MLB

Wild Field: How an Israeli Kibbutznik Became Cincinnati Reds Pitching Coach

Wild Field: How an Israeli Kibbutznik Became Cincinnati Reds Pitching Coach

JTA – Bill James, the influential baseball writer, historian and statistician, once described the great Yankee first baseman Don Mattingly in just six words: “One hundred percent ballplayer, zero percent shit.”

The same can be said of Alon Leichman, the first Israeli-born athlete to reach the major leagues, with has just been named assistant pitching coach for the Cincinnati Reds.

Under manager David Bell, Leichman will help instruct the team’s pitchers, including Chase Anderson, Luis Cessa, Fernando Cruz, Alexis Diaz and Hunter Greene, on mechanics, pitch selection, preparation, focus and execution.

His journey has been improbable, bordering on the absurd: How could someone from Israel, where baseball is only an afterthought, make it from the wheat fields of a kibbutz to the highest level of baseball in the world?

Leichman, 33, is a product of Kibbutz Gezer, the youngest child born to two idealists who grew up in Zionist youth groups and helped found this kibbutz in central Israel in the 1970s along with other English speakers. that is, English speakers. – Zionists

But David, Alon’s father, couldn’t leave everything behind in Queens, New York. He was a baseball fan, a big baseball fan (“I always knew that if, God forbid, there was a fire in my house, I know where my baseball glove is,” he says), and one day, he and his fellow kibbutz residents came up with an idea: why not cut off a slice of the wheat crop and build a regulation-sized field in the southwest corner of the kibbutz, where they can all go and play when they leave the work?

It was 1983, and there wasn’t a single baseball or softball field in all of Israel. So David, who was in charge of the construction of the kibbutz (Alon’s mother, Miri, is the rabbi of the kibbutz), built his field of dreams, just 450 meters from his front door and shadow of the 4,000-year-old archaeological site. which gives name to Gezer.

And that’s where Alon Leichman grew up, first brought to the field by his father for the 1989 Maccabiah Games, five weeks after Alon was born on May 29.

“I never related to this field as the place my father built,” Leichman said. “It was a field that was in the kibbutz. Growing up, everyone around me played: my older brother played and all my friends who were a bit older than me played.

David Leichman, left, stands behind the defense of the baseball field he helped build at Kibbutz Gezer in Israel, where his son Alon, right, learned the game that has led him to major leagues (Elli Wohlgelernter/JTA)

“I remember: I was 4 years old both of us [pre-kindergarten], and he would walk to the baseball field and practice. I remember very well being at the gan and going to practice. But baseball on the kibbutz is just something I grew up on. Everyone did it; He wasn’t special, just another kid playing. I really loved it,” she said.

So he played and played and got better and better. At the age of 10, he was already on the team representing Israel in a tournament in the Netherlands. But baseball in Israel was in its infancy at the time and there was not enough money to pay for the team to travel. So Leichman had to work overtime to get the kibbutz to fly him.

Not that he wasn’t used to work: like all members of the kibbutz, he was already contributing to the third degree. But now he had to put in extra hours, picking olives or milking cows, to earn the extra money.

“I loved milking the cows,” he recalled. “Sometimes it’s hard work, but I’ve given myself more desire than beating an olive tree” to shake the olives.

Leichman remembers well that tournament in Holland, the first time he wore the Israeli uniform representing his country abroad.

“It was pretty cool,” he recalled. “A sense of pride. This is the first time I think I felt like, ‘You’re not just Alon, you’re not just representing the kibbutz anymore, you’re representing a whole country.’

Wild Field: How an Israeli Kibbutznik Became Cincinnati Reds Pitching Coach

Former Israel Baseball Association president Peter Kurz, left, with Alon Leichman. (Courtesy IAB)

“I knew at the time that Israel was not on the best of terms [with] the world. So it was something that I knew, that part of our job of playing baseball is also to make sure that these guys get to know the Israelis other than what they hear on the news and show them that, you know, we’re good people . .”

The 5’8” right-hander continued to play, continued to improve and continued to represent Israel in tournaments. He played in the Israel Baseball League for one season in 2007 as the second youngest player, served in the Israeli army from 2007 to 2010, then headed to the United States to play two-way college ball schools, Cypress College and the University of California. , San Diego.

In his first appearance at Cypress, he blew out his elbow and needed what is known as “Tommy John surgery” to repair a torn ulnar ligament inside his elbow. Then he got hurt again and had a second Tommy John surgery. But when he was injured a third time, and the doctor said he had to go under the knife again, Leichman knew his hopes of a professional playing career were over.

But not before proving to himself that he had what it took.

“I know he was good in Israel. I knew that. But I had no idea how he would get me to come to the United States. I thought I could get out [well] there, but I never really knew because I had never faced those types of hitters. And then in my first game, I did really well for two and a third innings, four strikeouts. Nobody got into it. It was 1-2-3, 1-2-3, and then I got the first guy out in the ninth. And on a one-two fastball, my elbow popped. So it was like, “Okay, I can do this here.”

Several jerseys from Alon Leichman’s baseball career are displayed on the wall of his family’s home in Kibbutz Gezer, Israel. (Elli Wohlgelernter/JTA)

His love of the game never left him, and Leichman became an insightful and intuitive coach. His experience and aptitude were evident.

“One day Alon will be a big league manager,” pitcher and teammate Alex Katz said three years ago. “It’s hard to get a coaching job in affiliate ball without professional experience, let alone non-affiliated experience. But he’s just one of the smartest baseball minds I’ve ever been around. And he’s young.”

Leichman said his strength is “helping guys get better. Communicating with them. Being able to relate to them. Getting on their level. Making it simple for them. And being creative and finding ways to throw more strikes “.

Despite the surgeries, Leichman could still pitch, if he did it sparingly. He joined the 2012, 2016 and 2017 Israel Baseball World Classic teams as a player or coach; pitched for the 2019 European Baseball Championship team; pitched in Olympic qualifying tournaments in 2019; and pitched a perfect inning against Team USA at the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo. Along the way, he also earned a jujitsu black belt.

Members of Team Israel stand for their national anthem before a baseball game against the Dominican Republic at the 2020 Summer Olympics on Aug. 3, 2021, in Yokohama, Japan. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

But coaching was in his future, and after an opportunity in 2017 to coach in the Seattle Mariners’ farm system, Leichman continued to work his way up, from Single A to Double AA to Triple AAA, before being snapped up by the Reds to join their major league roster. this season

His father is overwhelmed. “It’s amazing,” David Leichman said. “I’m still shaking and crying to myself about how wonderful this has been. It’s really amazing.”

Alon is no less shocked, having agreed to sign a contract with the Reds on the same day the New York Mets asked him to interview him about a possible job.

“It’s not sinking in yet, to be honest,” he said recently in Israel to visit his family in Gezer. “But it’s definitely a dream come true, something I’ve dreamed about since I was little. Obviously, I wanted to be there as a player, but once I got hurt and realized that playing was no longer an option, I started to dedicate myself to training. I wanted to do it at the highest level. The dream remained; he just took a different route. But it’s still just as exciting.”

Leichman is still undecided on whether to join Team Israel’s coaching staff in Florida for the WBC in March before returning to Goodyear, Ariz., to join the Reds in spring training. But this product of Gezer’s wheat fields will never forget where it came from: its uniform number, 29, is a constant reminder. It’s his laundry tag number at the kibbutz.





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