Friday, June 29, 2007

First Start

After days and days of waiting...(technically our team, the Netanya Tigers, were schedule to play this game Tuesday, however, personally I had been waiting since May 14th) I was finally set to start our second game of the season against the Petach Tikva Pioneers at Yarkon Field. We had lost a heart-breaker in our first game against the Blue Sox on Monday, giving up 2 runs in the 6th inning, after leading 1-0 all game, and then to not get our last chance at-bat because the umpire called the game due to darkness. I was ready to get our team on the winning track and ironically was starting against the Pioneers (my former team in Belgium) to add to the irony even further, in my start in Belgium, I threw a no-hitter, that only stood up because in the 4th inning, after walking the leadoff batter I gave up a flare/blooper to right field that dropped neatly in front of our RF who threw to Second Base because it was hit so shallow he was able to get the force out at 2B, thus keeping my no-no intact. The game unfolded similarly, in which I struck out the first batter of the game and then cruised through the first 4 innings without yielding a hit, after walking a batter in the 4th inning the next batter hit blooper into right field that dropped just in front of our RF Ben Engleheart, so shallow, again, that he was able to pick it up and throw the ball to 2B to go for the force out that would keep my no-hitter intact, however, this time, the throw sailed high pulling our SS Hector De Los Santos off the bag and giving the Pioneers their only hit off me in 5 innings. Coach Baran pulled me after 5 innings, telling me it was a long season and so early in the year we had a good lead and I didn't need to be out there any longer. He also let me hit for myself which felt great especially when I helped out my own cause by lacing a double to the right field fence and putting the ball in play all 3 times up...I felt very comfortable up there and hope to see a lot more action hitting when I pitch or at least in the DH role. Afterwards, I went out with Rees to celebrate "White-Night" which happens once a year on a Thursday in June where the whole street (Rothschild) shuts down and people just cruise up and down the boulevard until all hours of the morning. The most entertaining part of the night was undoubtedly trying to actually get to this street because we must have hopped into 3 taxi's and no one knew the english name Rothschild, only after calling my friend Joey Sherman, on the Tel Aviv Lightening who has a place in Tel Aviv that I slept at a few nights early in my stay, who told me to say something like "Rawshee" (although I'm still unsure on the translation or correct pronunciation) but sure enough those were the magic words to get us there. Upon arrival I glanced at the street sign to see some crazy spelling but instead, my eyes were met with my gut instinct - "Rothschild" plastered upon the sign across the street. The club/bar was pretty much something I experienced a number of times in Belgium, same style music, same type of dancing, just a number of very tan incredibly gorgeous girls. Ah, The Life.

Did I mention we have peacocks, hundreds, that roam aimlessly (seemingly) around our rooms, and squak like you've never had a bird squak before... just a warning in case you plan a visit to Ramat Hasharon.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

it's buzzzzzzzing...

How can I describe today? There is no humanly possible way without you being there – to feel the buzz, the anticipation, the smell of burgers, the loud speakers, the fans… I’ve played in front of 6,000 people before, on many professional and major league fields, with important people and scouts in attendance, with games so important that you could cut the tension with a knife. But I never have been a part of something so big, so new, so exciting in my life….and I didn’t even play. I will remember tonight forever.

We loaded up on charter buses by team, wearing our jersey’s and team hats. Upon arriving, we found about 100 or so media members running around trying to grab interviews with players, the 4 teams not plying of course, while the two teams playing warmed up on the field. There was a concession stand and 4 TV camera towers but still not nearly that many fans as they had seats for… We had some team meetings, talked with reporters and television cameras, walked around and admired the absolutely beautiful playing surface. I interviewed with the Globe Times – an Israeli economist like magazine and a woman from the Detroit Jewish News and also Nokoma Baseball Company (supplier of a lot of our equipment – we got free bats, nice batting gloves, etc.) Afterwards we were introduced on the field and the pre-game ceremonies began, ceremonial first pitch, the Israeli national anthem, the place was buzzing. When we came off the field we noticed a line stretching the entire block for entrance to the game and it remained the entire first two innings. We stood in line to get a burger from the really good concession stand and it took 50 min there were so many people there they didn’t anticipate. In fact, there were 2,000 seats, but another 2,000 people walked up and paid to get in just to stand. There were around 4,000 people there according to an official count – one word – pandemonium. The game itself wasn’t all that special except that the fans were going nuts with every play, tons of “oohs and aahs,” I mean they have never seen pro baseball in this country before. Modi’in Miracle beat the Pet Tikvah Pioneers 9-1 but the game was even more electric for the players not playing. I barely even watched the game because every time I turned around I was being mobbed by a little kid, really excited adults, or teenage girls, or 20-something guys that were huge baseball fans to sign their hat, their baseball, their program, their shirt, their arm, their baby?! Yep I signed so many autographs I don’t think I can pitch for a week, we estimated that I signed between 200-350 autographs, by the time dusk came upon us and the lights beamed down on the stadium, almost all 4,000 fans remained despite the results of the game being out of reach. An strong armed 6 foot 8 inch Dominican took the mound in the 9th and delivered 93 mph fastballs, yet, that was the first glimpse of the game I saw since the 2nd inning because I was so busy meeting fans, talking to kids, and getting wished good luck from ecstatic adults telling me how happy they were that pro baseball was finally in there country. No one, I mean no one expected this turn out, this electricity, and this much fan interest. All of our jersey’s were sold out at the concession stand in 20 min. Every team’s hat is on back order, and people were offering us hundreds of shekels for their hat, even girls were offering us dates if we gave them something – a jersey, a glove, a hat, I mean no words can explain the atmosphere.

Yes there are still problems.
Yes sometimes I wonder why I do all this?
But today I begin the most important two months of my life – I don’t need to have a crazy experience in tel aviv, going out and enjoying the city ever night or letting my social influences, such as friends and teammates here persuading me to "go out" because playing well, and playing great, and being the best will be fun enough and that’s what I plan on doing. It begins today and I can’t wait…

Friday, June 22, 2007


The flight out of Belgium from Brussels left around 6 PM headed towards Frankfurt, Germany…stopping over there for a few hours before heading off to Israel around 1130 PM and with an hour time difference and an hour delay on the ground due to rain, I finally got into Tel Aviv around 330 AM with no sleep. By the time I got through customs and my luggage at 430 AM, we were only an hour and a half away from a group coming in from U.S. via London so I waited around with the commissioner, Rio (my teammate from Japan), and my coach Ami showed up around 830 AM. After waiting for a group from NYC as well we finally left the airport at 930 AM and at this point I couldn’t tell the difference between yesterday and today.

Originally we were supposed to room with our teams but they were so unorganized they didn’t have that ready yet, so when we showed up they simply said just find a spot and we’ll move you guys later…so I picked to room with Adam Crabb, my aussie mate that I met at the Israel workouts in Massachusetts last august and whom I hit it off with right away, and who I stayed in contact with sending at least monthly emails. He was also the first person to sign with the league so he has become quite a celebrity in baseball circles and esp. in Australia and Israel. The other roommate is Mick Ashton’s (my good buddy from Antwerp Eagles), best friend also from Australia and is really a good guy. Stud baseball player, good looking, good talker, and sensitive and compassionate at the same time…reminds me a lot of myself. We are all on 3 different teams, which makes things interesting but we have a great time together and it’s nice to talk openly about your team with other guys and guys you can trust. We have a lot of fun going out or just staying in and goofing around. The strangest part is that since I’m coming from Belgium and I was learning and speaking Dutch, now I’m in Israel, where I still sometimes think and speak in Dutch when I’m trying to learn Hebrew or attempt to communicate with my Dominican and Columbian teammates in Spanish, yet, since I hang out so much with Crabb and Rees, they’ve got me saying Australian sayings and basically everyday I sound more and more like a fake Aussie with some Belgian/Spanish/Hebrew words. Quite the combination.

Today we had our first official team practice at one of the fields. Our first game is Monday June 25th so our coaches Ami Baran, an Israeli who has basically accomplished everything in the entire world – law school, physical training, Olympic coach, world renown softball player, head of Israeli police and investigation, etc. and Mike Ibbostern, a great guy and good baseball man from the land down under, had about one day to figure out who are starters are going to be and what the pitching rotation will look like. It looks like I’ll start the year as our #2 pitcher in the rotation behind Leon Fiengold, and imposing 6 ft. 8 inch, hard throwing righty who I would like to give him the nickname “Big Country” in the future, of course, if he lets me. He played pro ball with the Indians, so I’m definitely not disappointed to be behind him in the rotation. Also, I hit well enough to make an impression that I will be allowed to handle the bat when I pitch and possibly see some time at the DH spot. Meanwhile, the rest of our team looks pretty solid, we have a deep pitching staff, two solid lefties that bring different looks and pitches and funkiness to the table. Vladamir Guerrero’s brother, Julio, is also going to be pitching for us, and a journeyman Columbian pitcher named Rafael will also be part of the rotation. We also have another pitcher Fabian with some funky arm angles and deliveries, and our lone Japenese player in the league Rio, who has the classic Japanese import hesitation move and seems like he could be very effective with his assortment of oddities and junk. Our hitting also looks pretty solid 1-9, but I like our like our field a lot. Defensively, Ty Erikson at first looks like a hidden gem, up the middle with Ray Rodriquez and Hector De Los Santos we can have some exciting double plays and Ryan at 3B does not look intimidated to knock stuff down and keep things in the infield. Our OF though goes real deep with 6 guys that can all run, throw, and catch very well. I think that might be our strongest area.

Last night we went out to a cafĂ© in Tel Aviv near the city, it’s only a few minutes away on the bus or the cab and we had an enjoyable evening. In our first time out we began talking to some locals, and the Israeli women were much nicer to us (English speakers) I found, then some of the Israeli men who had numerous futile attempts during our conversations. Not all of the girls were good English speakers surprisingly and so just a few of them carried the conversation, and she said she was only good because as a kid she watched way too much TV. One thing I did notice about the scene was that the women were either really young looking or an older crowd and not a lot of people my age and the reason for that being, all citizens are required to serve from 18-22 in the Army and then afterwards, many of them go on extended vacation out of the country. So the girls are actually as young or as old as they appear sometimes…Interesting.

Monday, June 18, 2007

From Antwerp to Tel Aviv... playing ball worldwide

As the inaugural season of the Israel Baseball League, the first professional baseball league the small country of just over 7 million people has ever seen, begin this week, many of the 120 players of the league’s 6 teams are getting their crack at pro baseball for the first time, however, in my first year out of college I see this league and opportunity as a continuation. The background on how it is I became a member of the Netanya Tigers has been labeled compelling or crazy by some but you can decide for yourselves. Although, I could write a book about my experiences in getting to this point I will just briefly provide a condensed introduction to how I got here and then a few times a week update the blog with experiences in a land that I have never been and that has never seen baseball at this level. The fascinating stories, the cultural exchanges, and the interactions amongst vastly different people held together by a common bond – baseball.

I had a decent senior year playing at George Washington University in 2006, in which my season was marred by excellent outings against top ranked schools in the country, and also inconsistency in pitching repertoire against what I presumed to be some inferior competition. Nevertheless, I had some looks from some Major League teams around draft time followed by a number of workouts and some looks from some independent ball teams as well. No one, however, was willing to commit substantial money to a 5 ft. 11 inch right handed pitcher who sat between 84-88 mph, despite my best efforts to rely on my movement, deception, off-speed (circle change-up in particular), ability to outthink hitters, and other intangibles like controlling the running game and competitiveness, the velocity was the key and crucial element that stunted my advancement into pro ball. I had a former coach that was playing in Holland and he helped me through a couple of people facilitate some interest overseas in a number of leagues in Europe for the 2007 season. Meanwhile, I had been hearing from a number of people about a new league forming in Israel that was looking for ball players especially those of Jewish heritage. A good friend of mine from George Washington University, Scott Rapkin, was really keen on the idea and after working out for the Cincinnati Reds who had just drafted my friend and former teammate at GW, Derrik Lutz, I made the trek up to the mountains of Hinsdale, Massachusetts to see what all the fuss was about.

Upon arriving, I believe I was the 2nd or 3rd guy there; I met a tall lanky Australian going by the name of Adam Crabb. We began talking and throughout the two-day workout continued to become fast friends and over the past year, even upon his return to Australia we stayed in contact minimally once a month through email. The workout was something totally unexpected for both Adam and I, being the first “tryout” for the league, and also being in a remote location, the level of competition was something I was not used to and we both clearly dominated inferior opponents at the plate. I left the workout with a good feeling about my performance but not of the competition it had offered.

For the next few months as I began working at a lobbying firm in downtown Washington, DC, I mulled over 20 or so offers to play pro ball all around the world. By the time November rolled around I was in serious negotiations with a team in the First Division pro league in Belgium, called the Hoboken Pioneers, before I heard from coach at GW that a man named Martin Berger of the IBL was looking for the best Jewish baseball players in Division 1 baseball and was trying to contact me. After brief introductory emails from Martin I received a few phone calls and they offered me a contract. He made me feel very wanted and I have to admit it was quite a difficult decision, with the league’s loose affiliation to MLB and other big backers behind it…in terms of advancing my pro baseball career I had to make a tough choice between a new start-up league with great potential or a league and a team with an already established pretty good reputation. Despite the ability to run my own life and make my own decision, I felt very partial to Hoboken in the Belgium league, they made great efforts in trying to accommodate me and sign me and I had virtually given them my word by the time I heard from the IBL and to me my word is bond so that’s who I went with.

Fast forward through the winter months that involved me working at the firm from 830 am to 630 pm everyday, then working out in the gym – throwing, running, hitting, and lifting until midnight then making the 35 min walk back to my apartment in the blistering cold wearing my suit around the early morning hours before finally settling down to eat dinner and do it all again in 5 hours… I got to Belgium on March 19th with 6 months worth of packed materials and ready to start my venture into pro baseball but also having no idea what to expect for this was the first time I was outside of North America.

Having already discovered that I am a wordy blogger, it might not surprise you to tell you that I have no way to sum up my experiences in Belgium in one brief paragraph, so I will try to stick to what happened in baseball and keep the cultural and personal experiences to a minimum since I already have another blog that was devoted to that over the season and you can check it out if it so interests you at
The Belgium league was structured so that we played only on Saturday and Sundays, practices were twice a week and I coached the junior team (basically their minor league team) twice a week as well. The Belgian Federation only allows up to 2 foreign born players per team and levies a pretty costly fee in order to bring in foreign players, in hopes that the teams will look within Belgium to build-up the game and it’s players to further the advancement of the national team and program. So as the only foreign player on my team this year – the focus and pressure, especially as a starting pitcher is really directed at myself.

I lived at my general manager’s house, and since he was a traveling businessman I had the place almost entirely to myself all the time. Free to come and go as I please, my own bedroom, huge plasma TV, computer with high speed internet, they also paid for my gym membership in the city at one of the nicest gyms around, all my food was paid for from at the clubhouse to anytime I would eat out or buy groceries, also including all my beer at the club after games and practices, in addition to my monthly salary. One could say I lived very comfortably to play baseball there but as I stated and will reiterate, the inordinate amount of pressure came with the territory of being well off living in Belgium.

I stepped off the plane and at 6 AM, after an all night red-eye the first thing my General Manager says to me is “I thought you were taller…” This would prove to be very telling later in the season. As for the people of Hoboken and my teammates I was treated like royalty, I was having a great time and by the time the regular season began the second week of April I felt confident and relaxed. Making my first professional start against the Antwerp Eagles in Game 2 of the season, I pitched my first career no-hitter and only yielded one walk on a 3-2 count. After picking up my first win and doing it in that fashion I felt pretty relieved, but this is where things began to go strange. Amidst my many congratulations I heard from my G.M., who I was living with, that “they” were worried because I was “falling behind too many hitters early in the count.” Come on! I threw a no-hitter. It’s pretty ridiculous to say that to someone regardless if it’s true or not after first pro win and the fashion they did it in. I felt the pressure mounting. In my 2nd start, again at home, I thought my performance was even stronger – going 8 innings just over 100 pitches, and only giving up 2 walks and 1 hit on my way to striking out 9. Although I lost my shutout streak we won the game 10-2 and I began the year 2-0. Similar to the game before although I was complimented I could feel that they weren’t entirely happy with my 1 hit performance over my first two starts. They claimed that this was expected and that I needed to strike out more guys against that team, as the pitcher from the previous year did (a flame thrower they had who is now playing in the top European pro league in Holland, who rolled through the competition last year on his way to a microscopic 0.90 E.R.A. or something to that effect). I was expecting to move into the Saturday game for the 3rd series of the season since that was a home game, however, they said due to my “inconsistency” they were going to keep the young 18 year old Belgian kid in the Game 1 spot, I almost felt like they were saying you need to throw a perfect game every time if you want to go on the first game of the series. I didn’t think it really mattered when I threw, I was happy to just be pitching at a pro level, but my performance certainly warranted going Game 1 of the series, if that’s what they were looking to do. By this time I felt the pressure coming from all angles but especially on myself, I really felt like I had to throw a perfect game to move up to Game 1 and it didn’t help that there was no communication from my coach on what I had to do or what he thought I was doing wrong. In my third start of the season I had mediocre day on the hill, I don’t think I was mentally as focused as I should have been letting a number of the distractions fill my head throughout pre-game (including the coach, the flat ground surface I had to warm-up on) and then into the game (the terrible umpiring who decided to call the game where the catcher was catching my pitches and not where it was crossing the plate, the horrible conditions of the mound where I was digging a hole to china, every time I landed, and especially the defense ineptness of my teammates). I had a shaky first walking a few guys but it was compounded by 2 botched double play balls at second base. Although I settled down for a few innings, I walked 3 more guys but also was on the unfortunate side of 4 more errors. I went 5 innings, giving up only 1 earned run but 5 more unearned, although I still left the game with the lead, only to see it squandered in a walk-off home run in the last inning. I was pretty upset about the loss and hold expectations for myself higher than anyone else but when I was blamed for the loss and told that it was unacceptable how many people I walked I couldn’t believe it. 6 errors in 5 innings is over 1 extra out given per inning, additionally the umpire was so bad the opposing team pitcher got into a heated debate with him over balls and strikes and was almost run from the game. By my next start, no one was really talking to me on my team, especially the coach and general manager, I felt they were really disappointed in me despite the fact I had only given up 1 extra base hit in 3 starts, nevertheless, all these things caught up to me as I didn’t have my good stuff against the Namur Angles and was yanked after 3 innings and 4 earned runs (not a horrible performance, especially considering I could have lasted another 3 innings and held those runs, but definitely my worst performance of the year. We ended up coming back in the latter in innings and winning the game which made me feel good but I didn’t feel much like sticking around celebrating and drinking in the victory since I performed so bad so I went back home and worked out and worked out harder that week than ever before in preparation for the undefeated and top team in the league, the defending champion Greys, who we had coming up the next weekend. I had already pitched briefly against them in pre-season, after not pitching for over 9 months in a game, I came out on a blistering cold March afternoon and tossed 3 and 2/3 innings while only giving up 1 hit, 2 walks, and no runs, while striking out 2, so to say the least I was confident that I would perform well against them now that we were into the season and my velocity and feel for pitching was up. After we lost game 1 of the series, I was then informed by my coach I would be in the bullpen for the next game, I nodded and accepted it as I have always done with coaches, and prepared myself to come in and dominate despite how disappointed and confused by his actions, I was. However, I saw no action on Sunday during the game that we lost again, further agitating me. I went back home and wrote my coach a simple email saying that I was disappointed in losing but especially that I was given a chance to help win, despite how well I pitched against them in pre-season and overall with my performance on the year, I was confused with what they expected from me and if I was doing something wrong I would appreciate them communicating to me. On Monday I went to coach the junior team as usual, and despite the rain, and the fact the balls and bats were all in the head coach’s car who didn’t make it, I ran a great practice teaching the guys how to lead off, how to steal properly, how to think like a pitcher in the running game and vice versa. My G.M. picked me up from the field as it began to pout and upon returning home informed me of the team’s decision to release me from my contract, effective immediately. I was stunned. Floored, might be a better word, sure I had one bad start, ONE bad start, but that’s baseball, and although he stated this was nothing personal, they all loved me and thought I was great with the team and how well I coached the juniors, he said they simply thought I could not get them to the championship and beat the best teams (ironically who I was not able to even pitch against). Obviously, from a baseball standpoint this made no sense and though things came to light during the next few weeks that made things more understandable for me, at the time, I was feeling as low as you could. Within hours I had conversations with the American coach from the team in our league whom I had thrown the no-hitter against, who was interested in signing me, another team in Holland’s 2nd Division in Rotterdam wanted to bring me in to pitch, and I followed up with Martin Berger to see if the IBL offer was still on the table.

I had seen the great strides in the league from what I had been hearing from people back home and just following sponsorships, signings, etc. on the amazing website they had. I had to make a decision… to me, it was difficult enough to turn down the offer in the fall and I wasn’t about to make the same mistake twice. I thought that a league bringing in players from all over the world and with a higher pay scale and with all the endorsements, MLB backing, and people affiliated with pro ball in the states, it would be a better opportunity to advance my career in baseball than any European opportunity had to offer. Additionally, I had never been to Israel before, and that was a very important element to me since I am Jewish.

For the past 4 weeks I stayed in Belgium, instead of going back to America, as the Hoboken Pioneers hoped I would. I continued to work out, and pitch practice with the Antwerp Eagles the team I no-hit and even helped them in preparation defeat the Pioneers in their rematch a few weeks ago. Although I had to move out of my place and leave behind a lot of my friends and teammates, which was difficult, I was able to stay with an amazing family I had met there, who lived in a community 20 minutes outside of Antwerp that took me in, fed me, helped me out in so many ways that I am truly indebted to them and so appreciative of their graciousness and hospitality. I continued a daily grind of working out, throwing, and hitting, traveling on public transit at all hours of the day and night and picking up rides wherever I could, in order to stay consistent with my baseball workouts, while also trying to spend the last remaining days there with some amazing people and friends I made during the months I was there, including, one gal, Joena Wattenbergh, who I spent seemingly everyday with for a span of 2 months, and made it very difficult to leave Belgium, because I will really miss her and not see her again for a long time.

I learned a great deal from my experience in Belgium that I hope will prepare me better for pro ball in Israel. Despite the language barrier in both countries, people are people, and that means that you have to be weary of the circumstances around you as they unfold. Now, I don’t think what happened in Belgium, which turned out to be something more personal and contrite, in which, before I even had my bad outing they had already made an arrangement to bring over another American pitcher to replace me (who I think is 2-2 as of now, as my former team dropped 7 out of the next 10 games) but the game is a business, and they will do what’s best for them, and while I pour my heart and soul into the team on the field and into the town, community of people, and the organization, the only person that can look out for “you” sometimes is “you.” Finally, although I don’t I fell victim to this, you can never be content with your performance, you have to keep the edge on at all times…I kind of figured because they signed me for a year, and it’s a long season they would give me a chance to work out some of the kinks with my motion or change-up that plagued me in my 4th start, obviously, the dynamics of the situation were different than a normal baseball situation, but it still taught me that you simply can’t lose that competitiveness and the desire to be the best, especially if you are going to go somewhere in baseball. With all that said, I can’t wait for this opportunity in Israel. Since May 14th I’ve been itching to get back on the field, going through bouts of withdrawal all the while as I counted down my final days in Europe. Now that I’m finally here, I plan on bringing a championship to Netanya, making the IBL as successful as possible, being the best pitcher I can be and hopefully doing well enough to get some looks after the season, and enjoying the experience in a new culture and meeting new people.