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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

‘Deis student hits the mound in Israeli pro league

Published: October 1, 2007
Section: Sports

Only ten days after pitching a gem for the Bet Shemesh Blue Sox in the championship game of the Israel Baseball Leagues inaugural season, Rafael Bergstrom signed a professional contract with the Atlantic Leagues Bridgeport Bluefish.

Now, another pitching product from the IBLs championship game has made his way to the Greater New England area. Rafi Stern 11 is, according to Mens Baseball coach Pete Varney, the first orthodox Jew to be playing Brandeis baseball in its 27-year history.

Stern, who played for the Modiin Miracle and was on the opposing side of Bergstroms virtuoso performance, is fighting for a position on the Brandeis team during three hour long daily practices. He realistically projects himself to be coming out of the bullpen this season. A finesse southpaw with a repertoire of pitches, Stern battled shoulder tendonitis throughout the 41-game IBL season and appeared in 13 games for the Miracle (whose season ended just eight days before his arrival on campus), including one start and one save.

The IBL is a summer professional baseball league consisting of six teams, and plays none of its games on Jewish holidays or the Jewish Sabbath. Therefore, the IBL attracted many Jewish players, but also attracted a high level of competition, including many players who had played AAA baseball;

players came from countries including the Dominican Republic, Australia, and Venezuela. Even with the accommodations, though, Stern was one of only a handful of Orthodox Jews in the league.

As the season wore on, the popularity of the IBL continued to grow;

attendances peaked at 2,500 spectators, but some contests, especially early starting double-headers (10 a.m. on weekdays) drew crowds of only 10-15 fans.

One of the most inventive and dramatic rules of the IBL is that contests, if tied after seven innings of regulation baseball, are decided by a home run derby. Also, three out of the six teams were managed by former professional baseball players. (The Miracle was appropriately coached by a member of the 69 Miracle Mets, Art Shamsky.)

Because of its status as a professional league, Sterns participation in the IBL excluded him from playing for several colleges.

The IBL was an awesome experience, a once in a lifetime opportunity remarked Stern;

however, for the native Chicagoan, who has lived most of his life in the Katomin neighborhood of Jerusalem, it had always been a dream to play college baseball.

Enter Brandeis. Division III athletic programs allow for participants to have played in professional leagues as long as they have not signed a contract. The best academic and social fit for Stern was also the most accommodating religiously, and Coach Varney has been extremely understanding.
As good as it gets, I couldnt ask for more, said Stern.

It has been a difficult transition, he added, and its been especially challenging to balance his religious, academic (hes pre-med), and baseball obligations. However, Stern has a positive outlook on it.

Baseball becomes your free time, and it is something that I enjoy so much that I am willing to take that, he said.

As for the Judges chances this year?

The team looks solid. We can go far with some good defense and timely hitting. Emory, watch out there, said Stern.

Look for Stern, who wears #10 on his uniform because #18 (a significant number in Jewish tradition) would have been too corny, the self-proclaimed (only half-joking) next Sandy Koufax, when the Judges take to the diamond and begin their season this spring.