St. Louisan helping establish baseball in Israel

St. Louis native Josh Scharff, 25, is now helping to start the Israel Baseball Experience, a five-month program that aims to bring former top collegiate players to the Premier League.

BY ERIC BERGER, STAFF WRITER

When Josh Scharff started walking, his dad put a baseball bat in his hands “and that,” he says, “was it.”

Scharff, 25, a St. Louisan who played collegiate baseball at Yale University, is now a pioneer, spending time on the dirt and grass of baseball fields in Israel, trying to establish the game there.

After talking with a leader of the Israel Association of Baseball about its leagues and teams, Scharff asked, “How can I help? What can I do to help baseball in Israel?”

He arrived in August and is helping start the Israel Baseball Experience, a five-month program that aims to bring former Division I players like Scharff to play in Israel’s adult Premier League and to help develop and promote the game. 

Scharff did not come to Israel with the bases empty – there had been a professional league there. But there is not widespread awareness about the game.

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“It’s a strange dichotomy. You talk to some people and they say, ‘Wait, there’s baseball in Israel?’ But the people who are invested in it are totally invested in it,” he said.

Scharff is living in Tel Aviv while starting the baseball program, which is sponsored by Masa Israel, an organization that runs programs in Israel for Jews around the world.

There are several baseball fields throughout the country, including the original at Kibbutz Gezer, which was constructed in 1979, and one in Petah Tivah, near Tel Aviv. 

Israel competed in the qualifying rounds of the 2013 World Baseball Classic, fielding a team that featured MLB outfielder Joc Pederson and retired outfielder Shawn Green. It was managed by Brad Ausmus, who now manages the Detroit Tigers. 

The team lost in the final qualifier against Spain 9-7. 

Scharff also is helping to build a roster for the next international tournament, reaching out to Jewish players around the United States who would be eligible to play for Israel. But the goal is eventually to have more homegrown talent, Scharff and others say.

“Soccer and basketball are really deeply rooted, and people love” the sports, said Scharff, who was a designated hitter and outfielder in college. “We’re trying to bring a little baseball culture here.”

Israel has about 800 youth players. About half of them are Israeli born; the rest are from families who made aliyah from North America, Scharff said.

The Masa program is expected to launch in January. Scharff said the organization has received more applications than there are spots. 

“We’re going to have these guys out on the fields several days a week working with youth teams, setting the example of what it’s like to be a baseball player for your profession, how you go about your business and do it well,” he said.

Scharff believes that baseball, like other sports, “is pretty transcendent. It can cross cultural lines, and that’s what I’m seeing here.”

He grew up attending Temple Israel, but his interest in the Jewish State really started at Yale, where in his final two years he took five Hebrew classes.

“You can’t really learn modern Hebrew without learning the culture, the music, the history of Israel,” Scharff said. “I realized I needed to go discover it myself.”

After graduation, he participated and staffed a number of Birthright trips and spent time teaching at an elementary school in Netanya.

“I have felt very much at home here,” Scharff said. “It’s a pretty indescribable thing.”

Scharff is helping to bring players over for a second try at a baseball league. The Israel Baseball League was founded in 2007 but folded after one season.

Nate Fish, 35, executive director of the Israel Association of Baseball, played for the Tel Aviv Lightning in the IBL.

“It was just too early,” he said of the league’s failure.

But now, Fish thinks that through the grassroots approach with the youth leagues and the Masa program, the sport could take off.  The Israeli national team is ranked 22nd in the world and sixth in Europe.

“Every other country faces the same challenges,” said Fish, who also played in the Dominican Republic and Germany. “It’s hard to get the infrastructure and resources, and baseball is sort of a fringe sport. It’s not a mainstream sport.”

Israel does not have the benefit of advanced scouting before teams participate in tournaments in Europe, so the team could show up to a game and find a lineup filled with nine lefthanders, Fish said. Other countries are still learning and could see having a majority of lefthanders as an advantage. 

But, he said, “the quality is getting much better, the professionalism is getting much better.” 

The next goal is qualifying for the World Baseball Classic in 2017. Fish said that retired MLB pitcher Jason Marquis, who spent three seasons with the Cardinals, could be on the roster, and that retired Boston Red Sox star Kevin Youkilis will be on the coaching staff.

Meanwhile, Fish said Scharff is doing a little bit of everything to help advance the game in Israel.

“He is at my apartment every day doing desk work, emails and phone calls, grant applications, looking for sponsorships,” Fish said. “On the field, he is coaching and playing in the Premier League and coaching two youth teams. He is doing a lot.”

The deadline to apply for the Israel Baseball Experience is Dec. 31.