Tuesday, August 28, 2007

World Exclusive! Special Report! Can't anyone here run this game? Elli Wohlgelernter on the scandalous debut of the Israel Baseball League

Readers of Tabloid Baby know him as Our Man Elli in Israel, our longtime pal and veteran print and broadcast journalist who, more than a decade ago left his native New York City and Yankees for life in Jerusalem, Israel (and subject of the documentary film project, Sex & Baseball. Many others know him as Elli Wohlgelernter, television reporter for the Israeli Broadcasting Authority and freelance print journalist whose reports on life in the Big Bagel have appeared in newspapers from The Jerusalem Post to The New York Times.

Now, in this exclusive report, Elli Wohlgelernter reports on the wild first season of the much-anticipated Israel Baseball League, which led off an eight-week, 45-game season in June:

The Oys of Summer

How Israel's season in the sun
turned into a season in Hell


BAPTIST VILLAGE, Israel - The Israel Baseball League started out with high hopes, an almost mystical dream that resonated deeply with Jews across the United States: a professional baseball league in Israel!

But the result, say many, were more errors than hits: players threatening to strike when paychecks were late; a manager hired to help give face to the fledgling league leaving in the middle of the season, after trashing the league to the media; and a player almost killed by a batting practice line drive, an accident that might have been prevented with proper equipment.

The IBL was created two years ago by Boston businessman Larry Baras, who cultivated glowing press and fan interest in the United States. Baras assembled a distinguished team of advisers, executives, financial backers and former players, to help launch what in essence was a start-up company in a foreign country.

The stated idea was to generate enthusiasm and fan interest by promising, among other things, a range of marketing gimmicks borrowed from minor league ballparks in the states: karaoke night, speed dating night, sack racing, sumo wrestling competitions, and even ballpark weddings. To further build anticipation, the league’s Web site prominently displayed a countdown clock giving days, minutes, and hours until opening day.

But while the marketing may have worked among the Jews in the U.S. and the English-speaking “Anglo community” here, the league barely registered with Israelis, who were largely ignored in the marketing plans-- and insulted to boot.

David Rosenthal, a sports reporter for Walla!, the biggest Israeli Web portal, posted a story four days before opening day, critical of the way the six-team league was being sold exclusively to an overseas audience. “Excuse me, what about us?” read the headline.

Still, for those Anglo fans who did come out, it was a joy, whether hearing Hatikva sung before each game-- without taking off their hats-- eating kosher hot dogs, getting close to the players, or hearing a call for afternoon prayers being announced in the middle of the fifth inning.


But what they didn't know was what was going on in the dugout. Many of the players-- 120 recruited from around the world-- had previously played some professional baseball, a half-dozen even at the Triple-A level, a rung below the Major Leagues. As such, they were expecting a more professional environment, and were greatly disappointed: the housing accommodations were called a hostel, an army barrack, even a homeless shelter; air conditioning wasn’t working in a half-dozen rooms the first week, in the midst of a brutal heat wave; there was no arrangement for laundry service; and the food was so bad, players said, that they eventually lost an average of seven to 10 pounds, or more.

“I’ve lost almost 17 pounds since I’ve been here,” said Scott Jarmakowicz, a catcher for the Bet Shemesh Blue Sox. “Over half my paycheck, at least half, has gone to food. It’s not sustainable eating the same schnitzel and boiled eggs three times a day. I’m a catcher, and it takes its toll. I’m sure I would have lost some weight, but not 17 pounds.”

But that wasn’t even the main gripe. Players just wanted to play baseball, and were expecting the necessities that accompany any sport. But when they arrived at their dorm facilities at Kfar Hayarok just north of Tel Aviv, there was no ice to soothe sore muscles, nor a weight room facility, absolute staples for athletes in any sport.

The league made provisions for ice to be bought, until an ice machine was obtained a couple of weeks into the season; and arrangements were made for players to use nearby gyms. Most of the players were willing to look past the peripheral deficiencies in order to play baseball, a love they all shared, and a dream they all nourished. But here, too, they were working under a severe handicap.

Bones of contention

Arriving only three days before the season began, the players had no time for pre-season workouts; and then there were the fields themselves. The best facility was Baptist Village in Petah Tikva, a beautiful diamond that hosts baseball and softball for the Maccabiah Games.

But the other two fields were bones of contention among the players: One was at Gezer, where the outfield grass sloped upward; there was no warning track in left and center fields; the outfield fence wasn’t padded; and there was a light pole on the field in right. Moreover, the right field foul line was 280 feet, making it feel like a little league pasture, and skewing players’ statistics.

The third field was Sportek in Tel Aviv, which was not even built when the season started. This situation left two fields for six teams and a schedule out of whack: teams had too many days off, managers were unable to set up a proper pitching rotation, and no team completed its full 45-game schedule-- four teams played 41 games, and two played 40. Moreover, neither Gezer nor Sportek had lights, which meant games had to start at 5 p.m., an inconvenient time for working fans.

When Sportek finally opened July 10, 16 days into the eight-week season-– and with a right-field line even shorter than Gezer's-- it still wasn’t ready, with potentially dangerous field conditions.

“There are rocks, glass, and pieces of rusty metal we pulled out of the ground,” said Jarmakowicz. “You can slide on a rock anywhere, but most fields aren’t gong to have three bars sticking out of it. And these are hard fences, you can really get hurt.”

Commissioner Dan Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, concurred. “We need to improve the fields. We used them [Gezer and Sportek], but they are not really at a professional level.”

Near-fatal disaster

At first the ballparks also did not have proper equipment, from little things like pitchers’ resin bags, to important items like screens at the bases during batting practice, to crucial equipment like batting cages, which protect those not on the field from getting hurt during pre-game batting practice. This lack of protection almost resulted in a fatal disaster.

On July 11 at Gezer, Reynaldo Cruz, a 24-year-old star outfielder from the Dominican Republic playing for the Petah Tikva Pioneers, committed a cardinal sin and turned his back on batting practice. Standing near his dugout situated very close to the field, he was struck in the back of the head by a line drive off the bat of Modi’in’s Adalberto Paulino.

Cruz was knocked cold for a couple of minutes and lay on the ground shaking, which gave the surrounding players a fright.

There was a 20-minute wait for an ambulance to arrive before Cruz was taken to Assaf Harofeh hospital, where he stayed for two weeks, was released, and went back in complaining of dizzy spells.

Cruz’s season was done, but he was alive.

“Gezer is a particular problem-- we probably should have anticipated more safety requirements at Gezer,” said Kurtzer. “Secondly, the players themselves have been too lax all season, not wearing batting helmets, and not paying attention on the field during practice. So the horse escapes, the barn door gets closed. We did institute some better safety procedures at Gezer.”

The forfeit

The players were also vociferous in their criticism of the umpiring. In one famous incident that was subsequently posted on YouTube (above), one of the league’s best players, Ryan Crotin, argued an umpire’s call, got thrown out of the game, refused to leave the batter’s box, and his team was declared to have lost on forfeit.

“There [have] been a couple of problems with the umpires here,” said one player on his independent blog. “They don't know some of the rules. They don't know correct umpire positioning. They have inconsistent strike zones at times. They have a bad habit of ejecting players for no specific reason. And most importantly, some of them have trouble taking control of the game.”

Because of all this happening the first three weeks of the season, the league worked hard at spin control. In a July 13 letter from Martin Berger, president and COO of the IBL, the players were told that everything was fine.

“Things over here continue to be strong,” Berger wrote from the U.S. “We are meeting with investors every day and we have a meeting with Major League Baseball Affiliates this week. The buzz is fantastic.”


Three days later was payday, and miscommunication between the league and players resulted in smaller paychecks than were expected. Players-– led by those from the Dominican Republic, who were much more in need of the money to send to their families back home-- threatened to strike, 22 days into the brand new league.

In rushed the league’s commissioner, who scrambled up to Kfar Yarok to stem the rebellion. Around noon, a meeting was held on an outdoor basketball court with the player’s improvised union, led by 45-year-old Alan Gardner, centerfielder for the Blue Sox and a practicing New York lawyer.

“It was funny because the IBL was close to striking-- it was surreal,” said a player in attendance. “Some of the players took video of the makeshift meeting because we all thought it was so funny.”

Not to the league it wasn’t. Kurtzer-– a savvy veteran of tough Middle East political negotiations-- told the players that there had been a misunderstanding, but that he would not negotiate under threat - and, according to players who were there, that he would cancel the league if they struck, a threat Kurtzer denied.

“I didn’t say that,” Kurtzer said. “I said, ‘I’ll talk to you all day, and we’ll fix the problem, but I’m not going to be here with you saying if you’re not happy you’re going out on strike.’ I said, ‘If you want to go out on strike that’s your choice, I can’t stop you.’ ”

Kurtzer explained the mix-up, saying: “The problem at the beginning of the season was that they didn’t understand that we overpaid them the first time, and therefore we adjusted it the second, and our communications broke down. In other words, after two weeks there were supposed to get a week’s pay, and then have that week delay, as in most businesses. After two weeks we paid them for two weeks, so after the second two weeks, we paid them for one week, and we were gong to start the delay, and they said ‘hey, wait a minute, we worked two weeks, and threatened a strike. It was explained to them, and they understood it.”

At a subsequent payday, money was again late. The players, having heard rumors about the league’s financial difficulties, were upset that the league was not more forthcoming.

“I believe that they knew seven or 10 days ahead of time that it was going to be late,” said Jamarkowicz. “Don’t just have us show up, keep telling us you’re going to pay us, and then when we get there, when you knew 90 percent chance that it wasn’t going to come through, tell us, ‘Hey, we’re really trying to get you paid, it could be up to a week late. We’re gonna push it back. We’re gonna try and give you 100, 200 shekels to try to get you by, just work with us.’ I’m more than willing to work with anybody 100 percent. I understand financial backing, new league, things are going to happen. I’m OK with that. But be up front with me, be honest with me, don’t BS me around.”

No balls

Meanwhile, the threatened strike was headed off, and baseball continued. But not all the teams were doing well. The Petah Tikva team, managed by former Jewish Major Leaguer Ken Holtzman, was losing a lot of games, and was destined for last place early on. The losing, and the problems encountered all season, finally got to Holtzman, and he publicly criticized the league, the teams, the players, the fields, and the Israeli fans. (see sidebar)

The league, understandably, was outraged over his words and his going public. It was the black eye the league had been working to avoid all season. Two weeks later, the league and Holtzman reached an agreement for him to leave.

But the league was in trouble, financially most of all. At one point there were no more baseballs, partly a result of players handing out too many souvenirs in the spirit of promoting the league. The IBL had to order more, and the players were ordered not to give away any baseballs to fans, under threat of a 50 shekel fine.

“I know how hard it is to say no and I am very aware of how persistent and sometimes over-zealous our fans can be,” Berger wrote the players on July 31. “But we cannot throw balls into the stands anymore. I just brought over 3500 more baseballs. This is it for the rest of the season. If we run out, we stop playing.”

The players were upset.

“Do you have any idea how hard it is to say no to a seven-year-old boy asking for a ball?” wrote Jesse Michel on his blog. “What should I tell him, ‘No son, the league has threatened to fine me if I give you one?’ Right.”

Fans in the dark

All of the various issues plaguing the league were unknown to the public during the season, the result both of an absence of news reporting, and a major effort at spin control by the league.

With the notable exception of Rosenthal writing all season on Walla!, the Israeli press-- Hebrew and English-- was mainly uninterested. The stories that were printed were written by the league’s amateur reporters, who consistently led with the wrong news day after day: a story on a no-hitter led with the news that the game was the quickest of the year, while the story on the All-Star game began with the home run-hitting contest, to cite two examples.

The league was happy with the free, non-controversial publicity, and tried to control any negative publicity by censuring players blogging on their Web site, as well as influencing independent bloggers to remove negative postings.

So the fans kept in the dark on the dugout intrigue supported their teams blindly. By far the teams with the most fan support were Bet Shemesh, followed by Modi’in, two cities with large Anglo communities. One fan from Bet Shemesh celebrated his 45 birthday by baking a cake and traveling to Tel Aviv to hand out slices to his beloved Blue Sox.

“It brought back innocence,” Alan Krasma said of his summer experience, while dishing out the desert. “If you look at the last two summers, we had Gush Katif two summers ago, we had the Lebanon war last summer. This summer was just really relaxed. I was able to come with each of my kids to the game, we met a few of the players, and we really got to know them. It was like coming to watch a bunch of friends play.”

Too little, too late

But while Americans supported the sport-- the league’s attendance ranged from an average of 73 for Netanya to 418 for Bet Shemesh, though it was often a matter of guesswork-- there were few Israelis who attended. The promised marketing gimmicks never happened, and outreach to communities was too little, too late: teams visited their respective city’s malls to give out free tickets and paraphernalia in the seventh week of the eight-week season.

“We did, I think, a superlative job for a new league marketing among Americans in America and among Anglos in Israel,” said Kurtzer. “And we did nothing with Israelis. Part of it had to do with organization. We talked about it a lot, and then we didn’t hire anybody to do it for a long time, and then there was a budget issue, we spent a lot of money on the television contract… This was our management fashla,” he said, using the Israeli slang for a screw-up. “That’s what it was."

Not all Anglos felt the outreach. Rabbi Stewart Weiss, a lifelong fan of his hometown Cubs and a former Bleacher Bum, is director of an organization in Ra'anana helping new immigrants. He and his family attended several games to root for the IBL team named after his adopted city, the Ra'anana Express-- but heard little, if any, information about the team and league in Ra'anana itself.

"They're called the Ra'anana Express, but they don't play here, there is no publicity about them in town, and you can't buy tickets locally," said Weiss. "There ought to be a concerted attempt to reach out to Ra'anana - a city of 75,000, one-third of whom are English-speaking immigrants. There has to be a stronger connection to the city in order to build team spirit and team support. Can you just name a team after a city without actually involving the city or its inhabitants?"

No pay, no play

The league did try one marketing drive aimed at Israelis-- they paid the Israeli sports channel to broadcast Sunday night games in Hebrew. But when payment stopped coming, so did the broadcasts.

“It’s a shame this is what they are doing to us, after we put our heart and soul in it,” Yaron Talpaz, sports channel’s vice president for business development, told Walla! “We did not expect this kind of management from a league whose commissioner was the former U.S. ambassador to Israel.”

Kurtzer said everyone would eventually be paid, including, he admitted, himself, and that it was a shame the sports channel chose not to broadcast the second half of the season, including the championship game.

“Yes, we do owe them money, but I’m confident that they are gong to get paid. It’s a haval that we didn’t have the cash flow to pay them, it’s haval that they didn’t want to do it on faith that they are going to get paid, so, haval. Everyone’s going to get paid.”

Kurtzer said that plans for next season are already under way, that he and league management knows what needs to be done, and that a replay of this season’s problems isn’t likely.

“It will be different in the sense that you will have other complaints-- the food is always going to be a complaint-- but I’d say that 75 percent of the legitimate stuff that these guys complained about this year-- legitimate being because it was true-- we’ll fix it. And they’re gonna get paid on time, and we now know that you gotta get the laundry right, so all that stuff will be done right.

The main problem, he said, was not enough hands on board.

“We need more personnel, league personnel, just to handle issues. Very often players didn’t know to whom to turn, so you just need enough people – someone who is responsible for x, and responsible for y, and you know where to go. So those are the things we’ll work on.”

The players themselves understood that. By the time the Blue Sox beat the Modi’in Miracle for the championship, the players had put all the problems behind them, and were sad to see the inaugural season end. The camaraderie was evident the night before the playoffs, when they held an award night and gave out “The Schnitzel Award” in a number of jocular categories.

Almost to a man, all players asked said they would love to come back and play another season, if they don’t get offers to play anywhere else.

“My personal experience has just been wonderful in every aspect of it,” said Eric Holtz, the 41-year-old player manager for the Blue Sox. “To be able to play and compete, having my wife and children here for three weeks and having them involved in one of the most exciting things of my life, has just been phenomenal. And being a Jew, you can’t come here and not feel some sense of spirituality. And I’m not a religious Jew.”

Asked if he and the other players would come back next season, after all they went through, Holtz didn’t hesitate.

“If they lived through the worst and survived,” he said, “then why wouldn’t they come back next year?"

Elli Wohlgelernter contributed to Roger Kahn's semi-classic baseball book, Good Enough To Dream, and considers this story something of a bookend. Watch Tabloid Baby for more exclusive reports from Our Man Elli in Israel.

And don't forget to read the sidebar on the mudslinging exit of manager Ken Holtzman.


Anonymous said...

Elli you obviously enjoy pulling down the efforts of what others try to constructively do. Good job! What have you tried to do positive lately? If you need any help with sensationalist headlines why not check out the british media. I am surprised you could not find any sex scandals in what was a beautiful first season enjoyed by many. Given time I am sure you will find something. In the meantime feel happy when you wake up that you have done all you can to diminish what could be a great thing for Isreal

Ben W. said...

You are an absolute a$$. Do you want to watch soccer for the rest of your life? Because if you do you should keep covering the IBL. How could you say nobody cared? I took my son to many IBL games to watch our beloved BlueSox and he and all of the other kids his own age, (probably 30) were chasing down foul balls like their lives depended on it. My son and I cheered for our favorite player Johnny Lopez with 1000 other fans in attendance.

You sucker punched the league, and you better hope it doesn't die.

Marcus Freiman said...

It was a sucker punch as the other writer indicated. Elli, you used to be known for your porn articles. Baseball and Sex. Why not keep to that and exclude good things like baseball in Israel. The happiest scenes I can remember during a summer time in Israel were of the THOUSANDS of fans at Peta Tikva. Hundreds of fans at Gezer. Kids and adults have memories which will carry them the year through. Was not perfect and certainly Sportek had its issues but it was a miracle that it began. A great positive thing that so many enjoyed the season. I cannot imagine why anyone would feel the need to try to find the negative during such a positive event for israel. You can find the crap in every event. This is such a positive one. Why would you look to find the negative and seek fame leeching on this?

Really go back to your porn Elli. It suits you.How can you call yourself a journalist? You are a dirt digger, crap scraper.

That ought to be your business card: Dirt Digger, Crap Scraper, Leech

yossi blowsky said...

elli left out the story about the baseball "chanas," the israeli "baseball annies" (see Bull Durham, Ball Four and others for a fuller definition) who made it a point of having as much sex with the ballplayers as possible

Ground Hog Day 1220 said...

I think it is pretty disgusting that the writer here wants to tear down something so positive. Given it was the first year, I think it was a fantastic season. For a group of people to put their life on hold, spend their money and probably health in some cases on trying to bring something happy to Israel- ( Not a combatative sport) I think that we need to give the benefit of any doubt which comes up.I am hurt for them. They must be having a sensation of feeling like they have sacrified a lot and made a lot of boulders move all to be criticized.
When was the last OTHER time when Israel was in the worldwide media in a positive way?!! When was the last time you saw families on tv having a nice time? The games were something great. I know how the first season of the IBL managers, owners and players will be remembered. They will be remembered as bringing something great and positive to Isreal. Elli you will be remembered as being someone who brought forward vicious and degrading tabloid smut to feed your own deficiencies.

Chaim said...

The writer is anti-Israel and probably antisemetic too...that was a joke.

You people are getting mad at the wrong person. These things actually happened. You should be mad at the league for not putting the time to make this league the best it can possibly be. The league sucker punched the players by making them play and have no ice.

I said my piece.

Anonymous said...

as a player who sought and continues to seek to solve some of the growing pains of this league, I can say that there is much truth to the factual information provided by some of the sources in the article, from Scotty Jarmakowicz to Dan Kurtzer. Elli's angle comes off particularly hard, but not really knowing him, I can't say that this is a result of sensationalism rather than his personal disappointment in what he expected this league to be, even in Year 1. I can say that, no matter what conflict he looked to depict between the players and Dan Kurtzer over the "strike threat", the leadership of both sides worked together easily and quickly to avert a work stoppage and resolve the issues then present. the positive sense elli seems to have about a future for the IBL may well have leaked out in his somewhat disconnected final quote from Eric Holtz, the gist of which is, the vast majority of players would be happy to come back next year (absent an opportunity at a higher level) to play in the IBL and promote it to the Anglos, the Israelis and anyone else wise enough to find out what a great game America's pastime is. put us in coach, we're ready to play, today, in Israel. And you can take that to the bank. Thanks again to all of our great fans and the people who were so good to us wherever we went during our 2 months playing pro ball in Israel. To see what fun it was so you can get in on the action in '08, enter www.israelbaseballleague.com in your browser and find the photo gallery of game and other photos..those tell the story of a great summer of baseball...
Now, Let's Go Mets!

Anonymous said...

All the fans and all the players were very lucky to have had the League/ management who stuck out their necks so they ( the fans including Elly if he wanted to be less bitter-- and the players) could have one of the best experiences of their lives.

Elly, you moved to Israel, you are supposedly starved for baseball--- why did you not get the thrill as others did by going to one of the amazing highly attended and very exciting games at Yarkon? Why did you not enjoy the great games at Gezer?

Why the need in a sensationalist way attempt to tear down the positive efforts of others and a league which is in its infancy?

Anyone who has ever set up a brand new league thousands of miles away taking care of over a hundred people's transportation, trying to find ice, beds, all logistics-- all from a standing start--- are the only people who are in a position to judge how the management did. Who has ever start up a simple local ten person office and had it go smoothly?

I played too---and that is what I come away with.

We should all think of this is an amazing experience which it was and we will be very lucky to have an opportunity to play again. We always will know that we were a part of history in Isreal as I genuinely believe that baseball will flourish there.

BABA said...

I had a thought after reading this sensationalist blog:

How many of these players thought to get off their butts and instead of going to bars after games and complaining, thought to be a part of creating some solutions to fill in various gaps? I am on the staff of college baseball and understand how people desire to criticize and gripe rather than helping to put ahead some answers and solutions. This blog brings forward these gripes to a new lousy level.

Assuming the writer thinks is importatnt to have baseball in israel, besides just trying to be famous for this muck, did he ever contact someone and say

Hey, I have been in Israel for 10 years.. maybe there are some issues whether it be in obtaining adequate ice? Chances are most referrals the league got were on their own. Or maybe he could have said.. can I invite some of these players for a homecooked meal?

I have been in similar position as the Israel Baseball League. Everyone wants to criticize and say others ought to be doing a better job, while they are busy signing autographs-- that is if they are lucky-- which it sounds like these guys were, with fans wanting their autographs.

schmuli said...

Elli is a brave journalist.

He followed the story where it led hum.

He stated the facts.

I saw no sensationalism in the article and suspect readers were misguided by the "tabloid" name of the blog.

Baseball Mom said...

We ought to look in the laundry pile of any start up company, houselhold, or school for that matter--- to get jollies if we enjoy reading this stuff. I am thrilled my son got a chance to play professional baseball in Israel and I would be unhappy to think he did not recognize the enormity of the variables which were put in place very well this summer as to enable something great which never existed in Israel before. I am sure he is thankful to the league for the most incredible experience of his life. There is no other professional baseball league outside of the U.S. besides Japan that gets close to the crowds which the first season IBL got. There are no start up leagues that accomplish anyhing outside of the U.S.close to what happened this summer THAT IS BECAUSE IT IS HARD HARD HARD TO DO to ANY EXTENT !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! WHY DONT YOU PEOPLE GET THIS! The IBL first season was nothing like starting a franchise of Dairy Queen. Each ball must have had to have aduty and shipping hassle. Every employee had unknown qualities. Every vendor had unknown responsibility. Every facet was from scratch!! Yes, some players were not so hot as well. This was a START UP that was incredibly succesful. Dont tear it and the memories down!

Anonymous said...

Thanks Elli for a well written article!It is good to write about the positives and negatives of the IBL.As an investor in the league I can honestly say that everything mentioned was correct. There were allot more problems as well!It was personally a blast for me but for the league to grow much has to be fixed.Hopefully next year ,you will be writing about the vast improvements!
(netz minyan guy)

Anonymous said...

Let the league live. There are problems, managment and money. The league should go on with new managment. Let's keep our eye on the ball.

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