Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Why Israel Needs Baseball



Michael Freund comes through with this absolutely brilliant piece! And as more and more Americans are making Aliyah and influencing Israeli culture who knows maybe one day...

Why Israel needs baseball
By MICHAEL FREUND

It's that time of year again. As autumn nears, temperatures in North America begin to fall even as baseball's pennant races heat up in the season's final stretch.

Growing up in New York, there was no greater diversion from my daily routine than following the hometown heroes as they made a dash for glory.

Who can forget 1986, that miraculous and wonderful season when the New York Mets defied the odds and stormed their way into the playoffs, crushing the insufferable Boston Red Sox and earning the coveted title of World Champions.

I remember going to Shea Stadium for the final game of the World Series and haggling with a scalper in the parking lot until he finally relented and sold me a ticket at half his original asking price. Sitting in the stands I may have been by myself, but I was certainly not alone as I cheered along with the 55,031 other fans when the Mets came from behind to win, 8-5.

With their gritty determination, and stubborn refusal to give up, they taught a generation of New Yorkers the meaning of persistence and resourcefulness.

To the uninitiated, baseball can often seem boring or simplistic, like a watered-down American version of cricket. In actual fact, it is an exquisite game, one replete with elegance and nuance that requires just as much brain as it does brawn. Governed by a clear set of rules, baseball inculcates in its devotees a series of basic and fundamental Jewish values such as discipline, patience and humility – values that are so sorely lacking in modern society.

And it is precisely for that reason Israel needs to embrace this unique and incomparable sport, which has so much to offer the younger generation.

LOCALLY, THE two most popular games are of course basketball and soccer. Baseball easily trumps them both. Defined by innings rather than a clock, baseball is a more leisurely pastime, one that often combines fast-paced action with deliberate and measured steps.

It is not a matter of running up and down a court trying to outmaneuver an opponent. No; baseball is far more subtle than that. It is a duel between the pitcher and the batter, with each trying to outsmart the other. It is about placement of the ball just as much as about speed, about foresight as much as about power.

Unlike other sports baseball places immense value on the individual as well as on the collective. Each player must stand in the batter's box on his own, with the spotlight focused entirely on him. There is no avoiding the issue of personal responsibility, no way to point the finger at someone else and escape accountability for one's actions.

But baseball is equally about teamwork, too, about giving your all for the greater good.

Where else is there a sport that boasts a play known as a "sacrifice," where the individual forgoes his own best interest for that of the team? Taking responsibility for one's actions, giving of oneself for others – these are the types of ideals that need reinforcement in Israeli society, perhaps more today than ever before.

Baseball also teaches one of life's most important lessons: how to deal with losing. Failure is an entirely unavoidable part of the game, with even the best of players managing to get hits just one out of every three times they come to bat. A team that wins 60 percent of its games, while losing the other 40, is actually having one heck of a season and will likely find itself in the playoffs. Baseball, therefore, is about learning to cope with one's limitations, fending off life's blows while continuing to press forward.

IT MIGHT sound silly to speak so philosophically about a game. But we should not underestimate the power of sports as an educational and social tool.

As syndicated columnist George Will once put it, "Baseball, it is said, is only a game. True. And the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona. Not all holes, or games, are created equal."

For far too long baseball in Israel has been sidelined, receiving next to nothing in government encouragement or support. It has been left to the Israel Association of Baseball (IAB), a devoted band of enthusiasts, to promote the sport, quietly and painstakingly, among the Israeli public.

Volunteering their time and their love for the game the IAB has managed to introduce baseball to thousands of Israelis young and old despite a lack of proper playing fields or equipment.

Baseball in Israel is now where tennis was in this country some two decades ago: under-funded, under-appreciated and under the radar screen.

But just as tennis eventually took off, with courts rising across the land, the same can hold true for baseball. With just a little more effort, and a modest investment, the game could eventually become a national pursuit.

This would teach Israeli kids to better appreciate values such as fair play and integrity. More importantly, it would help them realize that the key to happiness lies not in straying into foul territory, but in sticking to the rules – both on the field and off.

The writer is not a Red Sox fan.

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