Shekelball

A season in the now-defunct Israeli Baseball League.

Shekelball

July 22, 2011 — “The challenge in Boston was to bring a World Series championship because they hadn’t had one in 85 years,” said onetime Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette in 2006, comparing his former job to his role as director of player development for the Israel Baseball League (IBL). “They haven’t had baseball in Israel in over five-thousand [years],” he continued, deliberately overstating the case, though in no way diminishing the monumental challenge of launching a professional league in a country that lacked facilities, players, coaches, fans, and even bats and balls. Yet Duquette and league founder/big macher Larry Baras did manage to get the IBL off the ground in the summer of 2007, only to see the league fold after a single eight-week season that included an on-field tragedy, not to mention ongoing labor strife.

Among the players who participated in Israel’s short-lived baseball experiment was left-handed pitcher-turned-teacher-turned pitcher Aaron Pribble, who recounts his experience in “Pitching in the Promised Land” (University of Nebraska Press), a book that is part baseball memoir and part voyage of self-discovery. Pribble, then 27, toiled for the Tel Aviv Lightning, earning $250 a week to face batters from the likes of the Modi’in Miracle, Netanya Tigers, Petach Tikva Pioneers and Ra’anana Express.

As Pribble illustrates in the book, the fledging six-team league made certain concessions designed to appeal to or accommodate Israelis, like playing seven inning games, settling ties via home run derby, and remaining idle on the Sabbath. But in the end, the IBL looked a lot like a low-level minor league in the U.S.—except for the local flavor, of course. Think: hummus and schnitzel-fueled players schvitzing in the summer heat, each quick to acknowledge a teammate’s good play with a pat on the tuchus.

Tellingly, when Pribble’s college baseball coach advised him there was going to be a professional baseball league in Israel he assumed his mentor was joking. “I didn’t think twice about it until about three weeks later when I google’d ‘Israel Baseball League’ and up popped the Web site,” he recalls. Being half-Jewish and having played professional ball in the Western and Central Baseball Leagues, as well as France, Pribble considered himself a good fit for the league. “I sent Duquette a baseball résumé, he offered me a contract,” and before long the San Francisco native was on a flight to Tel Aviv.

When Pribble arrived he met fellow players representing nine different countries—Israel, the United States, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan and the Ukraine. The talent level was uneven, he recalls, noting that the best hurler in the league, Juan Feliciano, had played for Hiroshima in the big leagues of Japan the year before, and that almost all of the Dominicans had minor league baseball experience, including Double- and Triple-A. On the other hand, “towards the bottom of each roster there were guys who might not have made a good junior college team,” assesses Pribble.

“The formula I decipher[ed] was this,” he writes in the book. “On the one hand, if you weren’t Jewish at all, like the Dominicans, you had to be very good. On the other, if you were [an] Orthodox [Jew] or, better yet, Israeli, all you needed was a heartbeat.” Pribble goes on to describe himself as “squarely in the middle of the talent pool: half-assed Jew and half-assed former pro.”

But what the league lacked in talent it made up for in notable characters. There was Adam Crabb, a lanky pitcher from Adelaide, Australia, who featured a one-fingered fastball. “Instead of gripping the baseball with the middle and pointer fingers on top, he dropped his middle finger off the side of the ball and moved his thumb up the other side—like he was throwing with two pincers,” explains Pribble.

Then there was Leon Feingold, who failed to reach the major leagues as a member of the Cleveland Indians organization, but did distinguish himself on the Major League Eating circuit, winning Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating regionals three times, and competing in the July 4th-Coney Island competition on three occasions. Finally, there was Alan Gardner, a forty-something criminal lawyer from New York, who doubled as the players’ labor representative when the players threatened to strike due to delayed salary payments.

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