Birthright participants teaching baseball in Ofakim - courtesy - January 5, 2012
Birthright participants teaching baseball in Ofakim, January 5, 2012. Photo by Courtesy
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A group of young men and women on the first ever Taglit-Birthright baseball trip in Israel are sparking interest in the game as some of them prepare for a shot at making the 2012 World Baseball Classic with the Israel national team.

Yesterday, the 40 young adults ran a baseball clinic for about 200 elementary students in Ofakim from the Hagiva and Ben-Gurion schools. Participants ran stations of throwing and catching baseballs, running around the bases, and hitting. They all played a game at the end.

“The children were very excited,” Ilana Itah, the manager of Ofakim’s municipal sports department, told Haaretz yesterday. “It was commendably organized. The kids learned all the techniques. The teachers said it was amazing.”

In the wake of the event’s success, she said the city will open baseball classes next week.

Members of Israel’s national baseball team and the Israel Association of Baseball were involved this week in preparing the participants for the clinic in Ofakim, said David Leichman, an IAB board member who organized the initiative with Birthright. A Jewish educator who has worked with many Birthright groups, Leichman said the goal is to get the word out about Israel’s participation in the World Baseball Classic and possibly recruit Jewish ballplayers from abroad.

He explained that according to WBC rules, a player can play for any country where he is eligible for citizenship. Israel already has some former major leaguers on board to help prepare the team: Shawn Green, Brad Ausmus and Gabe Kapler.

David Klein, the group’s counselor, said 11 of the participants played college ball, while others either played softball or are simply baseball fans. “We were received very well and the kids themselves had a really good time,” said Klein, who set up his own internship through the MASA program and is teaching baseball in a number of Tel Aviv schools.
He added that he loved the kids’ energy, willingness to learn and enthusiasm.

What a difference an hour makes

In the afternoon, the participants played in a pickup game with 10 members of the national team.

Myles Swartz, 21, plays baseball in Salem, West Virginia for Salem International University and hopes to play in the Classic. The Toronto native said when he heard about the trip he figured it was a great opportunity to show what potential he had and to show that college ball players “can have an impact as much as minor leaguers and professionals from all over the world.”

He said yesterday he hit a bases-clearing triple during his one at-bat, and played catch on the side, where he got a chance to talk to IAB officials. The starting pitcher, who is a red-shirt junior, said that thanks to the trip he’ll be put in a pool to be evaluated for the team, which he finds “astonishing.”

Brian Hoffman, 25, a lifelong fan from Baltimore, said the most “profound thing was how we were bringing something so uniquely American to kids who don’t have any experience ... To see the kids’ faces light up when that happened was something incredible.”

Emmy Rush, 20, who played softball in her hometown of Minneapolis, said, “The most amazing part was the feeling inside when I saw these children smile the first time they caught the pop fly or hit the ball, since I caught them step by step. It was literally life changing in an hour.”