Tabloid Baby's man in the Mideast, Our Man Elli In Israel, has an article in tomorrow's New York Times. Buy six copies!
The New York Times June 24, 2007
Israeli League Is Ready to Play Ball
By ELLI WOHLGELERNTER
JERUSALEM, June 23 — In the land of milk and honey, it is time for peanuts and hot dogs — the Israel Baseball League makes its debut Sunday night when the Petach Tikva Pioneers play host to the Modi’in Miracle. A high demand for tickets has moved organizers to double the seating capacity at the Yarkon Sports Complex to accommodate a projected 2,000 spectators expected to attend.
The game will be televised live in Israel by the local sports channel, whose broadcasters will handle the play-by-play in Hebrew. The game will also be broadcast in English in the United States next Sunday on PBS affiliates in New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and West Palm Beach, Fla.
The league’s six teams will share three fields: in Tel Aviv; in Petach Tikva about 10 miles northeast of Tel Aviv; and in Kibbutz Gezer, between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
The teams will play an eight-week, 45-game season, with an all-star game July 29 and a one-game championship Aug. 19. The league will honor the Jewish faith — there will be no games on Saturdays or on July 24, the Tisha B’Av fast day.
The oldest of the league’s 120 players — who represent eight countries — is Pioneers pitcher Scott Cantor, 51, of Nyack, N.Y. The youngest is Miracle pitcher Nate Rosenberg, 17, who lives on Kibbutz Gezer.
Another teenager from Gezer is Alon Leichman, who started playing at 4. His father, David, initiated the construction of a field at Gezer in 1982.
“I said 25 years ago that the field is for our children, and now my 18-year-old son is to play pro ball on the field,” said David Leichman, who, like many at Gezer, emigrated from the United States.
The league is run by an advisory board of donors and investors who will try to eventually make a profit. For the players, who are being paid $2,000 each for the season, the league is an opportunity to continue doing what they love.
“To me, it’s a reward for all of my hard work in the gym and on the field, and it’s the ultimate Jewish-American dream,” said Josh Eichenstein, 23, a middle infielder from Los Angeles. “Being able to play baseball as a job in Israel blows my mind.”
Eichenstein said he hoped to put on a good show for all the people watching baseball for the first time.
“I want to help Israelis understand the game of baseball,” he said. “Once the game is understood, they will fall in love with it.”
That is what organizers are hoping will happen. In this soccer- and basketball-crazed country, baseball may be a hard sell. The game has been tweaked — some say corrupted — to make it more palatable for a foreign audience. Games will be seven innings instead of nine, and ties will be broken by home-run-hitting contests instead of extra innings.
The league has assembled some former major league players and executives. Art Shamsky, Ken Holtzman and Ron Blomberg are among the managers. Dan Duquette, a former general manager of the Boston Red Sox and the Montreal Expos, is the league’s director of player development. The head of public relations is Marty Appel, who once held that position with the Yankees.
Daniel C. Kurtzer, a former United States ambassador to Israel, is the league’s commissioner. Now retired from diplomatic service, Kurtzer will spend the next two months in Israel, on vacation from his day job as a professor at Princeton.
“My role basically is to establish the character of the league,” Kurtzer, a professor of Middle East policy studies at Princeton, said this week in a telephone interview. “So we’ve developed the rules and a code of conduct. My job is largely to give advice and do some public relations, give speeches and things like that. I don’t know that I’ll be at every game, but I’ll be there the entire summer.”
Once accustomed to negotiating disputes between Israel and its neighbors, Kurtzer is still working on how to mediate arguments on the field.
“We’ll see if it’s a punch, if it’s a brawl, if it’s a melee — we’ll make decisions on the spot,” he said. “I assume that issues will come up about discipline and other kinds of issues that end up in the commissioner’s office. I have done a pretty good study of how the commissioner’s office in Major League baseball works, and in other sports. So you never know — each situation is going to be different.”
The games will also be announced in Hebrew at the ballparks, and the Web site israelbaseballleague.com features the rules and a glossary of terms in Hebrew. Still, the league has been pitched to Jews in the United States, urging Jewish organizations to send tour groups to games and establishing support chapters in Chicago and Phoenix.
Some Israelis, including those born in the United States, are wondering whether such a marketing strategy will help the league establish traction among natives.
“Baseball is the greatest game ever invented, and I hope the league is a rousing success,” said Eli Groner, a one-time Maccabiah Games bronze medalist in softball, who works as a management consultant at McKinsey & Company’s Tel Aviv office.
“But the key to generating popularity here is in successful clinics at the grass-roots level.”
He added, “ ‘If you build it, they will come’ is nice for a movie and to create a tourist destination in Iowa; inculcating a culture requires much, much more.”
The league has a long-range plan for building a fan base. It has run youth camps and clinics, and has promotions scheduled throughout the season. Players will teach children the rudiments of the game and leave behind baseball equipment for them.
“Our real objective this summer is to build some degree of interest on the part of Israelis,” said Kurtzer, who acknowledged having doubts about whether Israelis would make a quintessential American sport their own.
“I don’t know yet,” he said. “I know there’s a Little League that’s functional, that includes not only American Israelis but Israeli Israelis. We won’t know until we test it. We’ve talked to people about it and we think there’s room in Israel for a third sport beyond basketball and soccer. Baseball is a little complicated, it’s a little bit different from what Israelis know, but we’ll have a little fun teaching them.”
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