August 30, 2007
The Boychicks of Summer
How high hopes for Israel baseball went foul
Pre-season promo video from the Israel Baseball League (IBL)
The Israel Baseball League (IBL) started out with high hopes, an almost mystical dream that resonated deeply with Jews across the United States: 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 face to the fledgling league leaving in the middle of the season after trashing the league to the media; and a player almost killed by a batting practice line drive, an accident that might have been prevented with proper equipment.
The IBL was created two years ago by Boston businessman Larry Baras, who cultivated glowing press and fan interest in the United States. 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 and even ballpark weddings. To further build anticipation, the league's Web site prominently displayed a countdown clock giving days, minutes and hours until opening day.
But while the marketing might have worked among the Jews in the United States and the English-speaking Anglo community in Israel, the league barely registered with Israelis, who were largely ignored in the marketing plans - and insulted to boot.
David Rosenthal, a sports reporter for Walla!, the biggest Israeli Web portal, 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.
Still, for those Anglo fans who did come out, it 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 a call for afternoon prayers being announced in the middle of the fifth inning. But what they didn't know was what was going on in the dugout. Many of the players - 120 recruited from around the world - had previously played some professional baseball, a half-dozen even at the Triple-A level, a rung below the major leagues. As such, they were expecting a more professional environment and were greatly disappointed.
The housing accommodations were called a hostel, an army barrack, even a homeless shelter. Air conditioning wasn't working in a half-dozen rooms the first week, in the midst of a brutal heat wave. There was no arrangement for laundry service, and the food was so bad, players said, that they eventually lost an average of seven to 10 pounds or more.
"I've lost almost 17 pounds since I've been here," said Scott Jarmakowicz, a catcher for the Bet Shemesh Blue Sox. "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."
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 at Kfar Hayarok, just north of Tel Aviv, there was no ice to soothe sore muscles nor a weight room facility - absolute staples for athletes in any sport.
The league made provisions for ice to be bought, until an ice machine was obtained a couple of weeks into the season, and arrangements were made for players to use nearby gyms. Most of the players were willing to look past the peripheral deficiencies in order to play baseball - a love they all shared and a dream they all nourished. But here, too, they were working under a severe handicap.
Things looked so much better before the season started. See Carin Davis' story 'L.A. 'boys of summer' take to the diamond in Israel' from July 6
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 Baptist Village in Petah Tikva, a beautiful diamond that hosts baseball and softball for the Maccabiah Games. But the other two fields were bones of contention among the players.
No 'Star-Spangled Banner' at IBL games; everyone sings 'Hatikvah'
One was at Kibbutz Gezer, where the outfield grass sloped upward, there was no warning track in left and center fields, the outfield fence wasn't padded and there was a light pole on the field. Moreover, the right field foul line was 280 feet, making it feel like a Little League pasture and skewing players' statistics. The third field was Sportek in Tel Aviv, which was not even built when the season started.
The 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, 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.
"There are rocks, glass and pieces of rusty metal we pulled out of the ground," Jarmakowicz said. "You can slide on a rock anywhere, but most fields aren't gong to have three bars sticking out of it. And these are hard fences, you can really get hurt."
Commissioner Dan Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, concurred. "We need to improve the fields. We used them [Gezer and Sportek], but they are not really at a professional level." At first, the ballparks also did not have proper equipment, from little things like pitchers' rosin bags, to important items like screens at the bases during batting practice, to crucial equipment like batting cages, which protect those not on the field from getting hurt during pregame batting practice. This lack of protection almost resulted in a fatal disaster.
On July 11 at Gezer, Raynaldo Cruz, a 24-year-old star outfielder from the Dominican Republic playing for the Petah Tikva Pioneers, committed a cardinal sin and turned his back on batting practice. Standing near his dugout situated very close to the field, he was struck in the back of the head by a line drive off the bat of Modi'in's Adalberto Paulino.
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 arrive before Cruz was taken to Assaf Harofeh Hospital, where he stayed for two weeks, was released and then went back in complaining of dizzy spells. Cruz's season was done, but he was alive.
"Gezer is a particular problem - we probably should have anticipated more safety requirements at Gezer," Kurtzer said. "Secondly, the players themselves have been too lax all season, not wearing batting helmets and not paying attention on the field during practice. So the horse escapes, the barn door gets closed. We did institute some better safety procedures at Gezer."
The players were also vociferous in their criticism of the umpiring. In one famous incident that was subsequently posted on YouTube, one of the league's best players, Ryan Crotin, argued about an umpire's call, got thrown out of the game, refused to leave the batter's box and his team was declared to have lost on forfeit (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cCQlhxyZizA).
"There [have] been a couple of problems with the umpires here," said one player on his independent blog. "They don't know some of the rules. They don't know correct umpire positioning. They have inconsistent strike zones at times. They have a bad habit of ejecting players for no specific reason. And most importantly, some of them have trouble taking control of the game."
Because of all this happening the first three weeks of the season, the league worked hard at spin control. In a July 13 letter from Martin Berger, president and COO of the IBL, the players were told that everything was fine.
"Things over here continue to be strong," Berger wrote from the United States. "We are meeting with investors every day, and we have a meeting with Major League Baseball affiliates this week. The buzz is fantastic."
Three days later was payday, and miscommunication between the league and players resulted in smaller paychecks than were expected. Players - led by those from the Dominican Republic, who were much more in need of the money to send to their families back home - threatened to strike 22 days into the new league.
In rushed the league's commissioner, who scrambled up to Kfar Yarok to stem the rebellion. Around noon, a meeting was held 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.
"It was funny, because the IBL was close to striking - it was surreal," said a player in attendance. "Some of the players took video of the makeshift meeting, because we all thought it was so funny."
Not to the league it wasn't. 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 and, according to players who were there, that he would cancel the league if they struck. Kurtzer denied the threat.
"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.'"
Kurtzer explained the mixup, saying, "The problem at the beginning of the season was that they didn't understand that we overpaid them the first time, and therefore we adjusted it the second, and our communications broke down. In other words, after two weeks, they were supposed to get a week's pay, and then have that week delay, as in most businesses.
"After two weeks, we paid them for two weeks, so after the second two weeks, we paid them for one week, and we were gong to start the delay," he continued. "And they said, 'Hey, wait a minute, we worked two weeks,' and threatened a strike. It was explained to them, and they understood it."
At a subsequent payday, the money was again late. The players, having heard rumors about the league's financial difficulties, were upset that the league was not more forthcoming.
"I believe that they knew seven or 10 days ahead of time that it was going to be late," Jarmakowicz said. "Don't just have us show up, keep telling us you're going to pay us and then when we get there, when you knew 90 percent chance that it wasn't going to come through, tell us, 'Hey, we're really trying to get you paid, it could be up to a week late. We're gonna push it back. We're gonna try and give you 100, 200 shekels to try to get you by, just work with us.'
"I'm more than willing to work with anybody 100 percent," he said. "I understand financial backing, new league, things are going to happen. I'm OK with that. But be up front with me, be honest with me, don't BS me around." Meanwhile, the threatened strike was headed off, and baseball continued. But not all the teams were doing well. The Petach Tikva team, managed by former Jewish major leaguer Ken Holtzman, was losing a lot of games and was destined for last place early on.
The losing and the problems encountered all season finally got to Holtzman, and in an interview on July 20 with the Israeli Web portal, Walla!, Holtzman let loose with a sweeping broadside against the IBL, sparing no one.
He criticized the baseball fields: "They would reach the level of high schools in our country"; the teams: "Chosen at random, and in a strange manner"; the Israeli players: "There are no good Israeli players"; the other players: "According to what I can see, none of the players can reach even semipro baseball in the United States ... the really good player would never come here."
Criticizing the Israeli fans, Holtzman said, "There is no chance that baseball will succeed in Israel. People here relate to baseball the way people in America relate to soccer. They see it as something very boring, and it will never catch on ... you can't make a big impression, because there is no culture of baseball, and the facilities are the worst possible."
The league was outraged over his words and his going public. It was the black eye officials had been working all season to avoid. Two weeks later, the league and Holtzman reached an agreement for him to leave.
The league's players, too, were put off. "I didn't bother to read Holtzman's comments," said Jacob Levy, who lives in Los Angeles. "If Holtzman's assessment was that the league started a year too soon, I respectfully disagree. Baseball can never be played too soon. Could the fields have been better? Certainly. As for the assertion that most of the players couldn't play professionally in the U.S., that holds true for all leagues, save the professional leagues of the U.S. of A."
But the league was in trouble - financially, most of all. At one point, there were no more baseballs, partly a result of players handing out too many souvenirs in the spirit of promoting the league. The IBL had to order more, and the players were ordered not to give away any baseballs to fans, under threat of a 50 shekel fine.
"I know how hard it is to say no, and I am very aware of how persistent and sometimes overzealous our fans can be," 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?" wrote Jesse Michel on his blog. "What should I tell him, 'No son, the league has threatened to fine me if I give you one?' Right."
All of the various issues plaguing the league were unknown to the public during the season, the result both of an absence of news reporting and a major effort at spin control by the league.
With the notable exception of Rosenthal writing all season on Walla!, the Israeli press - Hebrew and English - was mainly uninterested. The stories that were printed were written by the league's amateur reporters, who consistently led with the wrong news day after day.
A story on a no-hitter led with the news that the game was 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 was happy with the free, noncontroversial publicity and tried to control any negative publicity by censoring players blogging on their Web sites, as well as influencing independent bloggers to remove negative postings.
So the fans, kept in the dark on the dugout intrigue, supported their teams blindly. By far, the teams with the most fan support were Bet Shemesh, followed by Modi'in, two cities with large Anglo communities. One fan from Bet Shemesh celebrated his 45th birthday by baking a cake and traveling to Tel Aviv to hand out slices to his beloved Blue Sox.
"It brought back innocence," Alan Krasma said of his summer experience, while dishing out the dessert. "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 Americans supported the sport - the league's average attendance ranged from 73 for Netanya to 418 for Bet Shemesh, though it was often a matter of guesswork - there were few Israelis who attended. The promised marketing gimmicks never happened, and outreach to communities was too little, too late: teams visited their respective city's malls to give out free tickets and paraphernalia in the seventh week of the eight-week season.
"We did, I think, a superlative job for a new league marketing among Americans in America and among Anglos in Israel," Kurtzer said. "And we did nothing with Israelis. Part of it had to do with organization. We talked about it a lot, and then we didn't hire anybody to do it for a long time, and then there was a budget issue.
"We spent a lot of money on the television contract.... This was our management fashla," he said, using the Israeli slang word for a screw-up. "That's what it was." Not all Anglos felt the outreach. Rabbi Stewart Weiss, a lifelong fan of his hometown Chicago Cubs and a former Wrigley Field "bleacher bum," is director of an organization in Ra'anana helping new immigrants. He and his family attended several games to root for the IBL team named after his adopted city, the Ra'anana Express - but 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 in order to build team spirit and team support," he stressed. "Can you just name a team after a city without actually involving the city or its inhabitants?"
The league did try one marketing drive aimed at Israelis - they paid the Israeli sports 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," Yaron Talpaz, the sports channel's vice president for business development, 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 everyone would eventually be paid, including, he admitted, himself, and that it was a shame the sports channel 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 [shame] 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 that plans for next season are already under way; that he and league management know what needs to be done and that a replay of the problems of this season isn't likely.
"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 - legitimate being because it was true - we'll fix it," he said. "And they're gonna get paid on time, and we now know that you gotta get the laundry right, so all that stuff will be done right."
The main problem, Kurtzer said, was not enough hands onboard.
"We need more personnel, league personnel, just to handle issues," he explained. "Very often, players didn't know to whom to turn, so you just need enough people - someone who is responsible for X and responsible for Y, and you know where to go. So those are the things we'll work on."
The players themselves understood that. By the time the Blue Sox beat the Modi'in Miracle for the championship, the players had put all the problems behind them, and were sad to see the inaugural season end. The camaraderie was evident the night before the playoffs, when they held an awards night and gave out "The Schnitzel Award" in a number of jocular categories.
Almost to a man, all players asked said they would love to come back and play another season - if they don't get offers to play anywhere else .
"My personal experience has just been wonderful in every aspect of it," said Eric Holtz, the 41-year-old player-coach for the Blue Sox. "To be able to play and compete, having my wife and children here for three weeks and having them involved in one of the most exciting things of my life has just been phenomenal. And being a Jew, you can't come here and not feel some sense of spirituality. And I'm not a religious Jew."
Asked if he and the other players would come back next season, after all they went through, Holtz didn't hesitate.
"If they lived through the worst and survived," he said, "then why wouldn't they come back next year?"