St. Louisan plays big role in IBL

BY MIKE SHERWIN, STAFF WRITER

When the new, six-team Israel Baseball League starts this summer, one St. Louisan will be at the helm of one of the ball clubs.

Ken Holtzman, a native St. Louisan, is one of three top-notch Jewish former Major League Baseball players tapped to head the upstart teams, alongside fellow Jewish Sports Hall of Famers Art Shamsky and Ron Blomberg.

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Holtzman was born in St. Louis in 1945, and graduated from University City High School in 1963. In his MLB career, he played from 1965 to 1979 with stints for the Chicago Cubs, the Oakland Athletics, the Baltimore Orioles and the New York Yankees, and he picked up the most wins of any Jewish pitcher (174) in MLB history.

After retiring from baseball, Holtzman said he never intended to coach on the professional level.

“I’ve coached Little League on up to high school age and I get as much enjoyment from just teaching the game as I do the competition,” Holtzman said. “I was lucky enough to have been a member of five World Championship teams and I have all the rings I ever wanted, so coaching at the professional level never really had much meaning for me.”

But, the chance to start a new team, in a new league, in a new country has Holtzman back in professional baseball.

“This new league is different in that it offers a new territory for baseball to gain a foothold and it’s located in a very historical place which has great significance for many Jews, including me,” he said.

Holtzman said he was contacted by IBL founder Larry Baras and the league’s commissioner, Daniel Kurtzer. The two men asked Holtzman to serve on an advisory board to help establish the new league.

“After a few weeks of discussion,” Holtzman said, “they decided that it might be better if I became one of the original managers of one of the new teams and join Art Shamsky and Ron Blomberg in promoting the credibility of the new venture. I agreed to manage after thinking that this might be an excellent opportunity to finally go to Israel and simultaneously get involved with a new baseball project at its inception.”

Although the prospect of starting a team and a league from scratch could be daunting, Holtzman said he is excited that the league is willing to take some chances, and adapt the rules of the game, for the Israeli league.

“One of the distinguishing characteristics of this new league is its desire to be the laboratory for new ideas and new ways to make the game more appealing to fans, especially those who have never seen a professional baseball game,” he said.

“Baseball may be a serious sport for those of us who played but it remains a source of entertainment and fascination for the fans and I like that experimentation and innovation will be the hallmarks of the new league.”

When the 45-game regular season starts in June, the approximately 300,000 Americans living in Israel will notice that the rules have already been changed to pick up the pace of the game: teams will play seven innings, and tie games will be decided by a home run derby.

The league has held tryouts in the U.S., Israel, Latin America, and the Far East in order to fill the six teams with a full roster of 20 players, and Holtzman has been traveling to promote the new league through press conferences.

Holtzman said starting a new league in a country without a strong baseball tradition has its challenges: right now there are only three fields in Israel ready for professional-level play, so each field will be the home of two teams. Also, there will be no “spring training,” so the players will have to learn to play as a team in a relatively short period of time. And there may be some obstacles with language as well.

“I understand that English will probably be the dominant language among the players and coaches but I know there will be many people over there helping all of us to understand and communicate in Hebrew as the league progresses. Evidently, there are some English baseball phrases which don’t translate readily into Hebrew so we are all going to have to be a little patient,” Holtzman said.

But Holtzman is looking forward to making the trip overseas in May, where he plans to stay until mid-September. He also is hoping to bring his three daughters, who live in Washington D.C. and Chicago, to Israel for a visit this summer.