By: Hillel Kuttler
In 2014, shortly after moving from Toronto to Israel, Marshall Deltoff and his son Periel were entering a mall in the northern town of Karmiel. A security guard stopped them. Periel, then 9, was carrying a heavy, long, wooden object that the guard mistook for a weapon.
It was a baseball bat.
At the time, some of Periel’s baseball games in northern Israel were played on a pasture pockmarked by goat excrement. One boy gripped a bat by the wrong end as he prepared to hit. Another player, after hitting the ball, ran toward third base. The Bad News Bears, anyone?
Baseball remains far off the radar on Israel’s sports landscape, where soccer and basketball dominate. That’s especially so in places far from Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh, Raanana and the Tel Aviv area, where thousands of immigrants from baseball-loving countries and their children play the game.
But baseball is making inroads in the north.
Organized baseball and softball competition exists there for boys and girls, men and women. Teams represent towns, villages and settlements. In Karmiel, enough kids have registered in one program that two teams are being formed this autumn: for those ages 7 to 11 and for those ages 12 to 16. Outreach efforts promote the sport in Arab communities, too.
“Our real task is to train Hebrew-speaking Israelis to play baseball,” said Virginia native Marc Milzman, who works for Sportskills, a company based in the Misgav village of Eshchar that organizes sports chugim (extra-curricular activities) for children. In the Sportskills program, cushiony “tee” balls are used, rather than traditional, hard baseballs; most of the equipment is donated from abroad.
While saying he’d be “shocked” if organized leagues were “a major factor” in drawing immigrants from baseball-mad countries to settle in the north, the sport’s having such a presence could be an “additional incentive,” Milzman said.
“It’s a sport that’s incrementally growing,” he added.
There’s something of a chicken-and-the-egg situation going on, with few baseball players and fewer fields on which to play.
Nearly all baseball activities – games and practices – are held on soccer fields or on concrete-based tennis courts and basketball courts. Funds are being raised to build a baseball field in the village of Eshchar, and plans are afoot to build another one near the Misgav regional council. They would be the north’s first baseball fields.
A new, Misgav-based nonprofit organization, Twisters, runs five baseball chugim for beginners age 12 and under, four competitive teams (playing both baseball and softball) of boys and girls 13–18, and men’s and women’s softball teams. That entails 110 players altogether, said Pittsburgh native Louie Miller, a Twisters coach who lives in the village of Shorashim.
His colleague, Baltimore-raised Yaniv Rosenfeld, who founded Twisters, teaches baseball once a week to 40 students at Misgav’s high school, Miller said. Among the youth, most players are Israeli-born, he added.
Baseball’s inroads in Israel’s North make it a good icebreaker for young immigrants.
“You can be part of a group, which is hard for an Oleh. It definitely helps American and Canadian kids integrate,” Miller said. “It helps us as coaches to have kids with a baseball background bring a love of the game.”
Said Deltoff: “Having baseball here makes for a softer landing, so [the immigrants] can meet Israeli kids. It also can empower North American kids, because they can teach the Israeli kids. It helps their self-confidence. It’s something they’re familiar with that they can bring to their new Israeli friends.”