The natural: Israeli pitcher brings his love of baseball to Menlo Park Legends
Baseball came naturally to Alon Leichman, though he spent his youth in a country where the game is hardly known. In Israel, the national games are soccer and basketball.
It helped to have American parents. His dad and other American Jews who had emigrated about 35 years ago founded Kibbutz Gezer Israel, a commune near Tel Aviv to which they added a baseball diamond. "They wanted to build a field for them and their children," Leichman said.
"Honestly, I fell in love with it," he said. "Nothing ever compared to it. I guess it's my first love, so I don't even, like, doubt it. ... There's so many things in baseball you still learn every day. It's like never ending learning."
Leichman, 23, spoke to the Almanac on a Saturday afternoon from the bullpen at the baseball field at Canada College in Woodside. The Canada diamond, high above Silicon Valley, is the home field for the Menlo Park Legends, a semi-pro team for which Leichman is pitching while on summer break from Cypress College near Los Angeles.
A right-hander, Leichman's pitching has him leading the team with an earned-run average (ERA) of 1.51. That means his opponents scored an average of 1.51 earned runs — runs that, for example, do not involve a fielding error on the part of the defense — per nine innings.
The Legends is a summer team for college players who have major-league aspirations. The team is in its fourth season, its third consecutive winning season, and recently won its 100th game out of 155 played.
Leichman is attending college in the United States mainly to play baseball, he said. "I'm trying to see where baseball can take me and earn a degree along the way." He's considering a major in business management or physical education, he said.
He has an interest in nature, but it runs a distant second. His closest resource is his brother, with whom he once hiked from the Sea of Galilee to the Mediterranean Sea, about 127 miles.
"I can sit and watch National Geographic with him and have fun with it," Leichman said. "I pick his brain. ... I can't call myself an outdoor guy but I want to be."
But baseball is played outdoors and he's been playing that since he was 4. He entered Little League at 6 and found himself playing in the 8-to-10-year-old bracket — there weren't enough kids of the right age, he said. Israel's Little League is small, just four teams, he said.
Israel has a national team, though, and has since the mid-1990s. At one point, the 250-resident kibbutz where Leichman grew up supplied all the team's players, he said. As a 10-year-old, Alon (pronounced "alone") joined the team in the entry-level bracket. He's still on the roster.
In September he will rejoin Israel's team for a set of qualifying rounds taking place in Florida and other locations around the world. These preliminary games will, in part, determine which teams get to compete next spring in the 2013 World Baseball Classic. Israel will face France, South Africa and Spain.
He's got game
"He's a great leader," Legends Pitching Coach Bill Ryan said of Leichman. "He can inspire the group. He doesn't bring a lot of size, but he brings a lot of game."
Leichman is 5 feet 9 inches, 180 pounds and unassuming. He has a black belt in jiu jitsu — achieved over 14 years, he said — and spent three years in the Israeli army.
In Israel, everyone serves in the military. In his case, in recognition of his baseball skills and membership on the national team, the army assigned him a day job that would allow him to maintain his training and continue to represent the country on the ball field, he said.
That background may have helped create a work ethic in Leichman that is superior to that of the "softer American life," Ryan said. "He's one of the more coach-able guys."
Leichman can pitch when the pressure is on, when the bases are loaded with no outs, Ryan said. "He'll just come in there and do his job. He has mound presence."
He is also in the midst of a comeback. At Cypress College in 2011, after one and a third innings and three strikeouts into his college career, a ligament failed in the elbow of his pitching arm, he said.
The ligament's been repaired, but a curve ball is no longer part of his repertoire. Throwing it too often and too soon as a kid may have led to the injury, he said. "That's kind of what I tell the kids (at the Legends baseball camps). I threw 140 pitches multiple times as an 18-year-old. That might be (the cause of the injury). It's hard to tell. My elbow just popped one game."
Young men have a habit of thinking of themselves as invincible. Did he? "Yes," he said. "You don't see how a curve ball's going to affect you, especially at a young age."
It's an attractive pitch. "You don't really throw it because it was the right pitch in the right situation. You throw it to make (the batter) look bad," Leichman said.
The curve ball fools the batter? "It's less fooling the batter than hitting the wrong part of the bat. He thinks 'I just missed it,' but no, it's 'I threw it with a little movement on it. That's why you missed it.'"