Wannabe baseball players try out on Israeli field of dreams

Dozens of Jewish athletes flocked to a Baptist convention center in the
heart of Israel on Friday in hopes of realizing a deeply American
dream: becoming a professional baseball player.
Israel's fledgling pro baseball league held its first tryout for local
ballplayers in this Tel Aviv suburb, putting them through a grueling
battery of sprints, fielding drills and simulated games under an
unseasonably warm November sun.
With the pop of leather mitts and crack of wooden bats filling the air,
the scene resembled a typical ballgame in small-town America. But the
tryout had a decidedly Israeli feel.
Players included Orthodox seminary students, Israeli soldiers and
Mideast peace activists. They freely mixed Hebrew and English baseball
jargon — there apparently is no Hebrew word for “curve ball” — and
some people left early to get home in time for the Jewish sabbath at
sundown.
Larry Baras, the American businessman spearheading the effort to launch
the league, was ecstatic over the turnout of roughly 70 prospects, far
exceeding initial expectations in the single digits.
“I was sitting back there, just taking it all in,” he said after
getting his first glimpse of the local talent. “It was no different
here than it was in the states.”
Baras envisions a six-team professional league, modeled after
small-market minor league baseball in the U.S. He already has scheduled
opening day for next June 24.
Despite the signs of progress, Baras still faces some considerable
obstacles. Israel has few playing fields, a minuscule fan base, and
most critically, a dire shortage of world-class — or even high school
varsity level — baseball players.
“We'll have a lot of affirmative action,” Baras conceded. “But I think
the caliber today was higher than we thought it would be.”
Baras expects the league to be comprised overwhelmingly of foreign
players, mostly American college players or former minor leaguers. The
league is also looking toward the increasingly competitive Australian
baseball scene.
After a tryout in Massachusetts last summer, the league has signed four
players, including a fireballing pitcher with a 93 mph fastball, and
expects to bring in more than 10 others, Baras said.
Intent on developing a local talent base, Baras has drafted Dan
Duquette, former general manager of the Boston Red Sox, to be the
league's director of player development.
Duquette scouted the players at Friday's tryout, scribbling notes on a
clipboard. He watched stone-faced, even as players struck out and
bungled ground balls.
“The talent level is representative for the country,” he said. “There
were some good plays and there were some forgettable plays.”
Duquette said he expects to sign roughly half a dozen players from
Friday's tryout. But that tiny number mattered little to most
participants.
“Potentially I have a good shot. I haven't played in two years. I just
have to warm up,” said Gilad Schenker, 21, a pitcher and center fielder
on Israel's national baseball team who now spends his days in an
Israeli combat unit.
Organizers hope the two-month summer league will attract interest in
baseball and help develop local talent. They expect to bring in more
Israeli players in the coming years with the goal of enabling the
country to field a team for the 2009 World Baseball Classic.
“We have a lot of work to do,” Duquette said. “But we're going in the
right direction … I'm encouraged.”
In addition to Duquette, Baras has drafted a high-powered lineup to get
the league off the ground. Dan Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to
Israel, is the league's commissioner, and Marvin Goldklang, a minority
owner of the New York Yankees, is on the board of advisers.
Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig also has voiced support,
and Baras has been busy seeking sponsors to buy the local teams and
working with local officials to find suitable playing fields. The
tryout Friday took place at the “Baptist Village,” a visitors' center
that is home to Israel's only full-size baseball diamond.
He has no doubt the league will be ready to play next June.
Perhaps the biggest question: If Baras builds it, will they come?
Israeli is a soccer and basketball-crazed nation with no tradition of
baseball.
Baras hopes to create a fan base by appealing to the tens of thousands
of American immigrants living here, as well as tourists who come during
the peak summer season.
Dan Rothem, an Israeli-born pitcher, said it could be a tough sell.
“Average Israelis look at baseball and see nine guys standing there,”
said Rothem, 30, who played at Gardner-Webb University, a Division One
program in North Caroline.
Rothem, who said he was the first native Israeli to play college ball
in the U.S., is expected to be one of the first signees in the new
league.
“Hopefully if we can get a good league up and running here, people will
be more open to what baseball really is,” he said.
Girls have a shot at the big time too
Israeli girls have not been neglected by “America's national pastime.”
Under the guidance of coach Adriana Luchansky, girls as young as 8 are
getting exposure to balls and strikes, grounders and popups in softball
teams scattered around the country — mostly in towns which have
American immigrants. Urbandt, herself from Argentina, coaches them all
— a situation which places her in a sticky predicament when the teams
face each other.
Luchansky says it's all in good fun. “For Israeli girls it's a novelty,
but for some girls from the United States or with American-born
parents, it's a taste of home and the chance to live the American
dream.”
Luchansky says that softball awareness is beginning to enter Israeli
schools and physical education classes. In the summer, players with a
soft-spot for Israel came over and conducted a well-attended two-week
clinic for youth, culminating in an American-style Fourth of July
barbeque and ballgame.
Israel is developing courses to certify softball and baseball coaches
via the internationally-known Wingate Institute to spread the game
around the country. Dan Aronovic, a coach and scout, is spearheading
the initiative with the field-of-dreams hope that “if you build it,
they will come.”
“if baseball starts to get a higher profile due to the professional
baseball league,” says Aronovic, “it has a real chance to catch on
nationwide. Women are neglected in sport here in Israel and softball
can help to remedy that situation, much as it has succeeded for girls
in America. It may all come together here one day and we can say we
were the pioneers of the movement.”
But with the stark exception of the well-manicured, well-lit,
regulation-sized Baptist complex, field conditions in Israel are far
from American standards and closer to the cornfield of the Kevin
Costner film. The girl's softball team from Raanana must contend with
horses and manure in the outfield and occasional attacks from predatory
birds.
“It's hard to catch a fly ball when a bird is coming at you at the same
time with its claws,” said Lironne Koret, 13, a second baseman from
Ramat Hasharon.
But there are benefits for the young Israeli softballers: occasional
tournaments in Eilat and Europe and maybe, just maybe, a shot at a
place on the 2008 Olympic team.
“I hope there aren't any attack-birds on the field in Beijing,” Lironne
said.
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