, he says. The game may start late. Umpires may be late. Players may not even show up. The defense takes its time in getting into position.
The trip did confirm his belief that baseball is special, however. Its appeal has to do with it being a team sport that showcases individual performance, he says.
"I think as people understand that and learn more about the game of baseball, it will help it grow," he says. "Playing catch is a mindless form of activity that anybody can enjoy."
Baseball is also coming along in the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy and Spain, he says. "They're all growing baseball countries."
Israel is a challenge because the game is naturally slow. "They often like games that are a little more fast-paced," he says.