Sunday, May 18, 2008

Israel baseball survivor looks back-- with gratitude

“Four guys
sleeping in cots,

It wasn't the
greatest conditions

and the food
was pretty garbage.

I was sick
for two weeks,
It was crazy!"

The dream of professional baseball in Israel may be dead for this year and the foreseeable future, but for the survivors of the first season of the Israel Baseball League’s sole season, the memories—and nightmares-- are fresh.

The latest to recall the season in hell is Rafael Bergstrom, the golden boy pitcher of the champion Bet Shemesh Blue Sox and the first of a handful of players to jump from the IBL to a paid contract back in the States.

Now a starting pitcher for the Bridgeport Bluefish of the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball (which is not affiliated with Major League Baseball) , but close enough to New York City to get some media attention, Bergstrom is featured in a lengthy Connecticut Post article by Rich Elliott. The 26-year-old Bergstrom looks back on a career that’s taken him around the world – but whose most memorable and potentially traumatic stop was his season in Israel.

With a winning combination of youthful exuberance, the realization that he's been lucky enough to extend that youth, and a sense of camaraderie under fire with his fellow troops— er, players—Bergstrom looks back not in anger, but with nostalgia-- and a gratefulness that many of his fellow IBL players have expressed, but which some outsiders have had difficulty comprehending, as he also confirms some of the outrages first exposed sensationally by Our Man Elli in Israel on this site.

Bergstrom talks of a career that saw him heading overseas after standout play at the University of California at San Diego and a workout with the Colorado Rockies did not add up to a MLB shot in 2004. He played first in Munich, Germany, where the fields and competition were “kind of hit or miss,” one infield featured a portable wooden pitcher’s mound, but where “his salary was roughly $1,000 a month. But his airfare, housing and his subway pass were paid for.”

After two seasons in Munich, Bergstrom moved on to Brisbane, Australia, in 2006, where he “dominated… 13-0 with a 1.40 ERA, and…130 strikeouts and 25 walks in 110 innings,” but where Bergstrom did not play for one of the teams that paid its players.

"'They gave me a host family and they just found me odd jobs to do to make money," Bergstrom said… “It was more of just like a six-month vacation playing baseball, which is fun.’”

Then it was on to the IBL.

From Rich Elliott’s article, "Bergstrom Thankful for Excellent Adventure":

“Games were played six days a week in Israel, where the competition was first-rate. Bergstrom earned $2,000 for two months. Housing was provided, but the entire league lived in the same complex.

“‘It was like a big summer camp," Bergstrom said. ‘Four guys sleeping in cots, basically. It wasn't the greatest conditions and the food was pretty garbage. I was sick for two weeks, dehydrated.

"’The first week, everybody's kind of shell-shocked, like, ‘What the heck are we doing here?” The fields weren't in good condition. But by the end, everybody was like this big family all playing in this league and just dealing with the situation and playing baseball.

“One of the fields Bergstrom spoke of was a converted softball field that had a warning track running through the middle of the outfield and a light pole in the middle of right field with a mattress taped around it. Both of the dugouts were on the same side of the field.

"’It was pretty interesting,’ Bergstrom said. ‘It was crazy.’

“But this experience — and a league championship — brought Bergstrom to the United States for the first time in his professional career. With the assistance of Dan Duquette, the director of baseball operations for the Israeli Baseball League and the former general manager of the Boston Red Sox, Bergstrom became the first player from the league to sign a contract with a U.S. team when he joined the Bluefish last August.

"'When I went (to Israel), I said, “OK, this could be it unless I can continue to move forward,” Bergstrom said. "And then I got the call from Dan Duquette about coming over here. I said I'm going to keep giving it that shot, as long as I keep progressing and feel like I'm improving and able to get guys out. Because it's been my dream, obviously, since I was a kid to play major league baseball. And that's what I've always wanted to do.’

“…Bergstrom, who will make his next start Monday at Southern Maryland, was hoping to catch on with an affiliated club during the off-season. He said he had "a couple guys" talking to him about the New York Yankees bringing him into spring training. But it did not work out.

“He still has not abandoned hope. Former Blue Sox teammate/outfielder Jason Rees and catcher Eladio Rodriguez, formerly of the Modi'in Miracle of the IBL, were signed to minor league contracts by the Yankees. Rodriguez is playing at Class AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (editor’s note: Eladio was recently bumped down to the AA Trenton Thunder) while Rees was released during spring training…”

Bergstrom was 7-2 with a 2.44 ERA (60 strikeouts in 56 innings) in Israel, leading the Bet Shemesh Blue Sox to the league championship. Check out the entire article here. It’s a good read.

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