THE OYS OF SUMMER: Clockwise from top left: Reliever Shlomo Lipetz delivers a pitch; Fish in self-styled regalia; Bullpen catcher Nate Fish raises a glass of Manischewitz at the Rosh Hashanah dinner; fans celebrate a victory over South Africa; catcher Charlie Cutler gets his props; Fish before a warm-up game against Palm Beach State.
Kurz, the secretary general, has no doubt what the story is—bringing serious baseball to the Holy Land. In July, the IAB held a fund-raiser at City Winery. Lipetz was there, of course, as were Fish—who came in uniform, straight from a semi-pro game in Brooklyn—an Israeli delegate from the U.N., Mets legend Art Shamsky, and David Broza ("Israel's Bruce Springsteen," says Lipetz), who performed a few songs. They drummed up around $10,000 for the team, but the IAB is also raising money for a new baseball field in Israel. As of now, there's only a single truly serviceable diamond, in a Baptist village just outside Tel Aviv. "We need to fund our $5 million field of dreams," says Kurz, who grew up on New York's Upper West Side but moved to Israel at 30, after having worked on a kibbutz. "If you build it . . . what's the line?" He thinks. "Oh yeah. They will come."
Fish just wants to play under bright lights. Beside his hotel bed, where he just did a radio interview with "a Jewish station that keeps calling," sits The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. Fish had a thoroughly Jewish upbringing in Cleveland: He was bar mitzvahed, kept kosher, went to Hebrew school, and observed Shabbat every Friday night at home. "By the time I was 16, I was collecting rabbi cards," he says. "Thank God I found art!" And baseball. Fish played with the MLB star Kevin Youkilis at the University of Cincinnati. Later he played in the Dominican Republic, Argentina, and Germany—where the team housed him in an insane asylum. "It was the closest building to the field," Fish says.
He also played in Israel, the strangest place of all. American Zionists are said to have introduced the game to what was then British Palestine in 1927, but it has never quite caught on in the soccer- and basketball-obsessed country. In 1989, three years after the IAB was founded, a team of Israeli 10-year-olds traveled to the European Little League qualifiers in Germany and, as Fish tells it, "got crushed 51–0 by fucking Saudi Arabia." (The next year, a 10-year-old Lipetz scored Israel's first run in international competition, in an 11–1 loss to Germany.) The ill-fated Israel Baseball League, which operated for a single season, in 2007, had just a few bona fide nationals per team. The rest were Americans, Spaniards, Dominicans, Canadians, and Puerto Ricans who threatened to go on strike when they got paid in shekels instead of dollars. ("First they wanted to pay us in goats and chickens," Lipetz jokes. "It was a shit show," says Fish, who nonetheless had a banner year, hitting .347 for the Tel Aviv Lightning.) The IBL's founder, Larry Baras, a Jewish bagel baron from Boston, wound up owing money to vendors, which, according to Kurz, still hasn't been repaid, and the league went kaput. (Baras couldn't be reached for comment.)
Now the IAB has opened a new chapter, and hopes are once again high. The day after beating Miami Dade, Team Israel takes on another college team. Lipetz watches from the sidelines, dipping and staring at the old Jews in the bleachers holding umbrellas to protect themselves from the sun. "I think the only groupies we'll get are yetzas," he says mock-sadly, meaning grandmas. An hour later, Israel has another win, thanks to a homer by the soft-spoken, gargantuan first baseman Nate Freiman, whose proud, tiny grandma sits in the stands trying to explain the rules to a fellow bubbe: The team is now 2–0 in tune-up games. "This is the first time we've played with this many Jews," says Cody Decker, the left fielder. "That might be why we're jelling."
Later that evening, shirts tucked in, the team members take their seats in the hotel's corporate ballroom for a traditional Rosh Hashanah meal of challah, apples, honey, brisket, and Manischewitz. To whet their appetites, they watch a cheery marketing video about Israel, which most have never visited. Joc Pederson looks on, mouth agape, as bikini-clad Israelis promenade along the shore of the Dead Sea. Glenn "Doc" Copeland, the baseball-patterned-yarmulke-wearing team doctor ("This beats my World Series with the Blue Jays!"), is apparently the only one eating gefilte fish with pleasure.