Some of my NY friends are still in mourning for their Mets and Yankees. As for me it looks like I will be switching to a brand new favorite Baseball team. I wonder if the will drop the singing of “take me out to the ballgame during” the 7th inning strech and substitute Mincha prayers.
More than 60 self-styled athletic studs hoping to play professional baseball in Israel came out on November 10 to participate in the first such tryouts ever held in Israel. The job of Dan Duquette, who ran the tryouts, was to separate the contenders from the pretenders. Larry Baras, who came up with the idea, was simply ecstatic just that so many showed up.
The players were equally enthused. Most of the hopefuls were either American born, who had moved to Israel as children, native Israelis who learned the game from their American fathers and played on Israeli teams; or Americans who had moved here at a later age, after having played in the U.S. All of them were looking for one more chance at the game they loved.
Most of them did not have a realistic shot at making the cut, and they knew it before they arrived at the Sportek athletic facility in Petah Tikva. But the very idea of professional baseball tryouts being held in Israel offered everyone a chance to dream, and it was a prospect too good to miss.
“I always loved the game of baseball,” explained 45-year-old Ari Alexenberg, whose was raised in Israel, where his family lives, but who now lives in the United States. “When I grew up in Israel it didn’t exist, and when I moved to the States, as an Orthodox Jew, all the games were played on Shabbat, so I couldn’t play. So I didn’t really play my first organized game of baseball until I was 23 years old.
“I quickly moved up, and had a lot of ability – played semi-pro ball = but I realized that it would take many years of honing my skills to actually keep moving. I was married, so I moved on. The irony is, the game passed my by because I lived in Israel and because I was an Orthodox Jew. But the fact that now there is an opportunity to play in Israel, at the age of 45, was too good of an opportunity to pass up.”
The tryouts were run very professionally by Duquette, which is no surprise: as one-time director of player development for the Montreal Expos, he drafted future stars such as Marquis Grissom, Charles Johnson and Rondell White. Later, as general manager for the Expos, he acquired elite pitcher Pedro Martínez in a brilliant one-sided trade , and as general manager of the Boston Red Sox, Duquette’s shrewd deals – nabbing Martinez again from the Expos, trading for pitcher Derek Lowe and catcher Jason Varitek, and signing free agents Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon – is credited with building the Red Sox into what ultimately led to the team’s 2004 championship.
Duquette is under no illusions that he will find a diamond in the rough on this day. He understands that there has been very little opportunity for Israeli kids to learn and play the game, and so the local pool of talent for the new league is negligible.
“Until we can build up the infrastructure here in Israel – and by that I mean the coaches and the facilities – we’re going to have to import players from the Australian league, and the minor leagues in the States,” Duquette said. “We’re going to give the Israelis as much chance as we can to make it, but until we build up the baseball in Israel, we’re going to be importing a lot of our players.”
Building up baseball in Israel is indeed part of the long-range plan. One goal that’s only a dream so far is fielding an Israeli team in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, an international tournament of 16 national teams. Participants on the Israeli team could include Jewish players from the Major Leagues, such as Brad Ausmus, Gabe Kapler, Jason Marquis, Shawn Green, and Kevin Youkilis.
But where will the Israeli players come from? Duquette hopes to open a baseball academy, modeled after the successful one he runs in Massachusetts. Other plans call for youth baseball clinics – one held this past summer drew 165 participants – as well as programs to develop women’s softball.
IBL officials are hoping that increased participation in baseball by younger Israelis will lead to more locals playing in the new league, as well as provide a fan base for the league. Opening Day is scheduled for June 22, 2007.
The trick to having a successful venture, obviously, will be attracting fans, perhaps the biggest challenge facing the Israel Baseball League in its first season. Baras, a businessman from Boston who is the brains behind the whole initiative, is well aware of that challenge. As he sat in the dugout watching a simulated game among the prospective players, glowing over the numbers that came to try out, Baras described the environment he envisions where whole families can come and have a good time.
“Because we really want to encourage attendance by native Israelis, there will be a lot of entertainment on the field, before and after the games, and in-between innings,” he said. “There will be barbecue stations throughout the stands, so there will be a gastronomic feast. And incidentally, there will be a baseball game going on. So we are striking a balance between getting the best players we can possibly get, while putting a real focus on family entertainment and food.” Baras has been working non-stop for 16 months trying to get Israeli baseball off the ground, and has had wide support from across the Jewish community spectrum as well as the baseball fraternity in America. “I get a real impression that people appreciate our efforts and motivation,” he says, flashing his ever-present upbeat smile. “I expect to make every mistake one can possibly make during the first year. I guess that success will be defined by making it through the first year with people having enjoyed it and wanting to come back.”
Dan Rothem is a 30-year-old Israeli-born pitcher who played at Gardner-Webb University in North Carolina, the first native Israeli to receive a scholarship to play college ball in the U.S. He understands the mentality of the average Israeli who knows nothing about the game, and the challenges Baras and Duquette face trying to sell baseball to natives.
“It will be difficult. The nature of the game is so different, baseball is so static, while the other games have a clock in them, they’re so dynamic. That will be the biggest hurdle in drawing people’s attention, in trying to explain the game to them and point out where the real action is – the duel between the pitcher and the hitter – and to get them to see the explosiveness of the game. It’s possible, but that will be the biggest challenge: for us to get people hooked on the game.”
Rothem was said to be the one Israeli player guaranteed to make the league’s roster. And even though he’s 30 and has no chance to make the Major Leagues, he has a goal. “If they put together a team for the World Baseball Classic in 2009,” he said, “and if I can make that team, that would be a dream come true.”
It’s a dream Baras and Duquette are having as well.