Birthday bash scores hit at Giants ballpark

In a sense, it may have been Daniel Shek's first time at bat — but the Israeli consul general showed remarkable aptitude at the plate.

Attending his first baseball game ever Sunday at 3Com Park, Shek was scheduled to address the crowd in a pre-game ceremony. While the batting practice, home runs and stolen bases may have been unfamiliar to him, the consul general proved right away that he had at least grasped the nuances of baseball fans.

Shmoozing in a skybox prior to the ceremony, Shek quipped, "I know I should practice how to give a greeting in 30 seconds to people who are probably more interested in their hot dogs than my speech — which is a legitimate priority."

Good humor aside, there was a serious reason Shek chose Sunday to make his initial foray to 3Com Park. It was the day the Giants — in conjunction with the local offices of the Jewish National Fund — had allocated to honor Israel's 50th birthday. Several other major-league teams also held similar celebrations the same day.

"You won't be surprised if I told you that this is probably the most fun way to celebrate Israel's 50th that I've been involved with up to now," Shek told the skybox gathering of local Jewish activists. "It will certainly get the biggest crowd to celebrate Israel's 50th — whether they want to or not.

"Sometimes you just need bodies."

With some 31,352 fans on hand, and beautiful sunny weather, an Israeli theme permeated the pre-game ceremonies. The Jewish folk-rock band RebbeSoul played a song, JNF board member Bruce Lubarsky gave a short speech, and Ruth Sitkin, an active volunteer in the local Jewish community, threw out the first pitch.

Shek, too, gave his greeting, flanked by young members of Gilroy's Congregation Emeth — some holding American and Israeli flags.

"All across the world this week people will celebrate the independence of a very small nation," Shek announced to the crowd. "We are celebrating 50 years of the bond of friendship between Israel and the United States, two countries whose beliefs are based on the idea that democracy and human dignity are the principles on which society should be based."

Shek closed his speech by saying, "May the best team win, and we all know who the best team is around here."

That earned him a healthy round of applause — some of which may have been attributed to the fact that Shek did indeed keep his comments short and sweet.

For pitcher Sitkin, the concern Sunday was not brevity but accuracy. The 71-year-old had the task of getting the ball over the plate.

Sitkin, a lifelong Giants fan, took the mound in honor of her friend, Golda Kaufman, an elderly local Jewish activist seated in the skybox.

"When they asked me to do this, I said, `No way,'" said Sitkin, a resident of San Francisco's Pacific Heights. "But then I thought to myself that 10 years down the road, if I'm still alive, I would regret it if I didn't say yes."

Sitkin was certainly an appropriate choice. Growing up in New York, she watched Willie Mays play his first game, and she also attended the 1951 game in which Bobby Thomson hit his famed home run to win the pennant for the Giants. "I still have the ticket," she said.

As part of her volunteer work in the Bay Area, Sitkin helped Jewish Community Information & Referral set up its volunteer placement program. She's also treasurer of the sisterhood at Congregation Emanu-El.

Asked what Israel's independence signifies for her, she said, Israel's "been part of my life since it became a state. I remember sitting in front of the radio in New York, and I remember the excitement [when the United Nations voted to approve Israel's statehood]."

She had to deliver the first pitch underhand because she has a torn rotator cuff in her shoulder. Still, Sitkin — who used to play softball as a kid — managed to deliver the ball to the catcher on one bounce. And later she was proud to show that she had gotten the ball autographed — not by a player, but by RebbeSoul.

The game wound up leaving many happy memories for the home crowd. The Giants came back from a 6-0 deficit to defeat the Brewers, 8-7, with two homers in the bottom of the ninth.

Another person involved in Sunday's activities, Rabbi Jerry Levy of Congregation Emeth in Gilroy, explained why his 45-family congregation decided to bring a busload of people to the ballpark.

"On Friday, we had our Yom HaShoah services, and we figured that if we participated today, it would be the other side of the story" — a celebration instead of a commemoration, Levy said.

So, in lieu of religious school classes, 50 members of the Reform congregation made the hour drive to the ballpark. "This is the big show," Levy said. "I'm sure the kids will think today was worth it."

One young congregant involved in the pre-game ceremony was Anthony Scopatz. The 13-year-old Morgan Hill resident carried one of the Israeli flags onto the field.

"I'm significantly taken aback [that the rabbi asked me to do this]," Scopatz said.

Scopatz said he was saving his bar mitzvah money to make his first trip to Israel. His parents would like him to spend a year on a kibbutz but he isn't yet ready to commit to that.

Asked to reflect on the meaning of Israel's 50th birthday, Scopatz had a frank answer. "It means we've survived this long — six wars and all that."