The globalization of America's national pastime, personified by the recent World Baseball Classic, might soon stretch to Israel.
The ambitious goal is to inaugurate a six-team, 48-game professional league, comparable at some point to Class-A minor league, by July 2007, providing the facilities, equipment, players, ownership and security can be assembled.
The recipe was prepared by Larry Baras, owner of a specialty baking company in Boston.
"I have no illusions about the brick-by-brick, fan-by-fan challenge," Baras said by phone, "but I'm consumed by the project."
Baras is an Orthodox Jew with the twin passions of baseball and Israel, where basketball and soccer have been the primary spectator sports.
The first diamond wasn't built there until 1979. Now more than 2,500 players participate in baseball and softball, and the Israel Assn. of Baseball, the governing federation, regularly fields a team in international events.
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For Baras, "the seed was planted" through his son's employment with the Brockton Rox, an independent league team that puts an emphasis on between-innings fan involvement and pregame and postgame entertainment.
A grass-roots awakening for Baras at 54.
He cited a recent fireworks show in Tel Aviv that attracted more than 350,000 people and said: "It's a country starved for fun and entertainment, and that's the kind of show we want to provide while educating fans about the nuances of baseball. I mean, unless you have players to root for and against and teams to root for and against, you have no real feel for the game."
Beyond that, Baras said, he sees baseball as a three-hour refuge and place of community in a country where mere survival is a 24/7 proposition.
Thus, long wanting to make a contribution there besides a frequent check, he will make the Israel Baseball League his gift, and some heavy hitters have joined his lineup.
Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, has agreed to become the league's commissioner.
Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College economist who has written widely about the game's finances, and Marvin Goldklang, a limited partner in the New York Yankees and owner of five minor league teams, are among the advisors.
Dan Duquette, former general manager of the Boston Red Sox and Montreal Expos, will serve as the league's personnel director, overseeing talent development at a camp he operates in Hinsdale, Mass. -- the first tryout will be Aug. 20-22 -- and a complex to be built in Israel that will carry his name.
Duquette said that the combination of Baras' enthusiasm and the opportunity to help grow the game from scratch was difficult to ignore, along with the possibility of sending an Israeli team to the second World Baseball Classic in 2009.
"In many ways it struck a chord," Duquette said by phone, calling it similar to his involvement with the introduction of professional baseball in Canada via the Expos and Toronto Blue Jays.
In addition, he said, "I remember how [former Expos owner] Charles Bronfman often talked about his desire to see baseball in Israel, so I feel as if I'm coming full circle."
From drawing board to a projected first pitch in 2007, however, the project figures to be a clock-ticking challenge. Among the key issues:
* Ownership: Baras had planned for the six teams, with more to come, to be owned and controlled by the league in the first year. That business model has been upended, he said, by the early and overwhelming response of people wanting a club. He now thinks the six will be owned by individuals or partnerships at a price still to be set.
* Facilities: Baras is confident he will open with six viable fields, at least one a reconfigured soccer stadium. There will be more building in time -- fan-friendly parks that take advantage of the scenic and historic vistas, he said. The Jewish National Fund has initiated an effort "to dot the landscape with baseball fields" by enabling people to contribute directly to the building process through Project Baseball.
* Players: There will be 20 a team, and Baras said he probably would advertise in baseball publications for minor leaguers, former players and undrafted college players seeking a chance. He estimated that 60% of the first-year players would come from the U.S. The eventual hope is that 60% will be native Israelis, another way, he said, that baseball can help defuse the hostile environment by leveling the playing field and merging Israel's diverse ethnicities into a team.
Baras called that a major goal. Another is competing in the 2009 WBC, at which point Israel -- where any Jew is eligible for citizenship -- could draw on major league talent without the kind of stretch that saw Mike Piazza playing for Italy in this year's inaugural tournament.
The current list of Jewish major leaguers includes Arizona's Shawn Green, Boston's Kevin Youkilis, Houston's Brad Ausmus, Philadelphia's Mike Lieberthal, St. Louis' Jason Marquis, Toronto's Scott Schoeneweis, Pittsburgh's John Grabow, Texas' Scott Feldman and Baltimore's David Newhan (disclosure: the author's son).
Although some baseball officials applaud the concept and Baras' enthusiasm, they question his timetable, particularly as it applies to putting the playing fields in order.
Commissioner Bud Selig, speaking by phone, said his office is "willing to help in any way we can [including financially], but we have to know more about it. I certainly wish them well. Nobody is more enthusiastic [regarding baseball in Israel] than I am. Nothing would make me happier."