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Memories of the Israel Baseball League

by Ira Gewanter, Baltimore Jewish Times

July 20, 2011 | 1:36 pm

Aaron Pribble was a 27-year-old high school teacher when the call came in early 2007: He was among the few chosen to play for the newly formed Israel Baseball League.

Three years removed from his last pitch in the minor leagues, he embarked on a summerlong journey to champion his childhood dreams, one that wound up giving him new insight into the Jewish state and its challenges.

As American baseball fans were enjoying the Major League Baseball All Star game this month, Pribble was reflecting on his newly published book, which chronicles his own All-Star campaign in the first and seemingly last Israeli professional baseball season. He recently spoke about the experience.

Baltimore Jewish Times: Tell us about the league.

Aaron Pribble: There were three fields and six teams attempting to play six days a week — never on Shabbat. The league was created by Larry Baras, a Boston businessman and creator of the cream cheese-filled bagel. Director of baseball operations was Dan Duquette, a former general manager of the Boston Red Sox. League managers included [former Jewish Major Leaguers] Ron Blomberg, Art Shamsky and Ken Holtzman.

BJT:  I recently told a friend your book could be called “One Big Baseball Birthright Bar Mitzvah.”

AP:  [Laughing] Yep, something like that. I usually say it’s like “Bull Durham” in Tel Aviv. It has all those crazy moments emblematic of small-town minor league ball, but with an Israeli twist -— like the time when the sex doctor, Ruth Westheimer, throws out a first pitch and promises us healthy “relationships” if we promise not to brawl. Or that our tie games were settled by home run derby. There was also a near strike, fears of a terrorist attack on opening day and my exotic romance with a Yemenite Jew.

Since Birthright Israel and bar mitzvahs are all about exploring our Jewish identity, throwing in the baseball adventure covers all bases, as it were. I really did feel like my summer in Israel was about exploring both who I was as a baseball player and a Jew.

BJT:  How so?

AP:  Well my dad is Christian and my mom is Jewish, so I’ve spent much of my life considering various aspects of religion, culture, heritage and belonging. And living in Israel definitely made me feel more certain of my Jewish identity and place in the world.

In terms of my baseball career, after having played in college and for a few years professionally and internationally — including stints on four of seven continents — this was one last shot to reach for a lifelong goal. It caused me to think long and hard about what I was willing to sacrifice in pursuit of my boyhood dream.

BJT:  What were your digs like?

AP:  I played for the Tel Aviv Lightning and we lived at Kfar HaYarok, just north of Tel Aviv near a town called Ramat HaSharon.  Peacocks were the unofficial mascot of our kfar. They were crazy; they were everywhere.

BJT:  How was the competition?

AP:  Most of the players were between low college and single A level. We joked that a player’s talent was in inverse proportion to how Jewish he was. They had a little more leeway with Jews making the cut because this was a product catering to a majority Jewish audience in a Jewish country. But the IBL included many non-Jewish players from around the world, mainly the Dominican Republic. People in Baltimore might like to know that current Orioles DH Vladimir Guerrero’s younger brother, Juan, played in the league.

BJT:  How did you fare?

AP:  I led the league in ERA and had the chance to become the first IBL player to sign a pro contract back in the States. [He wound up returning to teaching.]

BJT:  What was it like playing America’s pastime against the backdrop of the Middle East?

AP:  In high school I played in Australia, for college I attended the University of Hawaii and after several summers of independent baseball around the country, I even played in France and Germany. I’m immensely grateful for what this beautiful game has taught me about the world, as well as myself. And in the Holy Land, I got to explore both yet again. The biggest difference was the way I was viewed as an American. In Israel everyone opened up and made me feel welcome, so I had a great opportunity to explore my cultural heritage. I’m really thankful that my long baseball journey brought me to Israel, too.

BJT:  Did your time there impact your understanding of Israel’s political situation?

AP:  I’m not sure if my assumptions about Middle Eastern politics were challenged, but my understanding certainly became richer, fuller and more nuanced.

BJT:  What happened after the season?

AP:  My first decision at the end of summer was whether or not to sign a pro contract back in the States. I hadn’t even considered the prospects of coming back to play in Israel, but any chance to return to the Holy Land needed to be carefully considered.

Ira Gewanter is a Baltimore-area freelance writer.

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