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July 5, 2007

L.A. ‘boys of summer’ take to the diamond in Israel

http://www.jewishjournal.com/sports/article/la_boys_of_summer_take_to_the_diamond_in_israel_20070706

Echad, shtaiyim, shelosh strikes and you're out at the new ball game. That's right, sports fans, America's favorite pastime is set to become Israel's favorite pastime. At least that's the hope of the new Israel Baseball League (IBL). With six teams, three stadiums and a 45-game schedule, IBL is ready to play
Meet the players
By Carin Davis

JESSE MICHEL
Team: Raanana Express
Hometown: West Hills
High School: El Camino
Position: Catcher
Date of Birth: April 17, 1984
Height: 5-foot-9
Weight: 175 lbs
College Experience: UC San Diego
Bats: Left
Throws: Right
Resides: West Hills
Birthplace: Tarzana
Synagogue: Temple Judea
Favorite Hobbies: Politics, listening to music, playing guitar, working out
Favorite Foods: Sushi, chicken, hibachi
Superstitions: "Pine tar on my bat and helmet."
Top Three All-Time Movies: "Braveheart," "Gladiator," "The Rock"
Nickname(s): Coach
Been to Israel before: 18 months ago on Hillel birthright trip
Interesting Trivia: Won gold medals in four straight Maccabi games, now coaches for Maccabi and Harvard Westlake High.

ADAM HARWOOD
Team: Modiin Miracle
Position: Shortstop
Date of Birth: Sept. 1, 1985
Height: 5-foot-9
Weight: 175 lbs
College Experience: Pace University
Bats: Right
Throws: Right
Resides: Los Angeles
Birthplace: Santa Monica
Favorite Hobbies: Video games and scuba diving
Favorite Foods: Hamburgers
Top Three All-Time Movies: "Top Gun," "Wedding Crashers," "Good Will Hunting"
Nickname(s): Woody
High School: Brentwood
Been to Israel before: No
Interesting Trivia: Played on the same Maccabi team as Seth Binder.

AARON LEVIN
Team: Modiin Miracle
Position: First base/third Base
Date of Birth: July 19, 1985
Height: 6-foot-1
Weight: 220 lbs
College Experience: Cuesta Community College/ San Luis Obispo (assistant coach)
Bats: Right
Throws: Right
Resides: San Luis Obispo
Hometown: Calabasas
High School: Calabasas High
Synagogue: Kol Tikvah
Been to Israel before: No
Interesting Trivia: Has been close friends with Jesse Michael since childhood
Birthplace: Los Angeles
Favorite Hobbies: Playing Sports, listening to music
Favorite Foods: Sushi and steak
Superstitions: "Eat the same thing if I have a good game."
Top Three All-Time Movies: "Remember the Titans," "My Cousin Vinny," "Happy Gilmore"

JOSH EICHENSTEIN
Team: Netanya Tigers
Position: Second base/pitcher
Date of Birth: Nov. 14, 1983
Height: 5-foot-10
Weight: 163 lbs
Bats: Right
Throws: Right
Resides: Los Angeles
Birthplace: Beverlywood
Favorite Hobbies: Playing and listening to music
Favorite Foods: Sushi, pizza, hamburgers
Superstitions: "When I'm on a hot streak I repeat the same pregame and morning rituals until the streak is over."
Top Three All-Time Movies: "Major League," "Gladiator," "Rocky" (1-4 and 6)
Nickname(s): "Eich" sounds like "Ike"
High School: Beverly Hills High
Synagogue: Temple Emanuel
College: University of Arizona
Been to Israel before: Four times. In 2005, traveled there during a semester abroad in London.
Interesting Trivia: Favorite player is Mark Grace, but he likes to model his game after Derek Jeter.


ADAM KOPIEC
Team: Tel Aviv Lightning
High School: La Jolla Country Day
Position: Catcher
Date of Birth: Nov. 17, 1984
Height: 6-foot-1
Weight: 200 lbs
College Experience: Wesleyan University
Bats: Right
Throws: Right
Resides: Rancho Santa Fe
Birthplace: Phoenix
Favorite Hobbies: Golf, football, going to the beach
Favorite Foods: Carne asada burritos, burgers, sushi, garlic chicken
Superstitions: "Tightening and loosening my batting gloves between pitches."
Top Three All-Time Movies: "The Godfather," "Die Hard," "Forrest Gump"
Nickname(s): Kopes
Local Synagogue: Temple Solel (Encinitas)
Been to Israel before: Age 7, for brother's bar mitzvah
Favorite Team: San Diego Padres
Interesting Trivia: Favorite team is the San Diego Padres, favorite all time player is Tony Gwynn.

SETH BINDER
Team: Petach Tikva Pioneers
Position: Shortstop
Date of Birth: April 6, 1985
Height: 5-foot-9
Weight: 175 lbs
College Experience: Oberlin College
Bats: Right
Throws: Right
Resides: Oak Park
Birthplace: Granada Hills
Favorite Hobbies: Baseball
Favorite Foods: Sushi and apples
Top Three All-Time Movies: "Shawshank Redemption," "Good Will Hunting," "Boondock Saints"
Been to Israel before: No
Interesting Trivia: Played on same Maccabi team as Adam Harwood.

ball, and several Southern California athletes are stepping up to bat.

Seth Binder (Oak Park), Josh Eichenstein (Los Angeles), Adam Harwood (Los Angeles), Adam Kopiec (Rancho Santa Fe), Jesse Michel (West Hills) and Aaron Levin (San Luis Obispo) were drafted by IBL teams and are currently in Israel for the inaugural season. They each heard about the league in different ways -- Michel randomly came across it on ESPN.com, Harwood from a female friend who plays softball, Kopiec and Eichenstein from encouraging dads, and Levin's name was thrown into the ring on his behalf.

"I had been to Israel 18 months ago on a Birthright trip through Hillel, so I got a feel for how amazing a place it is," said Michel, who got his little league start with West Hills Pony Baseball. "When I heard somebody was going to put the two together, I said I at least have to tryout and see if I can go do this."

Most of these SoCal players attended tryouts in Los Angeles, but Binder and Harwood flew to Florida due to a scheduling conflict. Harwood was the only player to hit a homerun during tryouts, so he was confident he'd done well. Eichenstein had the opposite experience.

"I thought I had about a 1 percent chance of making the team," said Eichenstein, who was working at a talent agency at the time. His face lit up as he recalled the moment he received a congratulatory e-mail from IBL head of baseball operations, Dan Dukett. "I called my dad first; the rest of the day was a blur."

Aaron LevinLevin was shocked when he heard he was the league's first overall pick. "My grandparents joke around and say, 'You're a footnote in history.' It's all just an honor," said Levin, who says his amazing Maccabi games experience inspired his decision to play with the IBL.

Some of the Southland players look at the IBL season as a stepping-stone to Major League Baseball (MLB), while others just see it as an amazing opportunity to live in Israel. As kids, all the local players dreamed of being professional baseball players -- most just didn't expect that dream to come true. "It has always been a dream to play professional baseball, and to be able to do that in a country as amazing as Israel is just an added bonus," said Kopiec, whose parents are traveling to Israel for two weeks to watch their son play.

The IBL play level is said to be comparable to the MLB's Single-A league, with IBL recruits hailing from college varsity teams, the MLB Minor Leagues and various national teams from around the world. While most of the league's players, including the six from Southern California, are Jewish, the league is open to non-Jewish players. IBL players hail from the United States, Canada, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Australia and Europe. In its inaugural season, about 10 percent of players in the league are Israelis. The league's goal is to raise the level of play throughout Israel so at least 25 percent of the league's 120 players are Israeli by its fifth year. Current IBL players will contribute to reaching this goal by working with Israeli youth at IBL camps and clinics.

"My high school coach told me to put a lot of effort into working with the kids because that's how you hand down the game and pass on your knowledge," said Harwood, who attended Sinai Akiba through fourth grade and played high school ball at Brentwood. "He did it with me, and I should really take a lot of care and pass it on to the next level."

Josh EichensteinThe introduction to baseball will not be limited to Israelis who are fortunate enough to afford day camp. In the spirit of tikkun olam, or repairing the world, IBL players will also give out 1,000 bats, 1,000 gloves and 1,000 baseballs to underprivileged children in Israel. As part of the batting 1,000 initiative, they will teach children the game, hand out the baseball equipment for the kids to own, and work with the children throughout the season.

"I am the grandson of two Auschwitz survivors and my grandfather always felt that it was incredibly important for a place like Israel to exist. To be able to live there and give something like baseball to the country is very important to me," added Kopiec, who said the opportunity to bring the sport to Israel is what attracted him to the league in the first place.

Creating a baseball culture in Israel is one of the league's biggest challenges and primary goals. In a country where soccer and basketball dominate athletics, will people jump on the baseball bandwagon?

"I don't know how it will be welcomed over there. It will be interesting to see. We might not get the crowd we are looking for at first, but over time it will stir up interest," Harwood said.

Will Israelis show up to games? Will they root, root, root for their home team? Looks like it. After selling more than 3,000 tickets for the June 24 opening game, the league added additional seating.

To give the game a unique Israeli feel, IBL ballpark seating includes stadium seats, lawn seats, park benches, an al fresco dining area, and even dugout seats. The game will run seven innings, and ties will be decided by a home run derby. Interactive activities will take place on the field before and after each game as well as between innings. The league will host theme nights, like a "wedding day," where the league will provide rabbis and chuppahs for fans who want to get married on the field, and "SpeeDating nights," during which single fans can switch seats every half inning.

With the unique opportunity to combine their elite athletic ability with their passion for Judaism, the So Cal players couldn't be more excited to be a part of this unique sporting experience. "Growing up in a big Zionist household, I was taught to love two things: Israel and baseball," said Eichenstein.



For information on tickets and game schedules, visit http://www.israelbaseballleague.com. Dikla Kadosh contributed to this article

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