Israel’s field of dreams: Build it and they will schlep
KIBBUTZ GEZER, Israel (AP) _ George Toma, groundskeeper of the Kansas City Royals and veteran of 31 Super Bowls and two Olympics, is a master at his craft.
But his latest job _ preparing Israel’s first professional baseball field in this communal farm _ leaves him awed.
``It’s breathtaking when you stand at home plate, look at the hill beyond left field and think that 3,000 years ago it was King Solomon who was standing right there,″ Toma said.
According to local lore, the hill is the Biblical Tel Gezer, which King Solomon received as part of a dowry when he married an Egyptian Pharaoh’s daughter.
For some residents of Kibbutz Gezer, Toma’s project fulfills childhood fantasies.
``I always had a dream to have a ball field in my backyard, and now I do,″ says David Leichman, 46, who immigrated to Israel from New York 20 years ago.
Nestled between a grove of eucalyptus trees and a wheat field, and just down a gravelly road from the kibbutz’s cow feed and glue factory, lies Kibbutz Gezer’s field of dreams.
``It was a flattened piece of farmland that was originally a cornfield,″ said Leichman, a red kibbutz baseball cap tucked over his graying ponytail. ``But that was before the movie,″ he joked, referring to ``Field of Dreams.″
Since the original field was built in 1983, it has served as the country’s national field. Toma was sent by the Jewish community in Kansas City to renovate the field in preparation for this summer’s Maccabi Games, an international Jewish Olympics.
Toma, 68, dressed in matching Royals shirt and cap, smooths the dirt in the infield with a two-foot wooden square spiked with nails. He explains to his teenage kibbutz helpers, who stood alongside him with hoes and wheelbarrows, the importance of nurturing the field.
``Fertilizer, watering, cutting, compacting,” he said. ``This is like a newborn baby, you have to nurse it along.″
Toma, his light blue eyes shining through the folds of his leathery face, becomes animated when the conversation turns to soil.
``Sports Illustrated didn’t dub me the `Nitty Gritty Dirt Man’ for nothing,″ he said. ``The soil is not good in Israel so I have had to be creative. You have to be a chef and mix the different soils to make the field playable.″
Toma hopes the field with the view of ``Solomon’s hill″ might do its part to bring peace.
``Peace through sports,″ he said. ``This field is not just for the people of Israel, but for all those in the world who will play here in the name of international sportsmanship.”
Baseball was an unfamiliar game in these parts until the American-born members of Kibbutz Gezer went to work.
``We came to Israel and wanted to play ball and brought our baseball mitts with us,″ Leichman said. ``We played with each other but eventually expanded to form a league.″
On Wednesday evening, the league played its first game on Toma’s major league standard field. Tal Kitaoka, 21, an army sergeant and catcher for the Israeli national baseball team, quickly changed from his olive drab fatigues into the bright orange and black of his ``Tigers″ baseball uniform and raced onto the field.
He returned delighted.
``I almost could not recognize the field _ it helped me hit my triple,” said Kitaoka, who grew up in the burgeoning Israeli Little League movement.
As for Toma, he has extended his stay in Israel by another week. But he has no plans to tour the sites of the Holy Land, only to continue working on the field.
``No, I don’t tour. But if there is a field, now that I would go see,″ he said, turning to survey his latest masterpiece.