You’ve probably read countless stories with a title like this. The generic story about how an individual perceives a specific sport entirely different from the average watcher/fan. Well I am here to tell you to get ready to read another one. This story is somewhat a tale of two cities, the dichotomy of work and play when it comes to baseball.
Baseball is a sport that needs no introduction. There is a reason why it’s called America’s national pastime. From the Civil War, when soldiers on both sides played it as a diversion. To Civil Rights and Jackie Robinson, with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. saying “Without him [Robinson], I would never have been able to do what I did.” And all points in between and beyond, the game of baseball supports and reflects many aspects of American life, from culture to economics and technological advances.
One aspect about baseball that has grown and will continue to grow is that it has globally. Since the barriers were broken and more people were accepted into the sport, it seems as though its demand has skyrocketed. Many people are familiar with the sport being popular in the main areas of the world, such as Latin America and Asia. The latter has one of the most popular leagues in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) which in terms of annual attendance is only second to Major League Baseball (MLB). Also producing stars such as Ichiro Suzuki and Shohei Ohtani. The influence Latin America has had on baseball can’t be understated as well. In 2020 they made up nearly 25% of the league’s talent — a number that continues to rise each season. Many of the faces of the league are players with Latin American roots, naming them all would be longer than Santa’s wishlist. Now there are baseball leagues in Australia, Italy, etc. However far the reach might be, there are always places that fall through the cracks. Israel is one of them.
Baseball was first played in the British Mandate of Palestine on July 4, 1927.The children took the baseballs, dropped them to the ground, and started kicking them, which was all they knew to do with a ball until that time. The first field in Israel was built in Kibbutz Gezer in 1979, The Israel Association of Baseball (IAB) was established in 1986, which is one of the most important things in terms of progression. The first domestic league was started in 2007. The Israel Baseball Academy, which was launched in 2014 with the aim to develop players so that they’re ready to compete on the highest levels. The point is, although lacking resources and having to be supported by volunteers and donors, substantial progress/steps has/have been made to push the sport forward in Israel. This is a good time to introduce the main character of our story, Itai Spinoza.
Spinoza was born in Israel and lived there for 2 years. From there he would move to Toronto and Syracuse before settling down in Fayetteville NY. If I were to tell you he picked up baseball
while in the US that would seem obvious, considering he has been a NY native for most of his life. However he fell in love with the game while he was in Israel, thanks to his father. “When we lived in Israel baseball didn’t exist then, it’s still to this day a very new sport there. He would tell me stories about how he’d be playing baseball with us in the yard and he’d have our neighbors come up and be like ‘what are you doing?”. Adding on, “He was born and raised in Venezuela, so baseball is obviously a huge sport there. He played that his whole life. Ever since we could walk my brothers and I have been playing… he’s kept pushing the sport on us and I grew to love it thanks to him.” Itai saw his first professional game in Toronto, watching the Blue Jays, and his love for the sport grew even more.
To go back to the point of the importance of IBA, they’re not shy about the emphasis on scouting talent globally. In fact that is how Spinzoa was introduced to the national team. “I was playing right by New York city and one of the head coaches of the IBA happened to see me there. He recognized my name, because Itai is an israeli name, and he was like ‘This kid could definitely play for us’. So we got in touch and I played my first tournament with them in Prague.” He’s been with them since 2014 and has played in various youth tournaments about every other summer since then. Which has seen him travel to places like Sweden and Italy.
To play collegiately is a major achievement. Spinoza himself plays at Elon University. A division 1 school in North Carolina. Some athletes see it as a stepping stone to the professional level, while others just want to play in a more relaxed way. Enjoying school and socializing while playing a sport before going into the workforce. I asked Itai if there was a different perception in the way Israeli players see baseball than Americans. He said, “Their perspective is more similar to kids in the Caribbean, they are trying to take baseball as a career and carry them through life. Where I feel like most kids in the US are like ok there’s more of a laid out process. Playing in high school, going to college and then getting drafted. Internationally it’s different because they don’t have all these steps laid out for them. It’s either they get good there and get drafted or it’s nothing.”
This league or bust mindset has had a positive impact on Spinoza. With him saying, “They don’t have access to facilities like I do here. Their main field is probably the equivalent of a below average high school field. That’s their rock, they go practice there every day, they go hit in there. Like torn up batting cages, and they love it. They enjoy every single second. They work super hard to just get the job done and me seeing that makes me even more grateful for what I already have.”
As someone who has not only seen the progress, but has lived through and been part of it. I wanted to know where he felt baseball was moving towards in Israel. He told me, “You see, with the WBSC (World Baseball Softball Confederation) they release rankings every year. You see, with the past 4-5 years Israel just continues to climb those rankings. I 100% see it growing into a European/middle eastern powerhouse. I see the way Israel is developing, they are getting these new complexes all over the country and they keep putting these teams together and are competing with these big guys in the world. I definitely see huge potential in the IBA growing into one of these powerhouses.”