Just as the nine teenagers were set to shuffle onto the baseball field in Arlington, the clouds opened up into a downpour — drenching both the field and any hope of an on-time start to the fledgling team’s first, and only, practice game before heading to Albany, N.Y., to compete this week in the JCC Maccabi Games.
The nine players, ages 14-16, comprise the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia’s first Maccabi baseball team. The Games are taking place in three locations. The Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington, whose team the Northern Virginians played on that soggy Aug. 3, is competing this week in Miami. The Games already took place in Birmingham, Ala.
In the past, Northern Virginia teens who wanted to play joined other teams. Why does it matter which team the kids play on as long as they play? For Northern Virginia coach Scott Nathanson, it’s all about representing that home turf.
“Being able to go and play with that NoVa on your chest is a totally different experience,” he said.
Nathanson’s son, Gus, 16, played for Boston’s team last year. Gus, a catcher, said he is excited to be going back to the Maccabi Games, this time playing on a Northern Virginia team.
“More than anything, it’s a lot more comfortable
because I’ve gotten to really know these guys,” he said of his teammates. “I think it’s going to be better this year.”
The athletic event draws thousands of Jewish athletes from around the country. The event, which Gus called “overwhelming in a good way,” is meant to combine “mutual respect and sportsmanship” with “an appreciation of Jewish values,” according to the website.
“It’s really a chance to share your heritage and, for some of these kids, their first chance to explore it,” Nathanson said.
And the long history of Jews and baseball makes it all the more resonant, he added.
Pitcher Ryan Salsburg, 15, had some family members participate in the Maccabi Games and decided he would as well. He was subdued when talking about playing America’s game in Albany.
“I guess I’m just better at [baseball] than other sports,” he said.
Even with more players than in previous years, the NoVa team had to borrow a few from its northern neighbors. Players who might not have made the Greater Washington team came to play for Northern Virginia. One was Ray Ash, 15, of Rockville, who plays in the outfield or pitches or is third baseman — wherever he’s needed.
“It’s really fun to go up to a city with your team and play games and play the sport you love,” he said. “And besides going to school [at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School], I’m never in a place with that large a concentration of Jews.”
The Aug. 3 scrimmage between the two DMV teams ended up rain delayed for an hour. When the rain let up, players took the field amid coach encouragement and cheers from a few parents who had braved the weather in the bleachers.
The Northern Virginia players started out well. Ryan pitched an impressive first inning for the team, getting them off to a strong start. They were up 7-6 after the fourth inning — but lost the game after a series of walks as the team tried out secondary pitchers. Even so, Nathanson said he’s happy to watch his team start to come together.
“Seeing a group of kids become a team is one of the most fun things as a coach,” he said. Of course, he’d love to go home with a medal, but, perhaps more realistically, he’s hoping the team can win a couple games out of the guaranteed five they’ll play.
And it might be a cliché, but the most important thing for Nathanson is that the kids have fun.