JERUSALEM - 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 signed up 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. There will be no games on Friday night and Saturday, 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 professional baseball 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 main target audience is the more than 120,000 Israelis who have come 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 designated 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 also 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 had previous professional experience, some have played college baseball, and many are Jewish, drawn to the opportunity of playing professional ball in Israel. They will receive $1,500 for their services over the summer. The teams will represent six cities and towns but not Jerusalem, which lacks a baseball field that meets the standard for league play.
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 be able to field a team that will qualify 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 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?”