Thursday, July 26, 2007

All-Star Break

It's Thursday night here, which means only one thing. We have an early game tomorrow because of Shabbat. Although, this week is unlike any other week. Sunday is the All-Star game, and surprisingly, me and my .195 batting average were not invited to participate. In response to this all-star snub, some friends and I have decided to skip town and go to Eilat for the weekend...along with the rest of the so-called "snubs." For those of you who haven't looked at a map of the Middle East lately, Eilat is at the southern tip of Israel. We are leaving tomorrow immediately following our game with the first place Blue Sox. It should be a nice, relaxing weekend on the shores of the Red Sea. I think we might even make a visit to Petra (in Jordan) and possibly Egypt. Don't worry mom, I'll make sure I can get back to Israel before I attempt at crossing any borders.

The Express pulled out a win today against Petach Tikvah 13-3. In what I would call a slopfest, the game was out of hand by the fourth inning. Max Vasquez of Columbia threw five quality innings for the team from Ra'anana. After losing three in a row, it definitely felt nice to win again. Our Dominican catcher is hotter than the devil in hell right now and adding to his home run total at a wicked pace. Another one today puts him at 8 for the year, and with no sign of slowing up, we are optimistic for a strong second half.

Since I will be out of town this weekend, my next post won't be until Monday. Be sure to read that one though as I will give you a detailed version of my weekend at the Israel border and document tomorrow's game.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

I'm Still Here

Hey everyone. I finally have some time to post something. Things have been going really well out here. I think after a month my stomach is finally getting acclimated to the food, as players we finally have a consistent routine, and the teams are finally figuring out how to play well together. Right now the Express are hovering around .500, which I'm more than happy with considering the way we played our first 10 games. The turnaround has been a combination of better pitching, more consistent defense, and timely hitting. Combine that with our Dominican catcher being on fire at the plate, and we have the right recipe for success.

I forgot to mention this in my last blog so I'll bring it up now. Last Saturday, the Newmarks, a family from Cleveland who relocated to Ra'anana, had 12 players from the team to their house for Shabbat lunch. I met the JMO (that's Jewish Mother), on opening day when she politely asked if I thought we would be interested in a nice home cooked meal.

After eating the dog food that they serve us where we are staying, I jumped at the opportunity to set up the meeting. Needless to say, it was a good decision. The buffet style lunch included taco salad, hot peppers, green bean casserole, and low mien. Apparently the meal was catered by The Rio Hotel . They also served cholent, which is, as the JMO called it, "an ancient meat dish from the time when we were slaves in Egypt." I'm sure Moses was a big fan, and so was I. After the meal, the family invited all of Ra'anana to come hang out with the team. Well, not ALL of Ra'anana, but it felt like it. But hey, who am I to complain. To them we were superstars. We mingled for a while before leaving to go back to the barracks that we call home. The important thing about it is that we have now developed a fast growing fan base. Many of the people at the meet and greet are now showing up to our games in droves. If not droves, definitely dozens. And in turn they will tell their Anglo friends, who will tell their Anglo friends, and eventually at least one Israeli will learn about the league and what it has to offer. And that's we are all here for right?

A quick note about our recent play. We have won two in a row...against Netanya. But they still count as wins. I hit my second home run of the season tonight. A solo blast to right-center. Evidently I only bring my bat with any hits left in it when we play the Tigers. Tomorrow is a day game against Modi'in, who are playing really good ball right now. It will be a good test for us.
Thanks for continuously reading and keep the feedback coming.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

A Quiet Setback

Through 15 games, the Express are sitting quietly in fifth place. Although our record looks absolutely terrible on paper, I like the way we are playing. We haven't played bad baseball in over a week and our last two games have resulted in two tough losses. Thursday's loss to Bet Shemesh was in a home run derby, and in Friday's loss to Modi'in, we just ran out of innings. Tonight we play the Tel Aviv Lightning. The game is going to be televised on the local sports channel and repeated throughout the week. You can view it on the IBL website beginning Thursday night at 8pm EST. It is a chance to show the country some quality baseball, and at the same time begin our ascent up the IBL standings.
I wanted to quickly mention something that has been on my mind for a while. This whole "home run derby after a tie" thing is quite possibly the most absurd rule that I have ever seen enacted while participating in any type of baseball activity. I mean, to put your heart and soul into seven innings of quality baseball ...and then participate in a home run derby to decide the winner almost seems unsportsmanlike. It's kind of like going to see an action movie and just before the last scene where the villain and hero duel to the death, the screen goes black. The let down is immediate. It is unbearable. But more importantly, it is boring.
Sure, in theory a home run derby would be exciting. Who wouldn't want to see big, strong athletes flex their muscles and blast weakly thrown baseballs deep into the Israel night. But in reality, the derby drags on and on...and on, and turns into 30 minutes of substance with 5 minutes of action. The players don't like it, the fans don't like it, and I know the coaches don't like it. So why do we do it?
The argument is that since Israeli's are used to fast paced games like basketball and soccer, an extra-inning game would just add to the boring nature of baseball. The big problem is the most of the fans coming to our games are Anglos, or American Israeli immigrants. They want to see, and more importantly understand, the excitement that goes along with an extra-inning game. Where every pitch is important and each baserunner could be the game winning run. Extra innings should make you feel like you do when you see deleted scenes during the closing credits of a movie. That way you can leave the game feeling like you got more than you paid for. And what consumer doesn't like that feeling?

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Michel Hits Game Winner; Express Win Two in a Row

It's been a successful couple of days here in Israel for the Ra'anana Express. After losing a close game on Sunday to the Modi'in Miracle, the Express brought out their A-game for the Netanya Tigers on Monday night. The Tigers starting pitcher struggled to find his control for most of the night, but for whatever reason, our baserunning resembled a bunch of six year olds in a little league game. We were picked off twice, got thrown out at third two times, and kept swinging at terrible pitches. Finally, after five and a half innings, all of which I'm sure were painful to watch from the stands, our dugout came to life. It was as if the baseball gods themselves arrived at that very moment. We were tired of performing poorly offensively and letting their guy off the hook inning after inning. With a 1-1 tie in the bottom of the sixth, our leadoff hitter stepped up to the plate. Knowing that he needed to get on base, he crowded the plate, giving the Netanya starter as little a strike zone as possible. It worked! A leadoff walk led to a steal which led to a ground ball to shortstop, productively moving the runner to third. I was due to hit third that inning.
It was evident that their pitcher was tiring, so the Tigers went to the bullpen. They decided to go with a right-hander from Columbia with a mid 80's fastball and devastating changeup. My coach wanted me to bunt at the first pitch. "Let's see if we can safety squeeze to get this run in Jesse," he said. As they brought their infield in, I thought to myself how the safety squeeze probably wouldn't work because of it. Well, sure enough on the first pitch, I squared to bunt and fouled it straight back into the crowd. Maybe the baseball gods really were there. The 0-1 pitch was a fastball high. As I stepped out of the box, my mind was going faster than Sir Isaac Newton's on the day he discovered gravity. What was he going to throw? Where did I want to hit it? Should I try and lay down another bunt?
I decided that he was going to come with a fastball. Surely he wouldn't throw something offspeed, risking a ball in the dirt getting by the catcher. As luck, or the gods, would have it, I was right. The ball came in around 86 mph and left my bat twice as hard while sailing over the right field fence. I had done it. The home run was one of the hardest balls I have ever hit and more importantly, it gave our team the lead we so deeply desired.
We went on to hold them scoreless in the top of the seventh and won the game 3-1. Needless to say I was walking on air the whole night. It felt good to contribute offensively because through the first 10 games I might as well have brought a toothpick up to the plate. All that was behind me now though.
See, the thing about professional baseball, as I'm now learning, is that there is no rest for the weary. Day after day we go out there. What happened yesterday has no bearing on today, and today no bearing on tomorrow. By Tuesday night, my home run was old news and it was time to take on the lowly 1-10 Petach Tichvah Pioneers. It was a chance for us to win two in a row...for the first time all year. We scratched and clawed the whole game and pulled out a 4-2 victory. My roommate and starting pitcher, Travis Zeir, pitched a solid 6 1/3 innings and got his first W of the year.
With each inning we play, our team is beginning to understanding its limitations. While we aren't going to win many games 10-7 or 13-6, with solid defense and a very good pitching staff, we will be able to stay in most games until the late innings.
Our next two games are against Bet Shemesh, the powerhouse of the league. We have a chance to quickly climb up the standings and are poised to continue winning if we play well.
On a different note, the league has decided that all six teams will make the playoffs. The top two seeds will have a first round bye. The third will play the sixth seed, winner to play the second, and the fourth will play the fifth, winner to play the first. This is a much better format than the original one game championship, as teams that are 15-25 after 40 games will still have something to play for.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Finally off the Schnide

With a win yesterday, the Express improved to a season best 2-6. .250 winning percentage baby! Those are better odds than Hasselhoff being sober for two days straight. In addition to the win, I went 1 for 3 with a single, walk, and rbi. Those fantasy stats will be up to par in no time. We won 14-2. Thats right, our team went on an offensive explosion. Granted, the pitcher was older than Dan Rather and threw at about the same speed as it takes me to run from home to first base (hint: slow), but hey, we busted out the whooping sticks. I caught and continued to play well defensively. I finally feel like I'm getting my timing down in the batters box. 1 for 11 will turn into 11 for 21 in no time. We lost today 7-3 to the Netanya Tigers. I had the day off but got a pinch hit at-bat late in the game...and proceeded to walk for the team leading sixth time. Tomorrow is off and Sunday we face a lefty from Australia who threw a no-hitter his last time out.

Now, on to more important things. Here is a link to the Chaiyenu event that I mentioned in yesterdays post. It is an article on the IBL website. Hope you enjoy it. By they way, I have received nothing but positive reaction from you all regarding this blogsite. I really enjoy telling you my stories, and expressing them in my own personal way. Special shout out to Amanda Gropper, who actually called me here in Israel to tell me how much she enjoyed these posts (but neglected to leave her number so I could call her back...hint hint). About to get kicked out of the library so I have to run. Oh yeah...our TV game on Sunday was rescheduled because we are so bad right now.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Quite a Fourth of July

Yesterday was a day that I won't soon forget. It started off with a full breakfast of two hard-boiled egg whites, a bowl of the Israel version of Smacks cereal, which by the way was definitely lacking the abundant sugar content I so badly desired, and the best Israeli Insta-coffee I have ever tasted. This breakfast, although mighty tasty and one of the best I have had yet , was not the reason for my amazing day.
The night of July 3rd, I found out that I was going to be involved in two dynamic charity events on American independece day. One of which would involve running a half-day baseball camp with two of my teammates for the 11 year old Israel National Baseball Team. They are getting ready to go to the Czech Republic for two weeks on Sunday to play in the European Championship Tournament. To top it off, the camp would be held at the Ra'anana Little League field. The other was to take place at Ra'anana public park, where three teammates and I would bring league sanctioned balls and gloves to an event put on by Chaiyenu, a branch of
Chai Lifeline, which is a charity organization that helps out kids with cancer all over the world.
As our minivan approached Ra'anana Little League field, I was reminded of the innocence that young kids possess. It didn't matter that the Express were batting a dismal .189 as a team, or that we are an even worse 1-6, the kids embraced us as if we were their parents and they had just found us among a sea of 50,000 people after being lost for two hours. We taught them how to properly execute a rundown, how to run a first and third play when the runner on first steals, and how to put their batting helmets on correctly. But none of that stuff mattered as much as when we were able to sign autographs for them, talk about their experiences in Israel (most have moved here from America), and even play a little baseball trivia. I swear there was an 11 year old kid who knew more trivia than every baseball encyclopedia combined. When he asked me to give him my all time Washington Senators team, I decided it was time to throw in the towel.
After the camp was over we all boareded a bus and went to watch Bet Shemesh continue their leaguewide dominance over IBL competition. They are 9-0 and don't look like they are going to lose anytime soon. I swear it's like David vs. Goliath but in this case, Goliath always come out on top.
Anyways, four hours and a quick power nap later, it was time to take a taxi to Ra'anana Park and meet the kids from Chaiyenu. I'm not sure if they were more excited to see the players, or the boxes of goodies (see: two dozen balls, 12 gloves) we brought with us, but when the announcement was made that we had arrived, 400 kids made a beline straight for us. I felt like I was directly in the path of the Million Man March. We tried to hand things out as best we could, but were overwhelmed by the hundreds of tiny fingers grabbing at us from all directions. After the goods were passed out, we tried to console those who came emptyhanded and left with nothing but tears streaming down their faces because we couldn't give them a ball. We played catch, took pictures, signed more autographs...and arms, but more importantly put smiles on a lot of kids faces who are either siblings of cancer patients, young kids in remission, or even taking a quick break from chemo treatments. It was quite an event.
After such a full day, I went to Mike's Place last night to celebrate my independence. It is an American bar in Tel Aviv that plays live music and gives you that American feel we all miss around here. It was nice to get the taste and sound of home for a couple of hours. Tonight we play the 1-7 Petach Tikvah Pioneers. Someone has to win...right?

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Well, Sometime's I'm Wrong

So...You know how I said that as a team we had nowhere to go but up? A better lie would have been telling you that I am taller than Shaq. We lost last night to Tel Aviv 16-1. Do you have any idea how hard it is to lose that bad? More people have climbed Everest than have lost by a score that lopsided. The box score said we committed only seven errors, but I counted at least ten. It was one of the more embarrassing games that I have ever been a part of. That being said, coach gave me the day off, which was nice because now technically I can erase the game from my personal memory bank. In all seriousness, we win and lose as a team. We just need something to jump-start us. Whether it be a couple hit batters, a grand slam, or even a team brawl...where no one gets hurt of course, just some nice Jewish verbal sparring. Something to light a fire under us as a team. Either that, or one guy needs to step up and put the onus on him to become our "clutch" player. So far, every other team has established someone like that but us. I should be back in the lineup tonight and would love to take on that role...we will see.
Tomorrow is July 4th and our team has the day off. Apparently the Israeli immigrants from America like to celebrate the holiday just as they did before they made Aliyah, besides the BBQ hot dogs of course. I think some of us are going to go to Tel Aviv to see what *limited* fun we can have. I'll let you know how that goes. In the meantime, keep the Ra'anana Express in your prayers as we are still looking to get our first real W.

Monday, July 2, 2007

A Week Gone By

So after one week, the Ra'anana Express are a disappointing 1-4. We are leading the league offensively in strikeouts (thanks in part to my 4), defensively in errors, and our pitchers have allowed the most walks. It doesn't take a baseball genius to figure out that a team with that stat line is not going to be in first place. I'm still optimistic though because we are just getting our back foot out of the starting gate. With 40 more games to play we have nowhere to go but up.
Since our Dominican catcher has had a bum shoulder recently, I have caught the last 4 games. Defensively I'm doing well but offensively I haven't got it going yet. Granted, in the four games I started, three times we have faced a Dominican pitcher with stuff dirtier than Howard Stern's mouth. I do have four walks though, so at least those are keeping pace with my K's. Tonight we face an Aussie, so I'm looking to get off the schnide and put a crooked number in the hit column.
On a much more important note, since we had no games Friday afternoon through Sunday night, I had some free time to travel around the country. On Saturday morning, the players sober enough to wake up at 7 o'clock in the morning boarded a tour bus headed for Jerusalem. We stopped by the Palestine border, went to an Elvis, that's right..Elvis diner in the outskirts of the city, and walked through the Armenian, Arab, and Catholic quarters of the city. For obvious reasons, the Jewish quarter was as dormant as a dead fly on Saturday.
As the rest of our contingent headed back to Ramat Hasharon, five of us stayed in Jerusalem for the night because we had bought tickets the day before to go to a Jackson Browne concert scheduled for 3:00AM Sunday morning. Why would we do such a thing? Because the concert was a sunrise show at Mount Masada, home of the last stand between the Ancient Jews and Catholic Romans. The backdrop of the show was the backside of the enormous mountain, with the southern part of Dead Sea off to the left. I felt like I was at the end of the earth, watching the concert unfold as the sun came up. It was an intimate show as only 2,000 people were present. The main act was a singer/songwriter named David Groza, and Browne came onstage to perform two songs with him. It was quite an experience.
I eventually got back to my room around 10:30AM, took a quick power nap, and boarded a bus at 2:30PM to face that same Dominican pitcher on the Modi'in Miracle who was a former to Yankee prospect. Quite a weekend, I know.