August 30, 2007
The Boychicks of Summer
How high hopes for Israel baseball went foul
(Page 3 - Previous Page)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."