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Hardball In The Holy Land

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I should have paid more attention in Hebrew School.

I never knew I’d really be going to Israel.

But then again, while I was daydreaming about baseball when I should have been paying attention, I was preparing myself for a career in sports public relations, and that’s what sent me to Israel, so I’m sure there are some Talmudic scholars out there who would see some biblical reason for this all coming together.

Some background: I was the longtime director of public relations for the New York Yankees. I now operate my own PR company, and about a year ago, the fledgling Israel Baseball League approached me about helping with its own public relations.

Now the league is no longer fledging – it opened its inaugural season on June 24 (the 45th anniversary of my bar mitzvah, by the way), and it’s become one of the most joyous work experiences I’ve ever had.

It started as the dream of Boston businessman Larry Baras, who had a love for Israel and a love for baseball (albeit the old New York Giants), and who, while sitting at a minor league game in Massachusetts, dreamed up a pro league Israel could call its own.

Over the ensuing months, he assembled a distinguished team of advisers and executives to help make the dream a reality. Among them was Daniel C. Kurtzer, the former U.S. Ambassador to Israel, who agreed to serve as commissioner. Also aboard were Dan Duquette, the former general manager of the Boston Red Sox, three former major leaguers as managers (Ron Blomberg, Ken Holtzman and Art Shamsky), economist Andrew Zimbalist, club owner Marvin Goldklang, and no less than Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig on the advisory board.

Having been born in 1948 (the same year as Israel), it was an honor for me to be asked to do the PR.

When we were ready to announce the league’s existence, rather than send a mass e-mail to Jewish publications (like The Jewish Press) or widely read wire services, I went to an old friend, Murray Chass of The New York Times, who is an observant Jew with a son in Israel. Murray wrote a lengthy piece in the Times, which seemingly every Jew in America immediately e-mailed to everyone he or she had ever met. Within 48 hours, there were few who hadn’t seen the column or fallen in love with the idea.

The question was whether Baras, who lacked a baseball pedigree, could really pull this off. The answer began to unfold when Duquette, along with a Miami attorney named Martin Berger, began running tryout camps and signing players. It would not be an all-Jewish or an all-Israeli league. The mission was to bring in a good level of skilled players – perhaps equal to Class A in the minor leagues.

One hundred and twenty players needed to be signed to stock the six teams (who would share three fields, all within driving distance of Tel Aviv). Forty percent turned out to be Jewish, with about a dozen players having Israeli connections. Nine countries were represented.

We all felt that was just about right for Year One – a year in which we would introduce the game to a somewhat skeptical Israeli audience, with the hope that it would spur amateur baseball and lead to more players. And, in fact, we are working to accomplish that through support of (and distribution of equipment to) youth programs.

There remains a hope that Israel will one day be part of the World Baseball Classic, in which Jewish Major Leaguers can play (as Mike Piazza played for Italy last year). There are currently about a dozen Jewish Major Leaguers, with Shawn Green, Kevin Youkilis and Jason Marquis the most prominent.

The most accomplished Jewish baseball players in history are Hall of Famers Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax. Koufax, 71, is an iconic figure to Jewish baseball fans, both for his amazing abilities and his refusing to pitch a World Series game which fell on a High Holy Day.

Because of my connections in Major League Baseball, I knew Sandy well enough to drop him a note about the league. He called and offered encouragement but was not interested in a role. I have to admit that even though I’ve worked with major sports celebrities for nearly 40 years, my hands tremble a little when I hang up the phone after speaking with Sandy.

When we drafted the players at New York’s Cardozo Law School a few months ago, I arranged a PR stunt in which the Modi’in Miracle – one of the six teams – would “draft” Sandy for its roster. It was meant as an attention-getter and it succeeded, but I would have thought it a failure had Sandy taken it the wrong way.

He didn’t. He was, by a friend’s report, “touched, honored, and moved,” and wished us all well. And we got wonderful accolades for the gesture. “It’s been 41 years since his last start,” we said. “If he’s rested and ready, we want him.”

I left for my first trip to Israel on June 19. I have a cousin who lives in northern Israel who has always been like a sister to me, and I was anxious to meet up with her and her family. (We are both children of sisters who, with family intact, came to the U.S. from Karlsruhe, Germany in 1937, just under the wire).

My reunion with my cousin included a wonderful tour of Jaffa and Tel Aviv, and my friend Martin Abramowitz, who produced the hit baseball card series of Jewish ballplayers (see them at www.ajhs.com), took me to Jerusalem for a tour. As one who thinks Yankee Stadium is steeped in history, I can only say that Jerusalem holds its own quite well.

The visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial was especially moving. How could it not be?

We found it somewhat difficult to do business in Israel, from customs (imagine the agents’ reaction to seeing baseball bats and batting helmets) to smaller matters. The fans were excited and enthusiastic and friendly, but business people didn’t warm up quickly to this pack of Americans arriving with this most American game. (Israelis love their soccer and basketball, which they consider faster paced but which I just consider back and forth games, as the late sportswriter Red Smith used to say.)

Our opening day was one of the great moments in Israeli sports history. Some 4,000 people came to the field in Petach Tikva to see the Miracle play the Pioneers, Shamsky’s team vs. Holtzman’s, with about 100 media credentials issued.

As was true of every day I spent in Israel, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The singing of Hatikvah was moving, but nothing got to me as much as the introduction of the Israeli players, wildly cheered on by their family and friends. Some said the first pitch was the emotional highlight, but I have always been a sucker for the player introductions, and this was lump-in-the-throat time.

In a matter of days we had a no-hitter, a home run derby to break a tie (a special IBL rule to help speed up the game), a protested game, NBC Nightly News on site, a game televised back to the U.S. on PBS (sponsored by The Jewish Press) and, oh yes, one of the Israeli players wrenched his back while coaching third base and waving a runner home. He was out for a week.

When I asked a Jerusalem cab driver, tongue in cheek and without even naming the sport, if he happened to know how Petach Tikva did the night before, he said, “No, but I know Modi’in won 9-1 the other day. I heard it on the radio.”

Music to a PR man’s ears.

Whether Israelis become big fans of baseball, as American Jews have been for more than a century, remains to be seen. But for now, we’ve brought our national pastime to the Promised Land. As one woman’s sign said, “Statehood – check. Baseball in Israel – check. World Peace –.” It was unchecked.

We’re only baseball, but we made it.

Marty Appel

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