"If you know the game, you don’t think of it as being that complicated, but it really is."

Nathan Mittag '07 walked to the mound for his first appearance as a professional baseball player in June, replacing a pitcher from Colombia, taking the ball from an Australian manager, and throwing to his team’s Dominican catcher.

But when the stadium announcer called Mittag’s strikes and balls, he did it in a language that few players on the field could understand: Hebrew.

Mittag’s team, the Ra’anana Express, is part of the new Israel Baseball League, a six-team venture that introduced America’s pastime to the Middle East. Mittag, who is Jewish, had always hoped to visit Israel, but he did not want to sidetrack his dream of playing pro baseball. So, during the last three summers, he postponed his travel plans to work on his pitching.

“It’s kind of ironic,” he said in July, “because in the end, baseball is what brought me here.”

Mittag missed the league’s formal tryouts last December but was drafted anyway, thanks to an impressive junior season at Bucknell. By the time he received the invitation to play, he had accepted an investment-banking job at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods in New York, with plans to start in July. The company allowed him to defer until September, and Mittag flew to Tel Aviv to take his place in Ra’anana’s bullpen.

Life at the ballpark was only part of the experience for Mittag and his teammates.

Between games, they visited sights like Masada, a mountainous fortress in the Judean desert that also serves as the backdrop for one of the world’s most spectacular rock concerts. Jackson Browne headlined this year’s show, which started at 3 a.m. and lasted until the sun rose over the Dead Sea. “It’s awe inspiring,” Mittag says of the view. “It takes you a second to realize where you are and how far you are from home.”

The Israel Baseball League launched with much fanfare, drawing nearly 4,000 spectators on opening day. But by midseason, the crowds had thinned considerably, leaving behind a contingent of dedicated, vociferous fans, who reminded Mittag of the student section at Sojka Pavilion.

While soccer and basketball still dominate the sports pages in Israel, Mittag thinks baseball is finding its niche. "If you know the game, you don’t think of it as being that complicated, but it really is," he says. "When they start learning the small things about the game that are special to us, that’s when they’ll become real fans and spread the word."

Posted Fall 2007