Shekelball

A season in the now-defunct Israeli Baseball League.

“The main reason why the IBL failed is because of lack of money—and the lack of fans,” says Pribble, noting that a few thousand spectators would turn out for special events like Opening Day and the All-Star Game, but that not nearly enough ticket buyers came to the games on a day-in, day-out basis.

Logistics were also a season-long issue. “Bats, balls, and uniforms got held up in customs, and that almost delayed the start of the season,” notes Pribble. But getting the players paid was by far the biggest problem, and not just because banks in Israel are closed on Shabbat. Check or direct deposit? Dollars or Shekels? And what about the exchange rate? All issues of concern, especially for the Dominican players, many of whom were relying on the income to support families back in the Dominican Republic.

Money aside, the players were also frustrated by the mostly inadequate facilities. There was one proper baseball field in the entire country—Yarkon Field at Ha Yarkon Sports Complex—which had been constructed by Baptist missionaries from Texas, and was as well-maintained as most ball fields in the U.S. But the other two venues—one a converted softball field on an old kibbutz—left much to be desired.

“At Kibbutz Gezer the bases were all the way at the edge of the grass [beyond the dirt cutouts],” begins Pribble. “They had moved the fence back—which meant that outfielders had to run up a hill to get to the fence—and that placed the warning track in the middle of the outfield. And there was a light pole in the middle of right field, with a mattress duct taped around it so no one would get hurt,” he concludes.

No player was injured running into the light pole, but it was a lack of safety equipment—specifically a turtle shell cage—that led to an early-season tragedy. During batting practice prior to a game between Petach Tikva and the Modi’in Miracle, the Pioneers’ Ronaldo Cruz was hit in the back of the head by a screaming line drive off the bat of Miracle leadoff hitter, Adalberto Paulino. Cruz was rendered unconscious and suffered a brain aneurysm. “He would remain in the hospital for several weeks,” recalls Pribble. “And he would never play baseball again.”

***
Despite the myriad challenges the league did play its full 40-game schedule (Pribble’s Lightning finished 26-14), with the black socks-wearing Bet Shemesh Blue Sox capturing the first (and only) IBL crown. But if anyone held out any hope of coming back for a second season in 2008, those hopes were dashed when the players’ final paychecks bounced.

Immediately after the season came to a close, Pribble returned to his teaching job in Marin County, California, despite being offered a chance to continue pitching professionally, this time in the Atlantic League, an independent baseball league on the east coast of the U.S. Four years later he says he has no regrets about going to Israel—or discontinuing his baseball career. “I went to explore my identity, as well as who I was as a baseball player. Getting to spend time in Israel was really impactful on my sense of self. If I had it to do over again I’d make the same decision.”

As for the IBL, there has been talk of re-starting the league, but to date no investors have moved forward with concrete plans. So while the prospects for the IBL seem bleak, there is hope. One can imagine the few diehard Israeli baseball fans still saying to themselves: Maybe next year … in Jerusalem.

Read the first chapter of ‘Pitching in the Promised Land’

Official Web site of the Israel Baseball League

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