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Inside Baseball | SUNDAY REPORT

Holy cow! Israel makes its pitch

June 24, 2007|Bill Shaikin

It's an old joke, so indulge us with a chuckle, or a groan. But do you know where to find baseball in the Bible?

Why, in the very first sentence: In the big inning ...

Baseball in the Holy Land? No joke, not as of today. This is Opening Day for the Israel Baseball League, the first professional serving of bats and balls in the land of milk and honey.

The Israeli sports scene leans to Europe, to soccer and basketball. Maccabi Tel Aviv, the country's foremost basketball club, is a five-time European champion. When the World Cup starts, Israel stops.

The Americans are not deterred, at least not the ones dedicating time and money to launch the league.

"Baseball in Israel would be a heartwarming and great story," Commissioner Bud Selig said. "You're going into a part of the world where baseball hasn't been popular."

Selig is on the league's advisory board. The director of baseball operations is Dan Duquette, former general manager of the Boston Red Sox and Montreal Expos. The commissioner is Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt.

Kurtzer often gives speeches on Middle East diplomacy and the prospects for peace, and audiences applaud politely. Then he mentions he's running a new baseball league, and the crowd goes nuts.

"It's now a family joke: It's about time I'm doing something worthwhile with my life," Kurtzer said.

This is a minor league operation, and we mean that kindly. The league is modeled on the minor leagues: Give fans a good time at a good price, and they'll come back, even if their team loses, even if they don't know who the players are.

The league won't play on Friday night or Saturday, in deference to the Jewish Sabbath, and the ballpark food will be strictly kosher. Hot dogs will be sold, of course, but a sausage race probably would be in bad taste.

Israeli fans nonetheless will be deluged with a menu of American promotions -- fireworks nights, singles nights, bobblehead dolls, "Israeli Idol" singing contests, kids running the bases after the game, fans stuffed into giant sumo costumes wrestling on the field between innings.

And, because Israelis are used to soccer and basketball contests that end in two hours, the league will limit games to seven innings, with ties settled by a home run derby.

The most recognizable names in uniform will be in the dugout. The managers include three of the most successful Jewish major leaguers -- Ken Holtzman, who pitched two no-hitters for the Chicago Cubs, Art Shamsky, an outfielder on the 1969 Miracle Mets, and Ron Blomberg, the first designated hitter in major league history. Blomberg titled his autobiography "Designated Hebrew."

The players range in age from 17 to 51, two-thirds from the U.S., with more Dominicans than Israelis, with other imports from Australia, Canada, Colombia, Japan, New Zealand and Ukraine.

Some of the Israelis play for the fledgling national team. Some of the imports washed out of the minor leagues, if they got that far.

Infielder Ben Katz-Moses, 23, of San Jose, is studying for his PhD in mathematics. Catcher Adam Kopiec, 22, of Rancho Santa Fe, is the grandson of Holocaust survivors. Infielder Josh Eichenstein, 23, quit his job at a Hollywood talent agency to play baseball in Israel, a summer job that pays $2,000.

"I'd do this for free anyway," Eichenstein said. "Jewish Americans are raised to love two things, baseball and Israel. For a Jewish American kid, to be paid to play baseball in Israel makes perfect sense. It's like a dream come true."

You can only have so many "Million Shekel Night" promotions before Israeli fans will clamor for Israeli ballplayers.

With Duquette opening an academy there and players barnstorming the country to hold clinics, league officials hope the share of Israeli players can rise from 9% this year to 25% within five years. The lure of television exposure should help, with the league getting its own Sunday night showcase on Israel's all-sports channel, just like the major leaguers get on ESPN.

In terms of exposure, though, nothing could beat an Israeli entry into the 2009 World Baseball Classic.

"The international competition will be a great stimulus for Israeli interest," Kurtzer said.

If Mike Piazza could play for Italy in the last WBC, any Jewish major leaguer could play for Israel.

"I'd definitely be proud to do it," New York Mets outfielder Shawn Green said. "There's not a lot of Jewish athletes. To be able to represent the Jewish people, that would definitely be an honor."

Even Dodgers catcher Mike Lieberthal, who has one Jewish parent but does not practice the faith, said he'd love to play.

"I'll represent, if they'll have me," Lieberthal said.

If too many Israelis prefer the beach to the ballpark this summer, the league could flop, and the WBC might remain a wistful dream. But let's give the league a sporting chance, and two toasts for Opening Day: L'chaim! Play ball!

--

bill.shaikin@latimes.com

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