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Yarmulke as Baseball Cap?

May 18, 2006 By:
Courtesy of the Jewish National Fund
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Get your peanuts! Get your popcorn! Get your … falafel?

It's a long way to go for a baseball game, but then, where more natural a place than Israel to watch an umpire mediate a dispute over turf?

In a groundbreaking effort to bring the joys of America's pastime to Israel, the Jewish National Fund has partnered with the Israel Baseball League to dot the nation's landscapes with community baseball fields and provide a place for every Israeli to enjoy the sport.

"To me, the game of baseball is the greatest game on earth," says Larry Baras, who founded the Israel Baseball League, a group dedicated to promoting and developing baseball in Israel.

"It embodies the values of patience, sportsmanship, teamwork and interdependence," he explains. "The baseball field can be a meeting place for people of different ages, nationalities, genders and religions.

"As a relatively new sport to Israel, it can literally provide a level playing field for all Israelis - Arabs, secular Jews, Orthodox Jews, Bedouins - to learn a sport together."

In Jerusalem, where baseball's popularity is the greatest, the main field is little more than an empty lot filled with dust, rocks and thorns. In Beit Shemesh, the only baseball field is built on a slope, forcing the 250 children in the local youth league to run uphill as they head toward first base.

In Tel Aviv, players rush to their positions between innings because there are no lights on the field and all play must end at dusk. Haifa, Beersheva and Tiberias have interested players, but no baseball fields at all.

JNF will build new ball fields throughout Israel, and improve or replace makeshift ones so that each city will eventually have its own baseball field.

Construction will be done with great attention to Israel's unique environmental concerns, including its severe water shortage. All fields will be covered with synthetic turf to avoid the need for constant watering, and catch basins will be installed beneath the turf where ever possible to collect rainfall.

In a country better known for its avid soccer fans, baseball's popularity has increased significantly among Israelis in recent years. According to a letter published in The Palestine Post in 1948, baseball's humble beginnings in Israel can be traced back to July 4, 1928. (What better date for an American game?)

On this day, the letter details, the governess of the Sephardic Orphanage in Jerusalem tried to teach a group of boys to play baseball. Unaware that the balls could be used for anything else, the boys promptly dropped them to the ground and began kicking them around.

Okay, so kids may have known more about Israel Bonds than Bary Bonds. But today, it is estimated that the number of regular baseball players in Israel exceeds 2,000. Two organizations - the Israel Association of Baseball and the Israel Softball Association - organize youth and adult leagues throughout the country, and Israeli teams compete in international tournaments.

Also, the Israel Association of Baseball holds an annual peace tournament in Tel Aviv, where Arab and Jewish students come together to learn the fundamentals of baseball and play in integrated games.

As part of its mission to promote baseball in Israel, the Israel Baseball League will host a two-week baseball camp in July run by professional instructors and former Major League players, and has also begun to recruit players to compete on the women's softball team in the 2008 summer Olympics.

The IBL hopes to eventually establish a professional baseball league in Israel.

Hey, get your red hots right here - kosher, of course!

And if you see someone from out of town in the stands with a big "P" on his T, maybe it stands for "pareve," rather than Phillies.

What would Koufax say?

For more information on "Project: Baseball," call 1-888-JNF-0099.

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