There are no baseballs. The bats aren’t regulation. They don’t even have a baseball diamond, but that hasn’t stopped a group of Palestinian athletes from launching the territory’s first federation of baseball and softball.
“The federation seeks to make baseball well known to Palestinians, help male and female amateurs to become professional baseball players and train local coaches and referees,” the team’s coach, Mahmoud Tafesh, told Al-Monitor earlier this month.
The federation, headquartered in the Gaza Strip, was established in late January. By the following month, the territory had fielded its first team, composed of 20 men and 20 women. The women are the most keen, according to Tafesh, who recruited several members from a specialized sports education college in Gaza.
“We targeted this group because they had permission from their families to play sport as sports students,” Tafesh told the Associated Press. “Through them, we started to spread, attracting girls from other fields such as journalism and accountants.”
The players, and even Tafesh, who is unfamiliar with most MLB teams, are baseball novices, but their enthusiasm shows each week when they attend their two-hour practice sessions.
“I used to watch baseball at home while I was a child,” Iman Al-Moghayer told Al Jazeera in a clip posted to its website Tuesday. “I love it because it’s full of freedom and the only thing the player needs to do is run. Girls come and practice and the numbers are increasing. There are lots of girls who’d like to sign up despite their lack of knowledge of the sport.”
The team doesn’t practice on a baseball diamond, but a soccer field, for which Tafesh said he pays around $54 an hour out of his own pocket.
The ongoing conflict in the area makes it difficult to import some of the needed items.
“We are facing obstacles in getting the appropriate equipment,” Tafesh told Al Jazeera, referring to the blockade imposed on Gaza by Israel and Egypt in 2007 following Hamas’s takeover of the area. “For example, we don’t have baseball bats or gloves. The equipment must be brought in from outside of Palestine because we don’t have any here. We are trying to get the equipment through our own effort. We’re hoping officials will help us by importing equipment to make the sport popular in Palestine.”
For now, however, Tafesh and the players plan to make do with what they have. They use tennis balls, fashion gloves out of fabric and whittle their own bats.
There also aren’t a lot of caps to go around. The women who wear them put them over their hijabs, the traditional headscarf worn by many Muslim women.
Despite the sharp learning curve and lack of resources, Tafesh, a former soccer player who learned about baseball while taking coaching courses in Egypt, has big plans for his new team, according to Al-Monitor. He said the players don’t just want to play the sport for fun — they want to compete. He and the players are specifically eyeing the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
“All of us share the same goal: Participate and represent the name of Palestine outside and show that there are sports for the girls in Gaza,” team member Iman Mughaier, 24, told the AP.
Palestinian Olympic Committee executive Asaad El-Majdalawi has a more immediate goal in mind when it comes to the new federation, however, and that’s to give Palestinian youth a respite from the years of turmoil they’ve faced as Palestine and Israel continue to fight over control the Gaza Strip.
“Sport is very important for youngsters, especially after what they’ve gone through with wars and conflicts,” El-Majdalwai told Al Jazeera. “This will help them physically and mentally and we support them completely, especially young women, who represent half of our community.”
If relations were warmer between Palestine and its neighbors, the newcomers wouldn’t have to look far for inspiration. Ranked 41st in the world, Israel — whose mascot is a 5-foot-tall stuffed “Mensch on a Bench” — surprised many when it upset Korea and Chinese Taipei, ranked third and fourth in the world, respectively, to land a spot in the second round of the World Baseball Classic. After upsetting fifth-ranked Cuba, the mensches lost to Japan and the Netherlands, ending their run.
Despite the loss, the team’s Cinderella story served as a launching point to take baseball to the next level in Israel, including cementing plans to build the country’s first regulation baseball stadium, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports.