Here’s a first: baseball as a tool of American foreign policy.
As the world’s sole superpower, the United States constantly spreads its influence around the globe. But rarely has baseball been the machine used to endear America to foreigners.
However, in 110 days, on Jun. 24, or should I say the 8th of Tammuz 5767, teams in the Israel Baseball League will play their first games. And in doing so, professional baseball will start a new life in the Middle East. It prompts the question: Could an American sport be a source of peace and harmony in an otherwise tumultuous region? Could Americans assert their goodwill by lending one of our passions to people who might otherwise consider us passionless? While sports are popular throughout the world, baseball, with its limited fan base, is still something very American. Displaying our country’s zeal for this game could reveal our true personality, painting us as humans rather than capitalist imperialists. Obviously, America’s image in Israel is different than it is in other Middle Eastern countries, but in many ways the U.S. could stand to improve its standing across the whole region.
Now, picture yourself in Tel Aviv. Hypothetically speaking, the hometown Lightning are down by two entering the home half of the seventh inning. Since IBL games are limited to seven innings, this is it. Art Shamsky, manager of the visiting Bet Shemesh Blue Sox and former seven-year MLB professional, has just brought in his closer. Inspired by their own manager Ron Blomberg (whose autobiography is aptly titled the “Designated Hebrew,” because Blomberg was the first man ever to enter a Major League game as a designated hitter), the Lightning rally with two out to tie the game. No extra innings here though. IBL officials have instead decided that a home run derby will decide tie games.
It all does sound a little out of place. But there could be something to this. Introducing America’s pastime to Israel and other countries could provide a certain genuineness to the United States’ global image. Mixing Cracker Jacks and hot dogs with falafels and kasha varnishkes, the IBL may have found a way to win fans both for local Israeli teams and the United States.
Beyond nontraditional food choices, the league will boast players from all over the world. IBL officials do hope that, by 2012, 25 percent of IBL players will be Israelis. Nevertheless, the idea of promoting cultural diversity and racial acceptance in a country where people are killed for their creed and ethnicity seems pretty powerful.
Some of the IBL’s international crossover even has precedent. As it happens, the Dominican Republic, a global hotbed for baseball, was one of few countries to accept mass Jewish immigration in the 1930s. While the Dominican Republic Settlement Association — the body charged with preparing the island for an influx of central and eastern European refugees — offered to accept up to 100,000 migrant Jews, the Dominican’s Jewish population spiked at only 1,000 in 1943. Now, Dominicans are off to Israel to play the game they love and spread that passion.
Moreover, the American public has long been convinced of baseball’s democratic virtues. Myths like that of Mickey Mantle’s being discovered in Oklahoma and rising to fame and fortune in New York are a big part of the sport’s legacy. Baseball has even stretched its democratic wings to encompass much of Latin America and parts of East Asia.
Juiced or not, Sammy Sosa won the hearts of millions of Americans when he told tales of playing baseball as a boy in San Pedro de Macoris with a roll of toilet paper for a ball and a tree limb for a bat. But the smile-lit face was one of a man who had found prosperity. Indeed, baseball is one avenue by which athletes have successfully pursued the American Dream. The Israel Baseball League could be the first step in extending this movement to the Middle East.
IBL officials hope that baseball at the very least will provide the same peaceful distraction in Israel that it does here. Israelis might even buy into the spirit of the game and enjoy lounging around or chasing down foul balls. In a place where death and destruction are far too common, that’s a noble goal.
But baseball could provide something more than just a distraction: It could prove to be a means of self-improvement. The idea of paving a road to happiness and success is something wholly American. And maybe that’s what politicians should be promoting in countries otherwise opposed to American dogma. If the current conception of American culture in places abroad is one of fast food and gluttony, than our pastime might be a refreshing change of pace. Baseball and the IBL could prove to be an unorthodox but simultaneously effective means of humanizing the American image.
Nicholas Thorne is a junior in Pierson College. His column appears on Tuesdays.