Player who got second chance pitches Israel league


By Jill Stern

As Village filmmaker Brett Rapkin aptly puts it in “Holy Hard Ball,” his new documentary on the birth and launch of the new Israel Baseball League, “It only took 5,767 years but baseball is finally coming to Israel!”

It’s true. The union many have been waiting years for is 117 days away. Opening Day is June 24.

One of the newly signed ballplayers practices at the Village’s own “Field of Dreams,” Pier 40, at W. Houston St. Leon Feingold is on the brink of becoming a household name in Tel Aviv. At 6 foot 6, he is a forceful pitcher with a 93-mile-per-hour fastball. Although he grew up on Long Island and now lives in Hell’s Kitchen, he’s well known in the Greenwich Village Little League, where he teaches pitching.

We spoke recently about pioneering baseball in Israel.

Q) Are you scared to uproot your life here on the West Side of Manhattan for the turbulent Middle East?

A) Nope. In my time in the Middle East, I’ve found the locals of all nationalities to be friendly, supportive, curious and in all ways nonthreatening.

Q) When you heard about the tryouts, did you think you would make the team?

A) The competition was pretty stiff, but I knew I had as good a chance as anyone — and my stuff was working that day and I was pretty dominant. I wasn’t sure I would make it, but I felt pretty confident I would.

Q) How long after the tryouts before you knew that you made it?

A) I actually spoke to someone I had met at the tryout who hinted I’d be among the first players offered a contract. But I didn’t get the letter confirming my invite to participate until a month or so after the tryout.

Q) How long did it take you to make your decision to sign?

A) I had decided ahead of time that I’d sign if I were offered the contract, so — none at all.

Q) Were you one of the first players signed? What has the league required of you?

A) I was in the group of four players who were offered a contract from that first tryout. I can’t discuss the specifics of the contract I signed, but they expect me to play professional baseball and I expect them to pay me for it. I will say, based on personal experience, the contract is very similar to the one I signed with the Cleveland Indians organization the first time around.

Q) One of the new players is in the Israeli Army. Have you met him yet?

A) Haven’t met any of the Israeli players yet — but I’ve read a couple of their blogs (available at www.israelbaseballleague.com) and so far they’re quite interesting. I look forward to meeting them.

Q) The league just announced that Ron Blomberg, Ken Holtzman and Art Shamsky, three former Major League players will be managers. Which one, if you could pick, would you want to play for and why?

A) I want to play for any owner who knows and respects the game and will give me the best chance to excel. I don’t know any of the three managers personally yet, although I know their pedigrees and histories and have no doubts that all will be among the best in the game. I have neither preferences for one nor qualms about any.

Q) You almost gave up on your dream of playing professionally after your shoulder injury. How great is it to get this second chance?

A) I always wanted to play baseball, and once I did it for a living I never wanted to stop. What’s better than doing what you love and getting paid for it? But following shoulder surgery — twice — I figured my time was up. Most people don’t ever get the chance to play professional baseball, and almost no one gets a second chance. When I came home, I couldn’t even watch baseball on the television for months — I’d get all teary eyed, wishing I was still there.

I couldn’t mope forever, however. I needed to do something with myself. I had taken the LSAT’s (the Law School Admissions Test) the prior year following the 1994 season, in order to keep a friend company and provide moral support; he bombed it and I scored a 175 and only got five questions wrong. I never wanted to be a lawyer, but following that first shoulder surgery in the summer of 1995 I was facing six to eight months of physical rehab and needed something constructive to do with myself. To keep myself occupied, I applied to a couple of law schools a few weeks before they started. Hofstra not only accepted me but gave me a scholarship to attend, and although I planned on returning to baseball after a year, a car accident in the middle of my first year necessitated more shoulder surgery and pushed my baseball dreams back yet again. So I stayed in law school and entered the real world, playing in tournaments and in semipro leagues once my arm healed, never thinking I’d have the chance again to play professionally — until now.

Q) How does your arm feel?

A) The arm feels great, and I’d like to keep it that way. I’m doing a lot of shoulder strengthening and conditioning with the Spear Center in Midtown East, which is partially run by Danny Rootenberg, one of my I.B.L. teammates (and the guy who told me about the I.B.L. tryouts in the first place). I’m also working out on my own and throwing in my own building’s gym. The season is still a few months away but I am dedicated to getting myself into game shape as soon as possible and keeping myself healthy throughout the whole season.

Q) Which of your family members and/or friends will be in Israel on June 24?

A) Don’t know yet — we’re playing this one by ear.

Q) Can we watch the games here in the States?

A) I’ve heard they may be broadcasting at least a “Game of the Week” stateside — but with the advent of the Internet, and the publicity this league is garnering, I’m sure someone will find a way to broadcast some if not most of our games.

Q) Are you religious and have you been to Israel before?

A) My religion is very important to me, and I very much enjoy identifying as a Jew. I grew up kosher and even though I am no longer, I still consider myself religious, although not to the point of Orthodoxy. I believe in and value the culture, lessons and ethics of Judaism, rather than the verbatim text. I have been to Israel twice, once for six weeks in 1990 with U.S.Y. [United Synagogue Youth] as a high school graduation gift from my parents, and once last year as part of a 10-day sightseeing vacation through Egypt, Jordan and Israel.

Q) Is it profound for you to be playing for Israel?

A) The full effect hasn’t completely sunk in yet. It does mean a lot to me. From a historical perspective, I am very excited to be a part of the first professional baseball league ever to play in Israel. Israel has a great reputation for succeeding in whatever it does: They built an oasis out of desert, they have never suffered a defeat in a war and now they even have one of the top basketball teams in the region.

Baseball is such a special sport — it’s a great combination of skill, strategy and chance, and the only one where the defense controls the ball. I really think it’s something Israelis will grow to love once they get exposed to it. I’m just glad to be one of the people involved in bringing it there for the first time.

Q) Do you know how to say “strike ’em out” in Hebrew?

A) Out me’ ekirts!

Q) Last question: The I.B.L. is going to change a few rules. One would call for a homerun derby ending in tie games. This has already been much debated, since some purists don’t like it. Any thoughts?

A) I didn’t like the idea of the wildcard in Major League Baseball when it first was introduced, but I like it now. At this point, I like the idea of trying novel things — especially if they get the league public attention and make the game more interesting for the fans. 

Feingold will be in Manhattan until the beginning of June and is available for private pitching lessons. Contact him by e-mail at: bringheat@aol.com.