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.