The Boys, and Oys, of Summer

The Israel Baseball League started out with high hopes, an almost mystical dream that resonated deeply with Jews across the United States and in Israel: a professional baseball league in Israel!

The Israel Baseball League started out with high hopes, an almost mystical dream that resonated deeply with Jews across the United States and in Israel: a professional baseball league in Israel!

But the result, say many, were more errors than hits: players threatening to strike when paychecks were late, a manager hired to help give a face to the fledgling league leaving in mid-season after trashing the league to the media, and one player who was almost killed by a batting-practice line drive - an accident that might have been prevented with proper equipment.

Interviews with a dozen players, managers, league officials, concessionaires and fans, and e-mail correspondence between the league and players, paint a portrait of a well-meaning experiment that was less than professionally run, one that seems to have suffered from the culture shock of transplanting the pastoral American game into the desert soil of Israel.

The IBL was created two years ago by Boston businessman Larry Baras, who cultivated glowing press and fan interest in the U.S. Baras assembled a distinguished team of advisers, executives, financial backers and former players to help launch what in essence was a start-up company in a foreign country.

The stated idea was to generate enthusiasm and fan interest by promising, among other things, a range of marketing gimmicks borrowed from minor league ballparks in the States: karaoke night, speed dating night, sack racing, sumo wrestling competitions, even ballpark weddings. To further build anticipation, the league's Web site prominently displayed a countdown clock that ticked off the days, minutes and hours until opening day.

While the marketing may have worked with U.S. Jews and the English-speaking community here, the league barely registered with Israelis, who were largely ignored in the marketing plans, and insulted to boot.

David Rosenthal, a sports reporter for the Hebrew Web portal Walla!, posted a story four days before opening day that was critical of the way the six-team league was being sold exclusively to an overseas audience. "Excuse me, what about us?," read the headline.

For the Anglo fans who came to the games, the league was a joy, whether hearing "Hatikva" sung before each game (without taking off their hats), eating kosher hot dogs, getting close to the players, or hearing afternoon minha prayers being announced in the middle of the fifth inning.

But the fans did not know what was happening in the dugout. Many of the league's 120 players, recruited from around the world, had some professional experience. A handful had played at the Triple-A level, a rung below the Majors. As such, they were expecting a more professional environment, and were greatly disappointed. Some likened their housing at Kfar Hayarok to a hostel, army barracks, even a homeless shelter. There was no air-conditioning the first week, during a brutal heat wave, and no arrangement for laundry service.

And the food? "I've lost almost 17 pounds since I've been here," Scott Jarmakowicz, a catcher for the Bet Shemesh Blue Sox, said. "Over half my paycheck, at least half, has gone to food. It's not sustainable eating the same schnitzel and boiled eggs three times a day. I'm a catcher, and it takes its toll. I'm sure I would have lost some weight, but not 17 pounds," Jarmakowicz said.

But that wasn't even the main gripe. Players just wanted to play baseball, and were expecting the necessities that accompany any sport. But when they arrived at their dorm facilities, there was no ice to soothe sore muscles and no weight room - absolute staples for athletes in any sport.

The IBL arranged to buy ice, until an ice machine was obtained a couple of weeks into the season, and for players to use nearby gyms.

Most of the players were willing to look past the lack of amenities in order to play baseball. But there, too, they were working under a severe handicap. Arriving only three days before the season began, the players had no time for preseason workouts. And then there were the fields themselves. The best facility was at the Baptist Village in Petah Tikva, a beautiful diamond that hosts baseball and softball for the Maccabiah Games.

The other two fields were bones of contention among the players: One was at Gezer, where the outfield sloped upward and the outfield fence wasn't padded. Moreover, the right-field foul line was 280 feet, making it feel like a Little League pasture.

The third field was Sportek in Tel Aviv, which was not even built when the season started. This situation left two fields for six teams, and a schedule out of whack: teams, had too many days off, managers were unable to set up a proper pitching rotation, and no team completed its full 45-game schedule - four teams played 41 games, and two played 40. Moreover, neither Gezer nor Sportek had lights, which meant games had to start at 5 P.M., an inconvenient time for working fans.

When Sportek finally opened on July 10, a full 16 days into the eight-week season - and with a right-field line even shorter than Gezer's - it still wasn't ready, with potentially dangerous field conditions. "We pulled rocks, glass and pieces of rusty metal out of the ground," Jarmakowicz said."

Commissioner Dan Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, concurred. "We need to improve the fields. We used [Gezer and Sportek], but they are not really at a professional level."

At first, the ballparks also lacked proper equipment, from little things like pitchers' rosin bags, to important items like screens behind the bases during batting practice, and crucial equipment like batting cages, which protect those not on the field from getting hurt during pre-game batting practice. This lack of protection nearly cost one player his life.

On July 11 at Gezer, Reynaldo Cruz, a 24-year-old star outfielder from the Dominican Republic playing for the Petah Tikva Pioneers, committed a baseball sin and turned his back on batting practice. Standing near his dugout, very close to the field, he was struck in the back of the ear by a line drive.

Cruz was knocked cold for a couple of minutes and lay on the ground shaking, which gave the surrounding players a fright. There was a 20-minute wait for an ambulance to take Cruz to Assaf Harofeh hospital in Tzrifin. He stayed for two weeks, and returned after his release complaining of spells of dizziness. Cruz's season was over, but he was alive.

"Gezer is a particular problem - we probably should have anticipated more safety requirements at Gezer," Kurtzer said.

Then there was the pay issue. Early in the season, miscommunication between the league and players resulted in smaller paychecks than expected. Players - led by those from the Dominican Republic, whose families back home were depending on the remittances - threatened a strike 22 days into the season.

Kurtzer scrambled to Kfar Hayarok to stem the rebellion. A meeting was held at around noon on an outdoor basketball court with the player's improvised union, led by 45-year-old Alan Gardner, centerfielder for the Blue Sox and a practicing New York lawyer.

Kurtzer - a savvy veteran of tough Middle East political negotiations - told the players that there had been a misunderstanding, but that he would not negotiate under threat. Players who were there claim he threatened to cancel the league if they struck, a claim Kurtzer denied.

"I didn't say that," Kurtzer said. "I said, 'I'll talk to you all day, and we'll fix the problem, but I'm not going to be here with you saying if you're not happy you're going out on strike.' I said, 'If you want to go out on strike that's your choice, I can't stop you.'"

The pay issue was eventually resolved, the threatened strike was headed off and baseball continued. But not all the teams were doing well. Petah Tikva, managed by Jewish former major leaguer Ken Holtzman, was losing a lot of games, and was destined early on for last place. The losses, combined with the chronic problems of the season, finally got to Holtzman, and in an interview on July 20 with Walla!, he launched a sweeping broadside. [See box.]

League officials were outraged over the public airing of dirty laundry and the content of Holtzman's comments. This was the black eye they had worked all season to avoid. Two weeks later he left by mutual agreement.

The league's main problem, however, was financial. At one point the baseballs ran out, partly because players gave away too many as souvenirs to promote the league. The IBL had to order more, and players were threatened with a NIS 50 fine for giving them away.

"I know how hard it is to say no and I am very aware of how persistent and sometimes overzealous our fans can be," IBL President and COO Martin Berger wrote the players on July 31. "But we cannot throw balls into the stands anymore. I just brought over 3,500 more baseballs. This is it for the rest of the season. If we run out, we stop playing."

The players were upset. "Do you have any idea how hard it is to say no to a 7-year-old boy asking for a ball?," Ra'anana Express catcher Jesse Michel wrote on his blog. "What should I tell him, 'No son, the league has threatened to fine me if I give you one?' Right."

None of the problems plaguing the league were known to the public during the season, the result of an absence of news reporting as well as the leauge's major spin control efforts.

With the notable exception of Rosenthal, the Israeli press - Hebrew and English - was mainly uninterested. The stories that did make the press, written by the league's amateur reporters, consistently led with the wrong news, day after day: A story on a no-hitter lead with the game being the quickest of the year, while the story on the All-Star game began with the home run-hitting contest, to cite two examples.

The league tried to control negative publicity by censoring players blogging on their Web site, as well as persuading independent player-bloggers to remove negative postings.

The fans, meanwhile, ignorant about the dugout intrigue, were just happy to support their teams, even if it meant sitting on hard chairs, and with little shade from the sun.

The teams with the most fan support, by far, were Bet Shemesh, followed by Modi'in, two cities with large Anglo communities. One Bet Shemesh fan celebrated his 45th birthday by baking a cake and traveling to Tel Aviv to hand out pieces to his beloved Blue Sox.

"It brought back innocence," Allen Krasna said of his summer experience, while dishing out the desert. "If you look at the last two summers, we had Gush Katif two summers ago; we had the Lebanon war last summer. This summer was just really relaxed. I was able to come with each of my kids to the game, we met a few of the players and we really got to know them. It was like coming to watch a bunch of friends play."

But while former Americans supported the sport - average attendance ranged from 73 for Netanya to 418 for Bet Shemesh - few native-born Israelis attended. The promised added attractions never materialized, and with regard to community outreach it was too little, too late: Teams visited their local malls, handing out tickets and paraphernalia, only in the seventh week of the eight-week season.

"I tried to do something, but no one here helped me," said Yochanan Kovalsky of the Petah Tikva Municipality's Cultural Department. "I offered myself, with the mayor [to the league], and I didn't get any answers. We set up a meeting with the Communications Minister - he was willing to help because the league is Shabbat-observant and he's from the Shas Party, Ariel Atias - and [the league] canceled it. What can I do?," Kovalsky said.

Kurtzer admitted the lack of outreach to sabras. "We did, I think, a superlative job for a new league marketing to Americans in America and among Anglos in Israel," Kurtzer said. "We did nothing with Israelis, this was our management fashla," he said, using Israeli slang for "blunder."

Not all Anglos felt the league's effort. Rabbi Stewart Weiss, director of the Jewish Outreach Center in Ra'anana, which helps new immigrants, attended several games with his family to root for his adopted city's namesake team. He said he heard little, if any, information about the team and league in Ra'anana itself.

"They're called the Ra'anana Express, but they don't play here, there is no publicity about them in town and you can't buy tickets locally," Weiss said. "There ought to be a concerted attempt to reach out to Ra'anana - a city of 75,000, one-third of whom are English-speaking immigrants. There has to be a stronger connection to the city to build team spirit and team support. Can you just name a team after a city without actually involving the city or its inhabitants?"

Rosenthal said he wasn't surprised by the lack of Israeli-born fans. "I saw it coming. Even though some of the things Holtzman said may have not been said in the right place or time, he was right as far as the management is concerned - a horrible marketing operation. It's obvious they didn't do any research," Rosenthal said.

The league did make one marketing move aimed at Israelis, when it paid the local Sport 5 television channel to broadcast Sunday night games in Hebrew. But when payment stopped coming, so did the broadcasts.

"It's a shame this is what they are doing to us, after we put our heart and soul in it," VP Business Development of Sport 5, Yaron Talpaz, told Walla! "We did not expect this kind of management from a league whose commissioner was the former U.S. ambassador to Israel."

Kurtzer said that everyone will eventually be paid, including, he admitted, himself. He said it was a shame that Sport 5 chose not to broadcast the second half of the season, including the championship game.

"Yes, we do owe them money, but I'm confident that they are gong to get paid. It's a haval (pity) that we didn't have the cash flow to pay them, it's haval that they didn't want to do it on faith that they are going to get paid, so, haval. Everyone's going to get paid," Kurtzer said.

He said plans for next season are already under way, and that this season's difficulties will not repeat themselves.

"It will be different in the sense that you will have other complaints - the food is always going to be a complaint - but I'd say that 75 percent of the legitimate stuff that these guys complained about this year, we'll fix it," Kurtzer declared.

By the end of the season, every player we spoke to said he had put the problems behind him, reported being sad to see the inaugural season end, and declared he would love to come back and play another season.

"My personal experience has just been wonderful, in every aspect," said Eric Holtz, 41, a New Yorker who was player-coach for the Blue Sox. "To be able to play and compete has just been phenomenal."

Asked whether he and his colleagues would return next season, after all they went through, Holtz did not hesitate.

"If they lived through the worst and survived, then why wouldn't they come back next year?"