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."