Friday, August 17, 2007

Baseball / IBL / Baseball, kosher-style

Jerry Mittleman of Haaretz reports:

The moment you arrive, it's clear this is professional baseball as you've never seen it before. Young boys with black skullcaps, prayer shawl fringes and baseball mitts wait outside the park for foul balls, while others stand beyond the right-field fence hoping to catch a home run before it disappears into the sunflower field. Past the ticket stand and inside the park, a wildly enthusiastic crowd - of which 90 percent is religious Jews - is cheering on the home team.

Crown Heights meets "A Field of Dreams." That's how it is on game day, when the Beit Shemesh Blue Sox of the Israel Baseball League play their home games at Kibbutz Gezer. The Blue Sox have been one of the biggest success stories of the IBL's inaugural season, both on and off the field.

Beit Shemesh finished the regular season this week with a 29-12 record, two-and-a-half games ahead of the Tel Aviv Lightning. The Blue Sox also have been adopted by the town's large religious, American immigrant community. "Beit Shemesh today is literally an Anglo ghetto," says Gary Swickly, a resident who immigrated from the United States 17 years ago. "People have been moving in steadily in recent years, and they are still coming in droves."

According to league officials, an average of 300-350 fans attend each Blue Sox home game, almost three times the league average. For example, on August 9, a local Beit Shemesh online business held a company outing for 70 employees, as the Blue Sox bested the Lightning in a 2-1 pitchers' duel. "Most of our staff are Americans who live in Beit Shemesh, so this is a good way to get together," a company official told Haaretz.

Because many of the town's American immigrants are originally from the metropolitan New York area, league officials purposefully attempted to build a connection between the Blue Sox and the New York Yankees.

The Blue Sox wear Yankee pinstripes, their colors are dark blue and white like the Bronx Bombers, and they are managed by a former Yankee, Ron Blomberg. The popular, 58-year-old Blomberg played for the Yankees during the first seven seasons of his eight-year Major League Baseball career, and has maintained a strong connection with his former club since his playing days ended in the late 1970s. During the past two years, he has worked as a scout for the Yankees in his hometown, Atlanta.

Blomberg will always be remembered as the first player to appear in an MLB game as a designated hitter, after the American League introduced the rule in 1973. "Now I'm famous for three things, being the first player selected in the 1967 draft, the first designated hitter ever and one of the first managers in the Israel Baseball League." he says proudly.

The former Yankee is just as enthusiastic about the IBL as the American community of Beit Shemesh. This is Blomberg's first trip to Israel. "In the 1970s when I was still playing for the Yankees, Moshe Dayan came to New York on a visit and invited me to come here and teach Israelis baseball, but it didn't work out at the time. So for me to be here now and to give something back to the people after everything they've been through, is a dream come true".

This is Blomberg's first crack at managing, after passing up the Yankee's request that he manage in their minor system. "The only place I would manage would be here," states Blomberg, "I'd rather be managing here than in the major leagues. But I told the league officials that I'm not coming if they want me to wear red socks, only Yankee pinstripes."

Some of the features of Blue Sox home games would be hard to duplicate anywhere. As dusk approaches, the public-address system announces that a minyan will be held behind the bleachers at the end of the inning. The minyan is well-attended, and includes one participant, either a player or coach, in a Blue Sox uniform.

Baseball is a game of traditions. At Chicago's Wrigley Field, they play "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the seventh inning stretch. At Blue Sox games, two wildly gyrating yeshiva "bachers" lead the crowd as the sound system blasts "Y.M.C.A." after the fifth inning of the league's seven-inning contest.

The informal atmosphere at Blue Sox games make them good family entertainment, and women and children make up a good percentage of the crowd. Shoshana Levine, who attended the game last Thursday with her young children, is a typical Blue Sox fan. Seated behind home plate, in modest attire, her children wave a homemade Blue Sox banner adorned with a blue sock. "My kids spent the whole afternoon at home making the banner for tonight's game," says Levine, who immigrated to Beit Shemesh from New Jersey 10 years ago. When asked if she is a baseball fan, Levine replied, "Not really, but I come to the games out of loyality to my hometown team, my American past and also to represent my husband, who's on a business trip to the States, and a die-hard Yankee fan."

The game was decided by a walkoff, bases-loaded single by the home team that broke a 1-1 tie, a fitting way to conclude an evening of baseball - kosher style.


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