By Howard Blas
(JNS) In Israel, spring is in bloom…and baseball season is underway. Members of the 12-and-under National Team of Israel are hard at work on the fields at Baptist Village in Petach Tikvah. They are preparing for the “Field of Peace” baseball tournament in March, which will feature Israel, the United Arab Emirates and potentially teams from other Gulf states.
Competing for the Unity Cup, players will begin their series of games March 21-25 at none other than the Dubai Little League Park next to Al Quoz Pond Park. The teams will meet again in Tel Aviv in the fall of 2021.
Baseball has come a long way since team manager Louie Miller made aliyah in 1998 at age 14. His parents hoped to share their love of baseball with youth in Israel. They somehow came to Israel with five children in tow — as well as catchers’ gear and other baseball equipment donated by the JCC Little League in Pittsburgh, Pa. Miller played on the JCC travel team in Pittsburgh as a boy and continued to play as a teen in Israel.
“There were no great options for high school baseball,” notes Miller, who also worked as a volunteer coach. “After the army, there were no options to become a coach and make a living. Everyone had a day job and coached on Fridays.”
Yaniv Rosenfeld, Israel Association of Baseball’s (IAB) Operations Manager, helped change that.
Rosenfeld, who lives in Misgav in the Galilee and established the Misgav Baseball club in 2013, wanted to change the image of baseball in Israel and to create opportunities for young Israelis to make a living at the sport. Says Miller: “I am one of the first people in Israel who makes a living by coaching baseball!” The trained social worker moved up north five years ago to start a youth program. They started with 35 participants and have grown to 225. It is Miller’s seventh year coaching the under-12 team.
While the team managed to travel to Italy last summer, this has been a quiet year due to the coronavirus pandemic. Then, Jordy Alter, the IAB vice president and Peter Kurz, IAB president and general manager of Team Israel, had an idea—organize a tournament with a team in the UAE, thanks in part to the recently signed Abraham Accords.
Miller and Kurz jumped at the opportunity.
“This is the IAB’s own contribution to co-existence with our neighbors,” notes Kurz. “We began reaching out to the Israeli-Arab population with our program, ‘Baseball for All,’ and now with the ‘Field of Peace’ tournament, we are reaching out to our surrounding neighbors. We hope this competition will become a regional one, with Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and others taking part as well, and we look forward to hosting our partners in Israel in the fall.”
Dubai Little League president Roger Duthie and Alter said in a joint statement: “We are excited to enter a new era of cooperation between our organizations and countries. We strive together to develop the game of baseball in Israel and Dubai as a basis for peace and cooperation between our countries. We see this as a major step forward in both areas and are excited to jointly hold the first team sports tournament between our countries. We hope these games lead to further regional cooperation.”
The players are similarly elated about the upcoming trip. “They are excited just to play ball,” says Miller. “They understand that it is glamorous—that the field and facilities are amazing and the Little League program there is top-notch.”
Founded in 1998, Dubai Little League has more than 400 kids, ages 4 to 18, playing baseball and softball.
As for Israel, the IAB is now building new fields and looking forward to the completion of the new Bet Shemesh complex, which will host international tournaments, as well as the Ra’anana field, which will be a joint baseball-soccer facility, both slated for completion in 2021.
Miller couldn’t be happier.
“We are seeing the next generation of Israeli baseball,” he states.
Proof of this is the fact that more than 60 kids tried out for the national team, which Miller calls “unprecedented.” While the majority are still new olim or children of American immigrants, Miller reports that they are now seeing native-born Israelis playing as well.
“In my opinion, the main goal of under-12 baseball is to have these kids who often haven’t seen high-level baseball experience what top level baseball is like and turn them in to ballplayers,” he explains. “This is exactly what the tournament will do for these 28 players—our largest delegation ever. These are the ones who will want to become ball players and stick with it!”
Main Photo: Israeli Little Leaguers taking part in drills with Israels Olympic Baseball team in 2019. (Israel Baseball)