Baseball In Israel
High hopes for a new league where snacks are kosher and you don’t play on Saturday.
History denotes July 4th, 1927, as the date that baseball was first introduced in Israel. The event took place at the Sephardic Orphanage in Jerusalem when the governess of the orphanage handed out baseball equipment to her charges. The children took the baseballs, dropped them to the ground, and started kicking them, which was all they knew to do with a ball until that time.
From that day, baseball in Israel has progressed in fits and starts. Largely through the mighty efforts of a committed group of volunteers, baseball and softball leagues have emerged across many parts of the country. As a result, two federations were formed — The Israel Association of Baseball and the Israel Softball Association. Currently, close to 3,000 players don their gloves and wield their bats regularly in league play. This includes youth leagues, adult leagues, and national teams participating in international tournaments. While this is not an insignificant number, baseball’s growth has been stunted by the lack of three key components — baseball fields, baseball equipment, and proper instruction.
Baseball fields take on a different definition in Israel, and they are few and far between. In Modi’in, a fast-growing city with a large number of baseball-playing youth, what passes as the local baseball field is a larger-than-normal traffic circle. In Bet Shemesh, where local leagues count some 600 kids playing baseball, the only field currently available to them for baseball is a community amphitheater, complete with a 30 degree slope. A long drive in the gap, if not retrieved in time, can slowly roll back toward home plate and become a mere foul ball.
Until this year, the only baseball field in Jerusalem was an empty lot strewn with thorns and thistles. This situation has been alleviated by the conversion of the field to residential housing, leaving the hundreds of Jerusalem players without a field at all. In the city of Ra’anana, there is a baseball field so large that it can accommodate three separate baseball diamonds at opposite corners of the field. The only problem there is that the baseball field couples as a grazing field for local horses. This means that when a runner and an infielder slide into second base, the pile-up might be comprised of more than just the two players bumping into each other.
Local baseball officials are quick to point out that “baseballs” are listed as national imports by the Israeli government. Gloves are no different, nor are bats — all can only be purchased through friends overseas or via the Internet. Recently, a national team ready to leave for Italy discovered that the tournament for which they were bound was a “wooden bat” tournament. There are no wooden bats in Israel. In a panic, emails were sent to friends in the U.S. and 25 bats were collected and sent to Israel.
The Israel Association of Baseball and the Israel Softball Association sponsor as many camps and clinics as they can arrange. Often, these clinics have included guest instructors from abroad. Still, unless a player is in close geographic proximity to the site where the camps and clinics are being held, accessibility to such events is extremely limited.
In July of 2005, baseball in Israel began to witness the start of a metamorphosis. A new enterprise, The Israel Baseball League, was formed by a Boston-based group to redress the paucity of fields, equipment and training as well as establish the first professional baseball league in Israel. In March of 2006, the IBL announced a joint venture with the Jewish National Fund called “Project Baseball”, a campaign aimed at dotting the landscape of Israel with community baseball fields. In July of 2006, the IBL brought over two former Major Leaguers and held a camp and clinic that drew 165 participants. At the same time, the IBL took the wraps off of its plan to launch its new professional league and announced the date for Opening Day — June 24, 2007, the 8th of Tammuz 5767.
Originally, the six teams slated for the inaugural season were: the Bet Shemesh Blue Sox, Jerusalem Lions, Haifa Stingrays, Netanya Tigers, Petach Tikva Pioneers, and Tel Aviv Lightning. The Jerusalem and Haifa teams were replaced in 2007 by the Modi’in Miracle and Ra’anana Express.
The teams will play games at three ball parks. The Yarkon Sports Complex, seating 15,000, in the Baptist Village in Petach Tikva, just outside of Tel Aviv, will be home to the Raâanana Express and the Petach Tikva Pioneers. Gezer Field, about 25 minutes from Jerusalem, approximately halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, sits on Kibbutz Gezer, in one of Israel’s wine districts. It will be home to the Bet Shemesh Blue Sox and the Modi’in Miracle. And Sportek Baseball Field, in the southern end of Tel Aviv’s largest outdoor public park, a 10-minute walk from seaside Tel Aviv hotels, will be shared by the Tel Aviv Lightning and the Netanya Tigers.
The League held tryouts in Los Angeles, Massachusetts, Miami, Israel, and The Dominican Republic.
Those already selected are current and former U.S. minor leaguers, professional baseball players from other countries, and starting college players. It is expected that the quality of play will be that of Class A ball in the U.S.
The IBL drafted players from nine nations and signed players from eight countries, including the Dominican Republic, Australia, Venezuela, and the United States. About a dozen of the 120 players will be Israeli. The league hopes to be made up of at least 25% Israelis by its fifth year. A majority of the players are Jewish.
The first pick in the draft was infielder Aaron Levin, 21, from San Luis Obispo, California, who played for Cuesta College. He was selected by Modi’in.
41 years after he retired from baseball, Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax was the last player chosen in the draft. Koufax, 71, was picked by the Modi’in Miracle. “His selection is a tribute to the esteem with which he is held by everyone associated with this league,” said Art Shamsky, who will manage the Miracle. “It’s been 41 years between starts for him. If he’s rested and ready to take the mound again, we want him on our team.” He’ll be working on 14,875 days rest, as has been pointed out. Koufax wouldn’t pitch Game 1 of the 1965 World Series for Los Angeles, so that he could observe the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. In his career with the Dodgers he threw four no-hitters, including one perfect game.
From the Chicago Tribune:
When Ken Holtzman, a former star pitcher for the Chicago Cubs and a prominent Jewish ballplayer, was offered the post of manager in a new professional baseball league to be launched this summer in Israel, he did a double take.
“I didn’t know how to answer, to tell you the truth, because baseball in the Middle East is not something you’d think of off the top of your head,” he recalled in a telephone interview from his home near St. Louis. “I thought, you know, it’s strange.”
But after further thought, some online research and more discussions with the people involved, Holtzman signed on for the first season, scheduled to begin June 24.
“I’ve never been to Israel, I’m starting to age a little bit, and I thought this might be an opportunity to visit the country, and as a teacher, try to show some of what I’ve learned in 15 years in the major leagues,” said Holtzman, 61, who is semi-retired and substitute teaches. “The more I think about it, the more I’m getting excited about it.”
It may seem an improbable venue, but Israel is about to become the latest outpost of professional baseball outside the United States.
A six-team league with players from nine countries — including the U.S., Canada, the Dominican Republic, Australia and Israel — is set to play a 45-game schedule over eight weeks, culminating in a championship game. There will be no games on Friday nights or Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath, and ballpark refreshments will be kosher, which means hot dogs will be served, but no pepperoni pizza.
The plan for a professional league here was the brainchild of Larry Baras, a Jewish businessman from Boston who said he came up with the idea two years ago while watching fans of all ages wearing face paint, dancing in the aisles and otherwise thoroughly enjoying themselves at a Saturday night minor-league game in Brockton, Mass.
Baras had been casting about for a project to help Israel, and it suddenly occurred to him that the easy rhythms of baseball might provide a little relief for a nation under frequent stress.
“Looking at this I thought to myself: ‘If I can take this picture and transplant it over to Israel, what a gift this would be,” he said.
The problem is how to sell baseball as a spectator sport in a country whose main sports passions are soccer and basketball, and where there is no local baseball tradition. About 1,500 people, many with U.S. or Latin American roots, play in amateur baseball and softball leagues from junior to adult levels in Israel, but the sport does not have a mass following.
Baras and others involved in the project believe they can market the game here, enticing fans with promotions, ballpark entertainment and food in addition to the action on the field.
The target audience is the more than 120,000 Israelis from the United States, as well as American tourists and students here on study programs. But organizers also plan to reach out to native-born Israelis.
“The biggest goal of all is to give Israelis a true respite,” Baras said. “I don’t consider fast-paced spectator sports any kind of relaxation. At a baseball game you can sit back and talk to friends; there’s something well-paced about it that fits the way life should be. In Israel, everyone’s on edge, jostling and honking, ears to the radio. They really would benefit from just being able to relax a couple of hours at a game.”
Baras said the league could also provide a focus for U.S. Jews who are distant from their faith and from Israel, and a goal for American Jewish youngsters who play baseball. A flood of e-mails to Baras in response to media reports about the new league showed that for some people, a connection with professional baseball in Israel “is a comfortable way to articulate your Judaism,” he said.
Three of the six managers in the Israeli league are former well-known Jewish players in the major leagues. Holtzman, who will manage the Raanana Express, representing a town near Tel Aviv, is billed in a league announcement as “the winningest Jewish pitcher in major league history.” His 174 career victories while playing for the Cubs, Athletics, Orioles and Yankees topped the legendary Sandy Koufax’s 165.
Like Koufax, who famously skipped a 1965 World Series start because it fell on Yom Kippur, Holtzman sat out games that fell on the Jewish High Holidays — something of a precedent for the Sabbath-observing pro league in Israel. Two other former players who will manage teams are Art Shamsky, a member of the 1969 “Miracle” Mets who later played for the Cubs, and Ron Blomberg, who played for the Yankees and White Sox and was baseball’s first designated hitter.
Dan Duquette, a former general manager of the Boston Red Sox and Montreal Expos who is the new league’s director of baseball operations, said that the players, hired at tryouts in the U.S., Israel and the Dominican Republic, were expected to perform on the level of a “good independent league to Class A level” in the U.S. minor leagues.
About a third of the players have previous professional experience, some have played college baseball, and many are Jewish. They will receive $1,500 for their services over the summer. The teams represent six cities and towns but not Jerusalem, which lacks a ballfield that meets league standards.
Financed by private investors, the Israel Baseball League has some high-profile supporters. Its advisory board includes Bud Selig, commissioner of Major League Baseball, and Randy Levine, president of the New York Yankees. The commissioner of the Israeli league is Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Israel.
Organizers say they hope that the league will spur further development of baseball in Israel and that the country will field a team for the 2009 World Baseball Classic, an international baseball tournament sponsored by Major League Baseball that was first played last year.
“The same initiatives that we used to grow baseball in Canada we will apply to this Israel project,” Duquette said, referring to his years with the Expos. “The biggest challenge is to develop facilities in Israel so younger ballplayers have a place to develop their love for the game.” Duquette said that one goal is to open a baseball academy in Israel like the one he runs in western Massachusetts, but that still seems a long way off, with only three baseball fields in the country that can accommodate high-level competition.
“This is a work in progress,” said Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, a longtime coach and baseball organizer in Israel who is on the advisory board of the new league. “I don’t have any illusions that this is going to be a smashing success overnight or something that will have a mass audience. Right now it’s a niche sport, but I think there’s a lot of potential for developing and expanding the interest here because it’s a great game.”
“Israel is a culturally dynamic place and absorbs new things all the time,” Maddy-Weitzman added. “Baseball is a worldwide sport. Why not here?”
Israel has applied to participate in the next World Baseball Classic. Jewish-American professional baseball players (such as Brad Ausmus, Mike Lieberthal, Kevin Youkilis, Ian Kinsler, Ryan Braun, Shawn Green, Jason Marquis, Jason Hirsh, John Grabow, Scott Schoeneweis, and Scott Feldman, as well as recently retired Gabe Kapler) would be eligible for the team.
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