Letter From New York: Hardball in the Holy Land
“That’s the thing that’s missing here. How can there be Jews without baseball? Not until there is baseball in Israel will Messiah come! Nathan, I want to play center field for the Jerusalem Giants!”
-from Philip Roth’s The Counterlife
Anyone who has been to Kibbutz Gezer, about halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, knows about the baseball field there. Built in 1983 by a group of American olim, it was the first regulation diamond in Israel. For years, it endured as little more than a dirt lot-though always under a sign on the backstop that proclaimed it a “Field of Dreams.”
To say that one of those dreams is about to come true is a little bit shmaltzy, and perfectly accurate. On June 24, at 6:13 p.m., Gezer will fittingly play host to another first when the Miracles of Modi’in take the field to face the Petach Tikva Pioneers in the opening game of the professional Israel Baseball League.
“‘If you will it, it is no dream,’” quotes David Leichman, the executive director of Gezer’s seminar center and one of the field’s creators. In 1997, Gezer’s field was renovated with help from the Kansas City Jewish community-and KC groundskeeper George Toma, the “Marques de Sod” who has prepared the turf for every Super Bowl. “To me Zionism is about the return to the Land of Israel to build something special in the Jewish country,” Leichman says. “Bringing in the positive cultural traditions of the countries from where we came has been a key element in creating the still emerging Israeli culture of the 21st Century. It is extremely exciting for me to have been part of bringing this sport to Israel.”
The IBL is the brainchild of Boston businessman Larry Baras, who assembled a roster of All-Star talent-in some cases, quite literally. At the league’s first official press conference here in New York last week, about 60 members of the media watched and listened as Commissioner Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and to Egypt, introduced two of the IBL’s six new managers: former pros Ken Holtzman-the winningest Jewish pitcher in Major League history (yes, with more wins than Sandy Koufax)-and Art Shamsky, who hit .300 for the New York “Miracle” Mets that won the 1969 World Series. Former Yankee Ron Blomberg will also manage one of the six charter teams. And the board of directors includes Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig, who Kurtzer smilingly refers to as “my counterpart” (”I’m not sure he refers to me as his counterpart,” he laughs).
Director of baseball operations Dan Duquette, a former general manager of the Montreal Expos and Boston Red Sox, stood and announced that he had signed about 80 players so far from eight countries, including “the best catcher in Australia.” Perhaps the most heartfelt moment came when 33-year-old New Yorker Leon Feingold, who played two seasons in the Cleveland Indians’ farm system before going to law school, described signing with the IBL as “getting a second chance at something that most people don’t get a first chance at.”
All in all, it was an impressive presentation of what could be, a promise that in a nation built on remarkable achievements, the Israel Baseball League could be the latest. So when Kurtzer opened it up for questions, the notorious New York sports media cut right to the most fundamental question. “I understand you’ll have a different rule for the designated hitter,” charged a reporter from the Daily News. “What’s the deal with that?”
Kurtzer deftly fielded this first curve ball (yes, an all-baseball mixed metaphor) with commissionerly aplomb, explaining the rules that will be instituted in an effort to keep the games exciting and fast-paced: a designated hitter that can be used only twice a game for any position; seven-inning games; home-run derbies to settle all ties. The new rules drew mixed enthusiasm from a recent fan poll hosted on the league’s web site, www.israelbaseballleague.com (the current poll asks whether fans might prefer cholent and kishke to hot dogs and peanuts).
Once Holtzman and Shamsky stepped up to the mic, the questions turned to softballs (”Do you think your fame as a Major Leaguer will help attract young players?”), and Holtzman explained how until now his mother’s proudest moment had been the day in 1966 when he pitched against Koufax. Shamsky admitted he was already practicing some Hebrew phrases to help facilitate his communication with Israeli umpires. “I learned that atah yver means ‘You’re blind!” and patach eynayim is ‘Open your eyes!’”
Speaking of eye-opening, Israel’s first pro baseball league has plenty of challenges to meet as it begins its first 45-game season, from improving the existing fields and building new ones-the six teams will share three this first year-to developing a fan base, attracting talented players, and even expanding the language: In Hebrew, the same word is used for “pitch” and “throw,” and there is no proper term for “bat.” Most of all, the IBL hopes to nurture Israel’s 3,000 Little Leaguers and amateur players into a genuine pool of homegrown talent. Currently, the roster includes only a dozen Israelis.
One of them is Leichman’s own son, Alon, 17. He and his best friend on the kibbutz, 16-year-old Nate Rosenberg, will be the two youngest players in the league. “They live about 75 yards from each other, play on the same team, and have been throwing balls to each other since before they were able to walk,” Leichman says proudly. Like any father, he looks at his son and sees the future.
“Remember, there is no mention of soccer, basketball, or tennis in the Bible [either],” Leichman says of Israel’s three most popular sports, also all imports. “Like many new projects, this can’t be judged by what it is, but what it can be.” And that, he says, is something remarkable-even if the Messiah doesn’t come.
Then again, you know what they say about a Field of Dreams.