Sunday, March 11, 2007

"Jew're Out!" Our Man Elli on Israeli Baseball

Elli Wohlgelernter, Tabloid Baby's Man in Israel, is a reporter for IBA TV in Jerusalem. He's also the center of the documentary project, Sex & Baseball. Today he writes on the Israel 21C website about... baseball. Oh well.
Sliding Home
It's a long season, and you gotta trust it. I've tried them all,
I really have. And the only shul that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out,
is the shul of baseball.

- with apologies to Annie Savoy
"What do you miss most?"

That's the question immigrants to Israel get asked more than any other. Sometimes it elicits serious answers, sometimes personal ones. Of course everyone misses their family and friends left behind, that's a given. And sometimes what we miss most is a simple food we crave, or some product that is impossible to find in Israel, but which would make our daily lives easier.

Me, I always give the same answer.


Sure, I miss my family and friends, and pizza here is never going to be as good as it is in New York. And though I may not see my family and friends as much as I'd like, phone calls and emails keep us well connected.

But baseball is different. Baseball, for serious fans, takes on a relationship more akin to that of a husband and wife. Spouses communicate every day, even from a distance, even if only for a few minutes. The definition of that relationship - a relationship based on passion - demands no less.

So too in baseball. Baseball, like marriage, is nothing without intimacy. Sure, I can read what my favorite Yankees did over the last two weeks, how many games they won or lost, and see highlights on the Internet. But that is just passive knowledge and information, crucial though it is, and videos only highlight how far away I am. It never satisfies the emotional need, never quenches the thirst of passion. For that you need a constant, daily narrative that you can see, hear and smell.

Now we'll have it.

On June 24, the first-ever professional baseball game in Israel will be played at Kibbutz Gezer, between the Petah Tikva Pioneers and the Modi'in Miracle. The six-team league also includes the Bet Shemesh Blue Sox, Netanya Tigers, Ra'anana Express and Tel Aviv Lightning. Each club will play 45 regular-season games, a schedule comparable to that of the low minor leagues.

The games will be played at three sites: Tel Aviv and Netanya teams will play at Sportek in Tel Aviv. Ra'anana and Petah Tikvah will share a field at the Yarkon Sports Complex, while Kibbutz Gezer will host the Modi'in and Bet Shemesh teams.

Eighty players have already been signed, from eight countries including the Dominican Republic, Australia, Venezuela, and the United States. A trio of retired Jewish major leaguers will manage three of the teams - former pitcher Ken Holtzman, outfielder Art Shamsky and baseball's first designated hitter, Ron Blomberg. The league's first commissioner is Daniel Kurtzer, a former US ambassador to Israel, and Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig is on the board of advisors.

Even with that pedigree the detractors are already lining up to scoff, confident in their criticism that declares the venture - the brainstorm of one Larry Baras, Boston businessman and visionary extraordinaire - this century's version of Fulton's Folly. How can it succeed, they laugh, in a country already saturated with soccer and basketball? Who's gonna care enough to come to a game, besides a few dozen Anglos? And how can a home run compete with the excitement of a goal or a basket for an Israeli?

For those who follow baseball, who understand baseball, such doubters are to be pitied. While it is easy to understand their lack of faith in a Baras, or a Dan Duquette - the man in charge of player development - it is difficult to fathom their lack of faith in the very game itself.

That baseball was never, heretofore, an integral part of the fabric of Israeli culture is hardly a reflection on the sport itself. Baseball will succeed here, first and foremost, because it's the greatest game in the world. But it will also succeed because Israelis, like Americans, are great sports fans, as passionate about athletics as they are about everything that has meaning in their lives. In due time, Israelis too will come to understand the game, the rich nuances and subtleties that make it so interesting to millions of Americans.

Yes, of course building baseball in Israel is a long-term project. Duquette understands that better than anyone. Having once been in charge of player development for the Montreal Expos, Duquette took on a similar challenge going up against Canada's national religion, hockey. And from the ground up, he built an infrastructure and a system that was able to discover, recruit, and further develop Canadian baseball players.

It took a while, but then it happened: On March 8, 2006, Team Canada beat the powerhouse Team USA, 8-6, in the World Baseball Classic. Canadian baseball was on the map. To say that Israelis are less athletically inclined, incapable of playing and eventually competing on that level, is an insult, and simply foolish. A dozen Israelis have already been signed to the league, a number that is sure to grow as the country is more exposed to the sport.

One other thing: Everyone understands that ballplayers on the major league level are supremely talented, and a joy to watch. True enough. But for those who think minor league baseball is not that good, not the real thing, know this: those players underneath the Major Leagues at the AAA, AA, and A level are no less talented then the big boys. There is, in fact, only one difference between those in Single-A and those in the Major Leagues: consistency.

I spent the summer of 1983 covering minor league baseball, the Utica Blue Sox, in the New York-Penn League. They weren't just a single-A team, they were an independent team, which meant that no other ballclub had wanted any of the players. Castoffs, you say? Let me tell you, they weren't just good, they were great. I saw guys make plays that today would be on SportsCenter every night. The raw talent was breathtaking.

And now that's coming here. Baseball in Israel. I will get to see professional players up close, watch them show off that incredible talent, and follow their stories for 10 weeks, right here in my backyard. I'll still follow the Yankees, of course, but now I can follow a local team as well - the Blue Sox again, this time in Bet Shemesh. And my immigration will have become complete.
Elli's brief bio on Israel 21C site says that "he saw his first Major League baseball game in 1962 in Yankee Stadium." Elli is also sports editor of the Encyclopaedia Judaica, now out in a second edition, and his 175 entries include Shawn Green and Sandy Koufax.

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