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Professional baseball makes pitch in Israel

A new league has stirred little interest in the American game. But its founder is confident time will change that.

August 15, 2007|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

KIBBUTZ GEZER, ISRAEL — The scene is vintage small-town America. The concession stand sells hot dogs and cold beer. Boys in baseball caps position themselves beyond right field in hope of snaring home runs. The crowd rises for the national anthem to get the game underway.

But the anthem is "Hatikva," the teams on the field are the Bet Shemesh Blue Sox and the Modiin Miracle, and many in the crowd are more than a little mystified by the spectacle of grown men playing baseball.

On a sun-baked August afternoon, the paid, mostly foreign, players are the draw in the latest game of the Israel Baseball League, which seeks to plant professional baseball in the Middle East. This is no snazzy downtown stadium: The unadorned field sits just past the cow sheds and stucco houses of this rural collective.

Seated in the tiny bleachers and plastic chairs next to the groomed diamond, the 300 or so adult fans, nearly all transplanted American Jews, try to explain the game to their Israeli-born offspring. To the uninitiated youngsters, baseball is as alien as the two-man luge, only harder to follow.

"There's a ball and this long stick," offers Hadar Breen, a 12-year-old from suburban Jerusalem who sat in the front row next to her American-born father, Barry. "Hatikva" is familiar to her, but little else on the field is comprehensible.

Hadar is quick to declare the game too slow, despite a flurry of first-inning action, including a home run and a steal of home, that left the Blue Sox up, 5-3. But her 9-year-old brother, Tsur, patrolling the wilted sunflowers out beyond right field, appeared hooked.

The Breens represent the promise and potential pitfalls facing the first-year league, the brainchild of a successful Boston bagel-maker named Larry Baras.

The six teams are made up of mostly former college athletes and itinerant ballplayers who earn $2,000 for the season to cultivate baseball in Israel and nurse their own big-league dreams. Seven foreign countries are represented among the 120 players, with the biggest contingent from the United States. Israeli players account for only a sixth of the league's roster.

Baras, a longtime baseball fan and self-described Zionist, said the venture is a natural for Israel, with its sizable community of U.S. immigrants and a tendency among natives to glom onto anything American. But attendance has been disappointing, with only a few dozen to a few hundred spectators per game, and native-born Israelis remain conspicuously absent. Some commentators say baseball, with its complex rules and methodical tempo, is unlikely to win over Israelis, who are famously impatient and like sports with speed and lots of back-and-forth action, such as soccer and basketball.

Baras, 55, isn't buying such talk. It might take years, maybe decades, he says, for Israelis to acquire a taste.

"When I came here 25 years ago, I couldn't get a hamburger. Now you can't walk a block without seeing a hamburger," he says. "This is a hard sport to understand. It will take a while."

To make the games more accessible, the league shortened them to seven innings instead of nine, with the customary stretch coming in the fifth inning rather than the seventh. Ties are settled not by extra innings, but with a home run derby -- akin to a soccer shootout. And tickets are priced to draw: $6 for adults, less than the cost of a movie.

Although Israel has had youth baseball leagues and small-scale amateur softball for years, Baras came up with the idea of introducing serious baseball two years ago, after attending a minor league game in Brockton, Mass.

"Everyone was having such a good time. Everybody was there -- grandparents, teenagers," he says.

Baras says baseball, besides offering entertainment, is good public relations for Israel and could help soothe the strains of a region in constant conflict. The league's commissioner is Daniel C. Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel.

"I really do think this could do a lot for Israeli society, for North American Jewry, for the game of baseball," Kurtzer says. He hopes, too, to make inroads among Israel's Arab citizens and plans to explore opening a ballpark in an Arab city, an idea he acknowledges is likely to generate controversy.

"We are trying to stay apolitical," he says.

The crowd around Baras grows noisy as the Blue Sox and Miracle swap the lead back and forth in spasms of big hits, misplayed balls and wild scoring. Hadar Breen warms up, too. By the end of the fifth inning, with Modiin now up, 12-9, she is out of her seat, snapping pictures of the action with a cellphone.

Launching a baseball league in Israel has not been easy. Added to the usual travails of a start-up has been an Israeli bureaucracy that has put up one obstacle after another, Baras says.

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