With Canada and the U.S. set to renew their 25-year-old rivalry on the softball diamond at the upcoming 2011 Pan-Am Maccabi Games in Sao Paulo next week, a longtime adversary – and friend – of Team Canada’s will be noticeably absent from the American squad.
Dave Blackburn, aka “Breeder,” a fixture on the mound for Maccabi USA over the past 25 years and the backbone of four gold medal-winning fastpitch teams, will be in the hearts and minds of Maccabi Canada Softball and the entire Maccabi softball community competing in Brazil, as he continues to recover from a near-fatal car accident suffered in August 2010.
In spite of his absence in Sao Paulo, Blackburn’s larger than life persona remains a true inspiration to those around him; his personal triumph over life threatening injuries deemed nothing short of remarkable. This was never more evident than this past summer, as members of Team USA and Team Canada reunited in Moline, Illinois to witness Breeder’s miraculous recovery, and celebrate Blackburn becoming the first-ever Jewish ballplayer to be inducted into the International Softball Congress (ISC) Hall of Fame as a broadcasting pioneer for the sport.
Among those in attendance in Moline that day wasJack Fireman, the two-time ISC World Champion in the 90’s with the Toronto Gators. Fireman, who’s also been an integral part of Maccabi Canada Softball through the years, has great respect for Breeder and for the relationships built between the two nations over two-plus decades of Maccabiah. “Even after his terrible injuries, David has maintained a smile on his face,” said Fireman. “It has been heartwarming to see how not just the U.S. guys, but the Canadian Maccabi team have done so much to try and comfort him.”
Mark Bendahan, the great Canadian pitcher who’s gone toe-to-toe with Blackburn since the first Maccabi softball tournament back in 1985, had nothing but praise for one of his toughest opponents. “Breeder’s a competitor … he just brings it with his energy and his leadership,” said Bendahan, who has competed against Blackburn in five Maccabi Games. “He’s such a dominant figure on the mound.”
Breeder was grateful for the opportunity to reconnect with his Canadian brethren. “This meant the world to me, because it shows that my dear Maccabi friends chose to travel great distances to share this special moment with me,” said Blackburn. “To have Mark Bendahan in attendance whose talent on the softball field, always brought out the best in me, was very satisfying to me. Mark made a clear statement about our deep friendship.”
But it wasn’t always that way. When the U.S. first competed against Canada in Maccabi softball competition in 1985, many of the Canadian players were instructed to keep their game faces on at all times and keep away from the “enemy.”
“Everybody thought we were the biggest a-holes because we wouldn’t talk to anyone. We’re walking by guys and we wouldn’t say hello,” said Bendahan, who will be competing in his sixth Maccabi Games for Canada in Brazil later this month. “Eventually towards the end of the games we started to say hello, but it had to be behind closed doors, because we weren’t allowed to by our coaching staff.” The strategy ultimately backfired, as the U.S. would go on to defeat Canada 2-0 in the final to win the gold medal in the inaugural tournament.
But the spirit of Maccabiah would ultimately prevail between the two neighbouring countries, with any early hostilities soon forgotten by the time they met again in the Gold Medal game in 1989. Still, both teams wanted to win. And badly.
It’s a game that Blackburn describes as the defining moment of his illustrious Maccabi career. “(Canada’s) David Strauss was awesome and threw a one-hitter against us, but Steve Roberts managed to deliver an RBI on our lone hit of the game, and I threw a five-hit shutout for the 1-0 Gold Medal victory,” recalled Blackburn. “Later that night, I was told that our fastpitch team was the only U.S. team sport to win Gold, and that I was chosen as the outstanding U.S. athlete for the Maccabiah. That came with the honor of carrying the USA Flag in the parade of athletes through the streets of Jerusalem to the Wailing Wall for the closing ceremonies.”
Four years later, in 1993, it was Bendahan’s turn to lead his country to victory. This time he pitched the final game, an integral part of an overall winning effort he now considers to be his greatest career accomplishment. “After losing two tough ones in ’85 and ’89 we didn’t know if we’d ever pull one off,” said Bendahan. “Finally in ’93 we did it. It was a really special moment.”
The two countries would go back-and-forth exchanging gold medals over the next decade-and-a-half, with Blackburn most recently claiming gold by leading the U.S. Masters team to a dramatic victory over Canada in 2009 in Israel. Catcher Tony Kahanworked closely with Blackburn to formulate the pitcher’s gold medal winning gameplan, which Kahan joked included the strategic decision to jump into Breeder’s arms, and not visa versa, upon recording the final out.
The fact that both sides were so evenly matched – and a cut above the rest of the other participating countries – not only made for great competition on the field, but it also laid the foundation to make them great friends off of it.
“We have a great rivalry, but also a great deal of mutual respect and admiration for our fellow Jewish fastpitch playing brethren from both sides of the border,” said Blackburn. “Friendship grows when deep respect is a part of the interpersonal equation. We also share a great common sense of humor that is unique among Jewish guys who are into sports, and who cherish hard fought athletic competitions.”
“It has been remarkable competing against the U.S. for so many years,” added Fireman. “Not just the level of competition, but the brotherhood created amongst members of both teams.”
Ken Schwartz, a fixture with Maccabi USA since Day One thanks in no small part to Blackburn, has his own unique perspective how the Maccabi organization has been instrumental in creating a bond among Jewish softball players from around the world that still resonates 25 years later. “What happened with the Maccabiah over time, it created a “community” of softball players, united by religion through sport, whose collective “sanctuary” was on the field,” said Schwartz. “It was and still is an easy place to go and be with the guys without conditions. Competition made this community grow closer and friendships developed. The stories, antics, victories and defeats that came from those competitions in Israel and South America created lifelong bonds and friendships that continues today.”
Even though Blackburn won’t be able to travel to Brazil this time around, he now has his sights set on returning with Maccabi USA in 2013. It’s all part of his on-going commitment to Maccabiah, a man who embodies its very spirit, while grateful for everything the organization has brought into his life. “Participation in the Maccabi USA program speaks to me in a way that has made me feel I was a welcome and valued member of the worldwide community of Jewish People,” said Blackburn. “Getting a chance to travel extensively throughout Israel and Latin America allowed me to become more worldly as a person, and contributed greatly to my overall maturation and growth. I could not have possibly experienced this kind of personal evolution through other activities available to me.”
Breeder, on behalf of everyone at Maccabi Canada and Maccabi Canada Softball, we look forward to welcoming back one of sport’s great Jewish ambassadors to the 19th Maccabiah Games in Israel in 2013 and wish you continued success in your inspiring recovery.
L’Shana Haba’a b’Yerushalayim.