This Jew Won't Bunt

Why I pulled the U.S. fastpitch softball team from this year's Jewish Olympics

Years passed, and I moved to Arizona, where I discovered a remarkable sport. Said one of my players, New York City artist/filmmaker/shortstop Jeremy Spear, in his recent documentary, Fastpitch, "The ball isn't soft, and the game is hard."

Fastpitch is dominated by pitchers, who hurl a 12-inch ball from 46 feet away. That's Little League distance, no lie. A batter facing a major-level pitcher has less reaction time than some sucker has against Randy Johnson. It's an invigorating, often humbling sport.

By 1984, I was a 33-year-old who had played in hundreds of games against the best teams and pitchers in the world. That October, I tried out for the U.S. Maccabiah team in Los Angeles. It was one of three tryouts held around the nation by head coach Larry Shane, then the baseball coach at Villanova University. We had about 50 players at our session. I did my thing, and knew I had an excellent shot at making the 14-man team. My hopes soon were confirmed.

Staff writer Paul Rubin collects a gold medal at the 1985 Maccabiah Games.
Staff writer Paul Rubin collects a gold medal at the 1985 Maccabiah Games.
A sadly typical scene in Israel in recent months, this one after the Tel Aviv bombing.
courtesy of the Associated Press
A sadly typical scene in Israel in recent months, this one after the Tel Aviv bombing.

As the Games approached the next summer, my excitement remained tempered by nagging doubts (after all, I'm a Jew, and we're supposed to have nagging doubts). What was I getting myself into?

To sum up, our three weeks together as a team proved to be phenomenal. The 14 of us quickly forged an unbeatable team chemistry, the likes of which I've never experienced, before or since. It helped that we had a super coach in Shane, who allowed us leeway to explore before the competition began.

Some of the guys would head for the Dophinarium, and to the same bar that later would be the site of the Tel Aviv bombing. I'd take long walks on the boulevard with my teammates Mitch Kline, Kenny Schwartz and others.

When the Games began, we found ourselves up against a confident Canadian squad whose players had grown up playing fastpitch, unlike our baseball-dominated team. But we clawed our way to the gold medal, beating Canada 3-0 on a homerun by Philadelphia's Neil Kabinoff (driving in me and our star of stars, Marty Rubinoff). Dave Blackburn -- now a co-chairman of the U.S. Maccabiah fastpitch team -- threw a shutout in the big game.

We also won the gold in 1989, again squeaking by the Canadians in the third game by a 1-0 margin (Mesa's Steve Roberts got the winning hit in that one, another Blackburn shutout.)

Then, in 1993, the Canadians finally got us for the gold, 4-3. Just before that game, I sidled up to Canada's ace pitcher, Mark Bendahan, against whom I'd competed in each of the Games. We marveled at the size of the crowd at the out-of-the-way venue -- a field of dreams built on a kibbutz at Gezer, between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

"It's all about being here in Israel competing against other Jews," Bendahan said. "Who would have believed this?"

Minutes after we lost, I handed my camera to someone, who took a picture of me and Bender, just as he'd consented to photos after losing the previous gold-medal games. Miserable as I was, I knew it was the right thing to do.


The right thing to do.

That became the phrase of the hour after the U.S. committee's remarkable change of tune on June 14.

That night, I sent the e-mail to Weinstein and Spivak withdrawing our participation, and told them I planned to forward my message to others in the Maccabiah movement, including my fellow coaches in other sports.

A few hours later, I wrote to my players, confirming what I'd already discussed with all but three or four of them:

" . . . I think the U.S. Committee has made an enormous mistake, and has bowed to political pressures, the magnitude of which I can barely imagine. In the wake of their stunningly inappropriate decision, I'm left with a bunch of guys who never got to show their stuff on the field, or to experience the beauty of Israel when things are not so desperately dangerous for all concerned."

Weinstein responded via e-mail the next morning.

"Of course you are entitled to your opinion, even though you clearly have made some conclusions without knowing all the facts," he wrote. "I can accept this. I am sorry you feel the way you do. However, your last comment about communicating your opinions to all team coaches and others, is not only inappropriate, it will severely damage the U.S. Maccabiah Team. Is this your intent? If you disagree with our decision to go to the Games and softball does not want to participate, then no one else should either? This is very wrong Paul, and I implore you not to do this. . . ."

I respected Weinstein's wishes, with a few exceptions (people who asked me what was going on with softball). I don't suspect he wrote a similar e-mail to Dave Pottruck, the chairman of the wrestling program, and the president of the Charles Schwab Corporation.

On Friday morning, June 15, Pottruck sent an e-mail to the committee, and attached a copy to the rest of the U.S. team:

"My colleagues [and I] have decided that we are not going to go, and we are going to urge all the wrestlers to, of course, follow their own conscience in deciding what is best for them. I certainly wouldn't ever ask anyone to do what I am not willing to do myself. The three of us believe it is risky and a mistake to go to Israel now for this athletic competition."

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