Pitching In The Promised Land: A Story of the First
and Only Season in the Israel Baseball League
University of Nebraska Press, 2011. 280 pp. $27.95 (hardcover)
Aaron Pribble's Pitching In The Promised Land: A Story of the First and Only Season in the Israel Baseball League is the latest addition to the small universe of memorabilia associated with the ill-fated Israeli baseball experiment, including Pribble's own baseball cards.
Based on the daily journals he kept during the summer of 2007, Pribble wonderfully details his on-the-field exploits, and those of his IBL teammates and foes.
He tried out for the upstart IBL after several years out of baseball and was drafted by the Tel Aviv Lighting. Pribble compiled a 7–2 record while blanking batters with a league-leading 1.94 ERA. His stats and leadership won Pribble the IBL Commissioner's Award for Sportsmanship and Character, and an offer to pitch for the Blueport Bluefish of the independent Atlantic League (the team on which Adam Greenberg, the former Jewish Major Leaguer, who was hit by the first pitch he saw, plays).
As with Norm Miller's baseball memoir – To All My Fans … From Norm Who? – Pribble's book is heavy on game details and statistics, which will appeal to roto-geeks seeking to recreate games they may never got a chance to witness.
Author's note: In the digital age in which we live, you can watch excerpts of IBL games on YouTube.
Another similarity between Miller's book and Pitching is that Pribble occasionally uses salty language, and alludes to the sexual conquests and drinking habits of players.
This is less a criticism of Pribble – who describes his experiences, and the book, as “Bull Durham in Tel Aviv” – than it is proof that when a group of testosterone fueled men assembles in tight quarters, they have a tendency to act like teenage boys at summer camp.
Examples of this truism are sprinkled throughout the book, and it is clearly evidenced in the chapters where Pribble recounts beer runs to a the road side gas station dubbed La Bomba, and the players' end of season Schnitzel Awards (a snippet of which is available on YouTube and posted below).
While not offensive to me, the curses at times seem excessive and unnecessary. Especially because Pribble is a well-educated and capable writer. The vulgarities stand in stark contrast to some of the other AP English vocabulary Pribble employs.
Can anyone tell me, for example, what – without looking on Dictionary.com – what “pusillanimous” means? FYI, it means “lacking courage.” I had to check!
Pitching In The Promised Land is, however, more than a mere baseball diary. Pribble is as crafty an author as he was a pitcher. He does a nice job changing speeds, chronicling his on- and off-the-field adventures in alternating chapters.
In several, Pribble recounts his memories of a brief, intense relationship with Yael, a dark-complected, beautiful, Yemenite Jew he met.
Pribble refers to Yael lovingly. He touchingly describes their first date (which ended up with Yael walking away, feigning the need to leave for a trip to Germany), and tenderly relates the details of their second date, during which the two love birds share a romantic seaside kiss.
In other chapters, Pribble humorously relates the general absurdity of playing baseball in Israel in a faltering league. The best example of this comes in “Bus Ride,” the chapter in which Pribble describes his first views of the Kibbutz Gezer baseball field. A converted softball field, it included a hill in center field and a light pole (complete with mattress padding!) in the middle of right field.
Throughout Pitching, Pribble also provides excellent character sketches of his teammates and fellow IBL players.
Viewers of Holy Land Hard Ball (the documentary about the IBL, which can occasionally be found airing on the MLB Network and at Jewish film festivals) will recognize some of the film's main characters – notably IBL founder Larry Baras, and players Nate Fish, Eric Holtz and Dan Rootenberg.
Pribble's Tel Aviv Lightning teammates Dane Wigg, an Australian catcher, Aussie pitcher Adam Crabb, and, Israeli pitcher Dan Rothem, who also worked as a policy analyst for a Israeli-Palestinian economic cooperation group are also central figures in the book.
Pribble is the first of all the colorful characters in the IBL to write of his experiences in the Israel Baseball League. If Pitching In the Promised Land is any indication, however, the topic is fertile ground. I hope other former players will share their memories in the future.
Pitching In The Promised Land is more than just a baseball book, however. Pribble also offers a touching first-person account of how “a peculiar season, a once-in-a-lifetime summer” changed his perceptions of the Middle East conflict and solidified his Jewish identity and spirituality.
Pribble recounts a Shabbat dinner with Dan Rothem's family and a later training run with Rothem, during which the two discussed the Arab-Israeli conflict. He also describes in exacting detail a seminal visit to the West Bank with Fish.
Pitching opens with Pribble getting on the plane to Israel. An El Al agent asks Pribble, as part of a security screening, if he is Jewish. Raised by a Jewish mother and Christian father, Pribble considered himself “sort of” Jewish, “a Jew unsure or unconvinced of his heritage.”
By mid-season, Pribble thinks: “Perhaps there is room for an interloper, a haole, a redneck Jew-boy such as myself, under this beautiful Hebrew rainbow.”
At season's end, Pribble describes himself as “a changed man, a Jew assured of his heritage, more confident of his place in the world. Not a half-assed Jew, not kind of Jewish.”
Pitching In The Promised Land is a home run. With its dual narratives, the book is likely to appeal to both Jewish seam heads and casual fans, alike. Pribble's storytelling abilities are excellent, and his writing is – generally – approachable, warm, humorous, effective and engrossing.
Pribble seems as charming in person as he comes off in the pages of Pitching. He spoke about his experience in the IBL and his reasons for writing Pitching in the Promised Land during a May 2011 book signing at by Book Passage in Corte Madera, California. You can watch video of Pribble's presentation on C-SPAN's Book TV, where it originally aired; an all-too-short excerpt is also available on YouTube.
To date, Pribble's promotional appearances have been limited to the San Francisco area. For Jewish baseball collectors interested in having the chance to meet the author, Pribble tells JewishSportsCollectibles.com he will be pitching Pitching at several upcoming events.
Pribble will be attending the San Diego Book Fair on Sunday November 6.
He's also scheduled to appear with former Jewish Major Leaguer Shawn Green (promoting The Way Of Baseball and sportswriter John Thorn (promoting Baseball In The Garden of Eden) at a special “Boys of Summer” Jewish baseball book event organized by the Marcus JCC Atlanta, scheduled for 2 p.m. at Zaban Park on Sunday, November 13.
Stay tuned! We'll have more details about this special event in an upcoming posting.
Pribble will also be promoting Pitching in Florida and Boston in the upcoming months. Watch JewishSportsCollectibles.com for additional details.
Author's note: Portions of this article were originally written for, and published in, Jewish Book World (Fall 2011, Volume 29, Number 3, page 34).