Israel Baseball League starts in June


NEW YORK — Modi’in may not be the Mudville of Casey fame, but its Miracles will enter baseball lore when their pitcher unleashes his first fastball against the Petach Tikva Pioneers on June 24.

The central Israeli town is hosting the opener of the new Israel Baseball League, which will feature six teams playing a 45-game schedule this summer, officials announced Monday at a press conference in New York City.

IBL officials are hoping the league will quickly spur Israeli interest in American baseball — they aim to draw about 1,000 fans per game in the first year — while government officials hope it will help boost Israel’s image abroad.

As the IBL’s early fan base will likely be American expatriates yearning for a baseball fix, the league has enlisted three high-profile Jewish ex-Major Leaguers as managers: Ken Holtzman, the winningest Jewish pitcher in baseball history with 174 victories, including two no-hitters; New York Yankee Ron Blomberg, pro baseball’s first designated hitter; and Art Shamsky, a member of the New York “Miracle” Mets that won the 1969 World Series.

Shamsky, an outfielder and first baseman, smacked four consecutive home runs while playing for the 1966 Cincinnati Reds.

“My mother’s proudest moment for the past 41 years has been the day in 1966 when I pitched against Sandy Koufax,” Holtzman said. “Now that I have the chance to manage in Israel, she’s also very, very proud.”

Dan Duquette, former general manager of the Boston Red Sox and Montreal Expos, will serve as the IBL’s director of baseball operations. Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig is on the advisory board, as is his daughter, Milwaukee Brewers owner Wendy Selig-Prieb.

On the field, the league will provide opportunities for players like Leon Feingold to continue or revive their baseball dreams.

Feingold pitched for the Cleveland Indians in 1994 and 1995 before elbow surgery ended his career. Instead of attempting a comeback he went to law school. But at 33 he will put his law career on hold to resurrect his baseball dreams.

Feingold, who has been playing semi-pro ball in Westchester, N.Y., also has been ranked as high as 12th in the world by the International Federation of Competitive Eating. He once downed 152 hot dogs in 12 minutes. In Israel, he will trade buns for fielding bunts — an opportunity he relishes.

“Getting a chance to play baseball again on the same level is getting a second chance at something that most people don’t get a first chance at,” Feingold said.

The IBL has signed players from eight countries including the Dominican Republic, Australia, Venezuela and the United States, Duquette said. About a dozen players will be Israeli, a dynamic the league hopes to change as interest in baseball spreads and the players improve in a game that now exists in the Jewish State only on the Little League level.

There is no official connection between the Israeli government and the IBL, according to the league’s founder and managing director, Larry Baras. But infusing a deep-seated part of Americana could be a public relations boon for Israel.

Fittingly, the league’s first commissioner is Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel.

The opportunity to show Israel not only as a country at war but as a country involved in sports — quintessentially American sports at that — could help Americans bond with Israel, the country’s deputy consul in New York, Benjamin Krasna, told JTA.

“Sports is such an important part of America, if you can touch Americans through sports, they can see that Israel is not just a fortress,” Krasna said, adding that exposing new audiences to Israel is an important part of this initiative.

League officials are adamant about getting Israel into the 2009 World Baseball Classic, an international baseball tournament comprised of professional and amateur all-stars.

Krasna said that names such as Blomberg, Shamsky and Holtzman could pique American interest, as could convincing a high-profile Jewish player, such as the New York Mets’ Shawn Green, to play in Israel after his American career ends.

That might be a tough sell, considering that each team will have a salary cap of $45,000 for its entire 20-player roster.

The Jewish National Fund is helping connect potential funders to the IBL, which will have a budget of $2.5 million in its inaugural season. According to CEO Russell Robinson, the JNF may help the league find land for stadiums. Starting out, the six teams will share three fields.

The IBL will have no official relationship with Major League Baseball, but it is getting a hand from the world’s most profitable baseball league: will carry coverage of Israel’s games. On April 15, after big-league teams have broken camp and started their seasons, Major League Baseball and the IBL will hold a tryout in California for players who did not make major or minor league rosters.

One thing Israel has to work on, Krasna says, is its baseball lexicon: There is no Hebrew word for bat, and pitch and throw are the same word. The IBL features a Hebrew-English glossary of baseball terms on its Web site.