Jewish Baseball Players: King of Jewish baseball, part II: diamond domains

By Bill Simons

Part I of this series introduced the person and personae of Nate Fish, the self-proclaimed “King of Jewish Baseball.” Baseball diamonds have led Fish, a man of many parts, to adventures in places obscure and celebrated in North and South America, Asia, Europe and Africa. Israel has figured prominently in the itinerary. Fish tales are legion and dramatic. 

From Israel, time stamps survive in Fish’s memory of swimming on Mediterranean beaches, living in one of the Jewish homeland’s few truly multicultural neighborhoods and jumping over guardrails to seek roadside cover during episodes of hostile fire. Improbably and fruitlessly, he scoured Uganda for baseball prospects. Remembering the Dominican Republic, Fish relates his most memorable moment on a ballfield: “There was a little pop-up hit into shallow left-center field… it was too far away to catch… [but I] actually caught the ball… The Dominican National Team came out of their dugout and gave a standing ovation, an honor for a shortstop in a country of shortstops.” 

Ensconced in the Manhattan basement of the Apple Bank, Fish taught the game’s essentials to the real-life son of cinema’s most iconic baseball couple, pitcher “Nuke” Laloosh (Tim Robbins) and Bull Durham high priestess Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon). Attired in checkered yellow-and-black kilts during a Savanah, GA, stint, he guided the colorful Bananas, part professional baseball team, part circus. Bananas’ helmsman Tyler Gillum offered a telling portrait of Fish: “I consider Fish to be the most interesting man on the planet… He really just beats to his own drum… This is a guy who’s coached around the world and seen different kinds of baseball… if something is normal, he’s probably gonna do the exact opposite.” Moreover, Fish had arguably emerged as the most significant conduit between U.S. and Israel baseball. By summer 2021, however, it appeared that Fish’s time as a nomadic Renaissance man might have run its course. 

In 2021, Fish, at 41, looked ready to embrace a more rooted, less peripatetic existence, one conducive to family life in the bucolic hills of upstate New York. Initially prompted by a friend’s invitation to manage the Alpine resort, Fish and his fiancée, Shawna Watterson, remained after the COVID pandemic felled Catskill tourism. They purchased a house in the rustic hamlet of Arkville, population 836, located 139 miles by car from the frenetic pace of New York City. An entrepreneur, with her own company, Shawna has a background in sales and an interest in the hospitality industry. As in former days, the Catskills may again ascend as a storied tourist destination. A community of creative people dots the environs of Arkville. Moreover, Fish had found a nearby outlet for his baseball passion, the Mountain Athletic Club. The MACs, with a home base in nearby Fleischmanns, play a good game against other vintage baseball teams. In August 2021, Nate and Shawna married. 

Nate is a poet, amongst other things, and he celebrates Shawna’s beauty, spirit and allure in “Poems for My Wife,” a volume of verse published by the Brick of Gold company. “Cream” expresses feelings sublime and commonplace: “And you will stop talking / When you realize I am not listening / Because I am thinking of how much I love you.”

Fish’s domestic idyll and MAC baseball play were soon interrupted by a clarion call from Israel. During the morning of August 17, 2021, I was one of those who received a heads-up e-mail from Nate: “I will be managing Team Israel going forward. Announcement should be made today or tomorrow.” Soon after, Team Israel was eliminated from Olympic competition, Eric Holtz resigned as head coach (manager). During his four years as head coach, Holtz led Team Israel to unexpected success on the diamond. Holtz and Fish were longtime friends and roommates while playing in the 2007 Israel Baseball League; subsequently, Nate coached third base for Team Israel under Eric. Holtz’ Team Israel qualified for the 2021 Olympics, the first time since 1976 that an Israel team appeared in the Olympics, a notable achievement given that Israel ranked a lowly 41st at the 2017 World Baseball Classic. 

During its 2021 Olympic run, Team Israel had roused much excitement amongst Jewish baseball fans, more so in the U.S. than in Israel. Another couple of runs would have reversed Team Israel’s wrenching 7-6 elimination game loss to the Dominican Republic in Yokohama. Dashed expectations brought disappointment to Team Israel partisans. Two weeks after Israel’s elimination from Olympic baseball competition, Holtz was out and Fish was the new head coach. 

Experience and expertise made Fish an excellent choice as Holtz’s successor. Fish had played, coached and managed on ballfields across the world, and his Israel-specific background went deep. He starred in the Israel Baseball League, coached and played for Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic, and coached the team in Olympic competition. Along the way, Fish acquired joint Israel-U.S. citizenship and lived in the Jewish homeland for three years (2013-16), serving as national director of the Israel Association of Baseball. Incrementally, he developed indigenous Israel baseball talent. 

Fish had little time to bask in his appointment to manage Team Israel. Within a few short weeks of taking the reins, he would lead Team Israel in the September 2021 European Championship tournament. Initially, Team Israel appeared depleted. Of the 24 players who competed on the Olympic squad, 20 were Americans, and many returned to the U.S. after elimination from the Japanese games, including MLB All-Star Ian Kinsler, slugger Danny Valencia, and catcher Ryan Lavarnway. Defying the odds, Team Israel, under Fish, won the Silver Medal in the European Championship tournament. Team Israel did this with a core of Sabras. Displaying strategic, instructional, and motivational gifts, Fish directed tributes to his largely young, inexperienced, short-staffed players: “So proud of the boys. I don’t think people realize how improbable this was.” 

Balancing life in Arkville and Israel will pose challenges. Leading Team Israel necessitates commitment of time and focus. But don’t bet against the King of Jewish Baseball either in Israel or on the Arkville home front. 

Bill Simons is a professor emeritus at SUNY Oneonta where he continues to teach courses in American history. He is also the co-director of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.