He calls himself “The king of Jewish baseball,” but for Nate Fish, being Jewish had nothing to do with his decision to make aliyah.
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“I came to Israel for baseball. I made baseballiah,” he quips.
Fish says this despite the fact that nearly everyone he’s met since moving here had no idea Israeli baseball even existed until they met him.
Just three months ago, Fish was an artist and DJ living in the creative haven of Bushwick, Brooklyn, one of the hippest neighborhoods in New York City. Today he is the first full-time paid national executive director of the Israel Association of Baseball.
At first glance, it seems like the least likely job for this youthful 33-year-old who lives in an art studio in Jaffa and looks the part. He prefers colorful clothing, wears beaded jewelry and hosts art parties at his gallery-like apartment every week. But to this former minor leaguer from Ohio, leading the Jewish State’s baseball operation is exactly what he was destined to do. Even before he became the director of the IAB on Aug. 1, Fish was already a major player in Israeli baseball.
He has played for and coached Israeli teams on the world stage since 2005, when he first played for Israel in the Maccabiah. In 2007 he played in the now-defunct Israel Baseball League, coached team Israel in the 2011 European Championship and played for Israel in the 2012 World Baseball Classic. It was there that the IAB’s president offered him the job of director — an offer he took a full year to accept. When he returned to Israel this June to coach the Maccabiah team, he was here to stay.
As IBA director, Fish says his main task is to expand the country’s nearly non-existent baseball scene. The IAB, a non-profit organization, was founded in 1986 with the same goal they have now: promoting and developing baseball in Israel. The group’s website still features a section titled “What is Baseball?”
For his part, Fish is tasked with doubling the number of Israeli baseball players over the next four years. The push will focus on recruiting more Israeli coaches and introducing baseball to more Israeli children. This is an ambitious goal for someone who has lived in Israel for three months and does not speak Hebrew. But back in New York, between DJ-ing and showcasing his work at art exhibitions, Fish coached traveling baseball teams and established a little league in Spanish Harlem.
“There were more kids playing baseball in that little youth group than in this entire country,” he laughs.
That little league represented just one small sliver of Manhattan’s baseball scene, yet it had 1,500 players — more than in the entire country of Israel. There are about 1,000 baseball players in this nation of eight million people, and the majority of them are either American expats, children of American expats or kids who lived in the U.S. for part of their lives because their Israeli parents’ jobs took them there. In fact, when Fish played for Israel at the World Baseball Classic, just three of his teammates were native Israelis. At least one of those Israelis now lives in the U.S.
Changing those demographics is the primary focus of the IAB’s efforts to expand baseball in Israel.
“In the past, the IAB has always been an Anglo organization, sending out messages in English,” says Fish. “The website was only in English — now we’re becoming a bilingual organization.”
The irony that Fish, who just started an ulpan Hebrew course, is leading the charge to bring more Hebrew into Israeli baseball is not lost on him. He fully acknowledges the steep climb ahead.
After watching a junior league game one recent afternoon, Fish lamented the pitiful state of young Israeli players. Their uniforms, their language, their approach to the game were all wrong, he said. “There were kids wearing baseball pants without baseball socks, so the bottom of their legs were showing,” he says with a look of utter disgust. “You had 16-year-olds playing a baseball game in jeans. When I was 16, we were dressed like major league players.”
The clearest sign of the long road ahead is the fact that there are only two regulation baseball fields in the entire country. Many games and practices are held on makeshift fields and some on farms, without dugouts, pitching mounds or base paths. The IAB is currently working with the Jewish National Fund to raise money for more fields. The JNF funded the only baseball field in Tel Aviv at the Yarkon Park sporteque, where Fish recently held a free baseball clinic for kids during the Sukkot holiday. There, IAB President Peter Kurz said that the IAB hopes to break ground on the newest field sometime in the next few months. At a cost of $4 million, the new facility in Ra’anana will be “the national home of the IAB,” according to Kurz.
Funding from the JNF and private donations account for just 10 to 15 percent of the IAB’s operations. Player dues make up about 60 percent, and 20 percent comes from the Israeli government.
So, why should anyone care about baseball in Israel?
“Israel and baseball is where traditions meet,” says Kurz, referring to America’s favorite pastime. “For parents, it’s a great way for kids to improve their English and learn more about American culture.”
Seeing the group of about 20 kids who came out to the free clinic in Tel Aviv, it was clear that they could use the training. The boys, aged between 8 and 14, looked a little gawky and awkward. Throughout the day’s lessons, Fish had to remind them to adjust their stance and “look athletic.”
Eventually, Fish sees baseball becoming just as popular in Israel as soccer or basketball.
Soccer is by far the country’s most popular sport, and the 85-year-old Israel Football Association boasts an estimated 30,000 players. Israeli basketball players have gone on to play in the NBA. Yet not only has an Israeli baseball player never played in the MLB, not a single Israeli has even played in the American minor leagues.
But, Fish points out, neither soccer nor basketball began in Israel. Everything starts somewhere. “People introduced soccer programs and basketball programs, and it caught on. And now, a couple generations later, people think of those sports as being very Israeli,” he says. “I think we’re a generation away from people thinking of baseball as an Israeli sport.”