Play ball! (IBL tryouts in Israel) 

Friday, November 24, 2006

(Published in Haaretz Magazine, November 2006)

For some of the older folks, it was a last chance to pursue a dream from their childhood in America - to become a professional baseball player. For the teenagers, it was an opportunity to showcase the baseball skills they have developed, even while growing up in Israel. For Dan Duquette, the former general manager of the Boston Red Sox, it was all business.

"We're going to build a league, we're going to build an elite academy for the very best players and we're going to build up your baseball from the grassroots level," Duquette told the 68 players who came to Petah Tikva on November 10 to try out for the Israel Baseball League (IBL), a professional league slated to debut on June 24, 2007. Duquette is the director of player development for the new league.

"I'm glad that we have Duquette, who is dispassionate about this," says Larry Baras, the entrepreneur behind the seemingly outlandish idea of bringing professional baseball to Israel. "The rest of us are sentimental," he admits, referring to the core group of Jewish-Americans he has mobilized in his quest, including former U.S. ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer, sports economist Andrew Zimbalist, and Marvin Goldklang, a part owner of the New York Yankees.

Baras, a Boston-based businessman, emphasizes that the IBL is not just another commercial venture. It all started with the question: "How can I do something for Israel?" he explains. The epiphany came as he watched a minor league baseball game in Massachusetts: "Boy, this would be so beautiful for Israel. Let's bring baseball to Israel and they can have three hours of relief from stress."

During his latest visit, Baras found some of this baseball-induced serenity as he sat in the stands watching the tryout at the Baptist Village field in Petah Tikva, conducted on a sunny Friday morning, framed by a blue sky and a backdrop of eucalyptus trees. After landing in a frenetic Israel - "constantly beeping horns and people cutting each other off, everyone jostling each other, and so on edge" - he was able to finally relax at the baseball diamond. "I was able to sit back and get into that baseball mode. I think Israel needs to relax," he says.

Herzl vs. Ben-Gurion

The tryout session began with brief greetings from the president of the local baseball association, Haim Katz, and the cultural attaché from the U.S. Embassy, Efraim Cohen. "I must tell you that I'm tremendously jealous, because growing up, like just about every American boy, my dream was to be a professional baseball player," said Cohen. "Being a diplomat was way down on the list. And if I had to do it over again, if I could learn how to run a little faster and hit the curveball a little better, I'd be where you guys are now."

Cohen reminisces about a New Year's Eve tradition growing up in Rochester, New York: "Every January 1st at midnight, my brother and I would go out and throw a ball in the dark to indicate the coming of a new year and the coming of a new baseball season. Rochester is pretty cold and snowy, but we had our gloves and our balls and we were going to go out there and say it's time.
"It's in my blood. When I lost a tooth and put it under my pillow, I didn't get a quarter from my father - I got a baseball."

Katz noted that while amateur baseball has been around in Israel for decades, "this event puts us on the map." He saluted Baras as "our Herzl of baseball vision," adding that "we were all very skeptical, but this man has turned us all into believers."

Nonetheless, some remain skeptical, contending that this U.S.-based initiative is out of touch with Israeli reality. One of these skeptics is Ed Freedman, who founded the Israel Softball Association in 1979 and has been called the "Ben-Gurion" of this sport in Israel. "It just doesn't sound to me like it's a realistic scenario," he says about bringing professional baseball to Israel. "I don't want to dampen their enthusiasm, but I think it's the wrong way to approach it." The focus should instead be on developing baseball at the grassroots level, in the schools and camps, he suggests. And even then, Freedman adds, "Not every country is a fertile ground for every sport."

Indeed, Baras says that he has been asked a number of times why Israel needs baseball when it already has soccer and basketball. His response: "They probably asked the same thing when they had Bach and Mozart: 'Why do we need this guy Beethoven?' The fact is you can't have too much fun. I think that once people get over their initial resistance - it's such a beautiful game. I think they'll love it."

On the field

The initial test at the tryout was a 60-yard dash, conducted in the outfield grass, two at a time. Here, I should probably disclose that I had the distinction of being the oldest player to participate in the tryout, and can perhaps attribute my sluggish "dash" to old age. I guess I cannot blame the long outfield grass or the slight knoll in the middle of the course, because one candidate, Moshe Lewis, negotiated the same 60 yards in 6.95 seconds, comfortably within the major league benchmark of 6.9-7.0 seconds.

Lewis, 20, one of several Israeli baseball players to have received "Active Athlete" status from the IDF (a status that allows time off for athletic pursuits), also impressed Duquette in the next test: throwing from the outfield to third base and home plate. Here the disparate skills of the candidates became very apparent, with some players smoothly firing the ball on one hop to the base, while others awkwardly released balls that barely trickled to the destination.

After the outfielders displayed their arm strength (or lack thereof), the infielders had an opportunity to field four groundballs at shortstop - a routine grounder, one hit to their left to test range, one to their right to assess arm strength, and a slow roller to gauge athletic ability. Here I was able to shake off a bit of the rust and field the balls cleanly, winning an accolade from Duquette: "Buddy Pellerin would be proud of you." (Another disclosure: Duquette and I hail from the same corner of western Massachusetts. Pellerin was my high school coach.)

The youngest player at the tryout camp, Nate Rosenberg, 16, was the standout in the test for catchers, who were timed throwing the ball from behind the plate to second base. "He's got a great arm," Duquette said later about Rosenberg. At this point in the tryout, Duquette gathered the candidates and announced that he would make an initial cut based on an assessment of running and throwing abilities. He shared his own experience as a tryout candidate and said he appreciated the scout who explained to him that he did not have the tools to become a professional player. This helped him to channel his energies in other directions, he explained. Duquette then called the names of about a third of the candidates and thanked the others for coming out. Due to my poor running time, I was a bit surprised to hear my name called - but did not bother to inquire whether I had made the cut due to "protekzia" or merit.

The next test consisted of taking five or six swings against a pitching machine that was not set to throw particularly fast. The performances were almost uniformly unimpressive. The batters actually looked better against live pitching in a simulated game, the next and last event in the tryout. The game was primarily intended to evaluate the pitching candidates. Duquette noted that he was impressed with soldier-athlete Danny Maddy-Weitzman, 19: "He throws downhill, throws a breaking ball over the plate, and looks like he has good savvy."

'It sounded so ridiculous'

Duquette was also impressed with Ari Alexenberg, a 45-year-old lefty who traveled to Israel from New Hampshire especially for the tryout: "He threw with good velocity and threw it over the plate. I think he'll be a good player-coach," Duquette says. "I liked his experience and demeanor, and I think he'd be a good pitcher in the bullpen."

The tryout in Israel was the second to be held by the IBL. The first tryout took place in August at Duquette's sports academy in Hinsdale, Massachusetts - about a three-hour drive from Alexenberg's home in Portsmouth, NH. But the idea of playing professional baseball in Israel seemed absurd at the time. "When I heard about the tryout in Hinsdale, it sounded so ridiculous for me to go, even though I had the ability," he explains.

Alexenberg spent part of his childhood in Israel, but has lived in the U.S. for most of his life. His parents and two siblings live in Petah Tikva (and a third sibling is in Yeruham.) When he learned that the second tryout for the IBL would be held in Petah Tikva, he began to think more seriously about it. "It seemed liked the signs were too strong, with my family being in Petah Tikva. I decided to come."

It was a successful trip for Alexenberg: The IBL notified him in an email message that he will receive a contract in the coming weeks. Alexenberg is thrilled: "First, it is very special to receive an offer to play professional baseball that starts off with 'Mazal Tov.' To play professional ball in Israel - it's a dream come true."

A young man's game

While Alexenberg has kept his pitching skills sharp by playing in semi-pro and amateur leagues in New England, Stuart Berger, 44, reported to the tryout after a 24-year hiatus in his playing career. Originally from Long Island, Berger played his last baseball game as a sophomore for Williams College. He then came to Israel for what was supposed to be a six-month program. "But I fell in love with the place and I stayed," he says.

When Berger heard about the tryout, he felt compelled to give it "one last chance." But once on the field, he began asking himself, "What am I doing here, what am I trying to prove?" He was disappointed in his time for the 60-yard dash (8.1 seconds) and even more dejected by his throwing. "I lost the zip on the ball. I really didn't have it," he admits.

After failing to make the cut, he suffered through a long weekend: "When I got home, I was really like, kind of in a state of depression - like the end of youth, the end of a certain stage of my life." He compares this process to the stages of mourning: "The first stage for me was denial: I'm still young, I can keep up with the young kids and I'm going to go out and be a pro baseball player. Then you have the sense of anger: I can't believe it, what's going on with my body! Then you have negotiations: Well, if I had just trained more." Finally, toward the end of the weekend, he began to move toward the next stages of acceptance and transformation.

For Berger, who has a physical therapy practice in Ma'alei Adumim, transformation means thinking about what he can do as a coach and therapist, "maybe being active in the rehabilitation and training of the athletes."

This writer has also resigned himself to the fact that he will never play major league baseball and that he was also not among the dozen prospects Duquette spotted in the tryout in Petah Tikva, despite a perfect batting average (1 for 1) in the simulated game. As Duquette told me, "You see, to play baseball at a high level - it's a young man's game." (But maybe, just maybe if I can develop an effective knuckleball?)

Players? Stadiums? Fans?
In a conversation with Haaretz in late May, Larry Baras joked about the IBL project: "We have no players, no stadiums and no fans - other than that we have every ingredient we need." Nearly six months later, he reports progress on all fronts. Ed Freedman remains skeptical.

Meet the signed players

Willis Bumphus, infielder:

At 21, Willis Bumphus is the youngest of the initial six IBL signees and is looking forward to making his first overseas trip next summer to play baseball in Israel. A resident of San Diego, Bumphus played baseball in high school and one year in junior college before signing in 2005 to play in the Golden Baseball League in California.Many of his teammates in this independent professional league had played in higher level competition and Bumphus saw little playing time; he was not signed for the 2006 season. Still hoping to resume his professional baseball career, Bumphus found information on the Internet about the IBL and sent an e-mail to league founder Larry Baras, who calmed his initial concerns about the situation in the Middle East.

Bumphus came to the tryouts in Massachusetts and performed impressively. At first, his friends and families thought he was a bit crazy to want to play in Israel. "But they're behind it now," he says.

Do you hope to make a career of baseball?

"That's what I'm hoping, to keep working and make it to the majors," Bumphus replies.

Adam Crabb, pitcher:

Crabb, 22, flew across the world from Adelaide, Australia to attend the IBL tryout in Massachusetts in August. He learned about the new league while surfing the Internet one day at work. "It seemed like a pretty good idea, and I had some time off so I thought I'd give it a crack and I went across to Boston," the 6'5" right-hander nonchalantly recalls. "I didn't want to regret not going," he adds.

Crabb is studying international business and works in the agricultural industry for a company that buys and sells grain. It occurred to him to try to conduct some business during his time in Israel, but he'd rather focus on his game. "I much prefer baseball," he says. While most of his friends were playing Australian football and cricket, Crabb learned to love the American pastime from his mother, who played softball, and from a Canadian family that moved to his street when he was about 12.

Crabb, who is not Jewish, has traveled abroad several times, but never to the Middle East, and is excited about seeing the historic sites in Israel.

Meanwhile, Crabb is playing in an Australian amateur league, but is hoping the IBL will be a stepping stone to other professional baseball opportunities overseas.

Do you dream about making it all the way to the major leagues?

"Absolutely," he says without hesitation.

Dan Rootenberg, infielder/outfielder/pitcher:

The first player signed by the IBL is Dan Rootenberg, 32, a former SUNY Binghamton standout who played professionally in the independent Frontier League and in Switzerland as a player/coach. When not playing baseball, Rootenberg works as a physical therapist in his private practice in Manhattan.

Rootenberg has Israeli citizenship via his father, who was born in Israel and fought in the Six-Day War. "It has a special meaning for me to be playing in the first year of professional baseball in Israel, given my family history and my love of baseball," he says.

The IBL tryout camp in Massachusetts in August was similar to other baseball tryouts he has attended, but with a unique flavor: "I never played baseball with an Israeli flag on the field, so it was a really nice touch." It was also a new experience for him to see some of the yeshiva students who came to the tryouts praying with tefillin before grabbing their gloves to go out onto the field. "Even as an American Jew, those two things were never juxtaposed, so it made an impression on me."

Do you still harbor hopes of making it to the major leagues?

"Oh yeah, definitely. You know, you never know. The dream will probably never die. You just never know what can lead to what."

Nate Fish, infielder/catcher:

Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Nate Fish won a baseball scholarship to the University of Cincinnati, where he played alongside Kevin Youkilis, another Jewish player who is now tending first base for the Boston Red Sox.

When Fish, 26, was not selected in the baseball draft after college, he figured his baseball career was over. "I moved to New York City to pursue different things," he says, including a creative writing program at The New School. However, he also took a job at an indoor baseball facility on the Upper West Side, giving batting clinics and individual instruction.

"I didn't know why I was doing it, but I was practicing hard," Fish says. "I was coaching so much and coaching has made me so much better as a player. Mechanically, my swing is much better than it was when I was in college."

Fish was recruited for the 2005 U.S. Maccabiah softball team and had a "completely amazing experience" playing in Israel. Next, he was invited to play in a professional fast pitch softball league and traveled all around North America playing the game.

Do you ever think about playing next to Youkilis again, this time in the major leagues?

"I don't have any delusions about playing in the major leagues, but now that I'm going to be playing in Israel in a professional league, I start sort of dreaming again."

Jason Benson, pitcher:

For 26-year-old Jason Benson, Israel will be the fifth country on a professional baseball resume that already includes the U.S., Canada, Mexico and Australia. In fact, based on his record, the IBL offered the right-handed pitcher a contract without requiring a tryout. "He's got a professional portfolio where he's shown that he can throw strikes and get people out," Dan Duquette explains. "Plus, when you talk to him you can tell right away that he loves baseball - and he's offered to actively recruit for us in Australia."

Born in Chicago, Benson moved to Michigan to play baseball at Grand Valley State University. His international playing career was launched through a contact he made at a tryout camp with the Florida Marlins. "Interaction with other cultures and religions is really what drives me, and on top of that I get to play baseball and see the world," Benson says.

Are you hoping to eventually make the major leagues?

"Yes, my ultimate goal is the big leagues, whether it is in the U.S. or maybe even the big leagues in Japan or Korea where the money is also very big."

Leon Feingold, pitcher:

"I am a competitive person," Leon Feingold explains, listing the sports he played in high school and college: soccer, football, wrestling, swimming, rugby, volleyball, track − and baseball. Feingold, 33, also considers competitive eating a sport and has been ranked as high as 12th by the International Federation of Competitive Eating.

Now that he has signed to play baseball in Israel next summer, Feingold will suspend his competitive eating career. "It's more important for me right now to focus on getting my body in shape for baseball than to get my body into shape for eating," he explains. However, he would agree to a between-inning falafel eating contest next summer − "as long as I'm not pitching that day."

Feingold, originally from Long Island, signed as a free agent with the Cleveland Indians after graduating from SUNY Albany and played three years in the minor leagues before a shoulder injury cut his career short. He went on to get a law degree and today works as a real estate broker in Manhattan.

"I figured I was done after hurting my shoulder, but occasionally life throws you a curveball," Feingold says. "Once you're 33 years old it's almost unheard of to play professionally - that's one of the reasons this is so exciting for me." Feingold is also excited about the opportunity to help pioneer a new international league.

What are your goals in baseball?

"As long as I stay healthy and work with coaches who can help me perfect my mechanics, there's no reason I can't go as high as I want. And I would like to bask in the victory of Israel's team in the 2009 World Baseball Classic."

Kurtzer introduces students to Jerusalem 

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

(Published in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, October 25, 2006)

As they settle into their second year at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, 11 MPA students will be sorting out their experiences after an intensive, week-long tour of Jerusalem conducted in early September by former ambassador Daniel Kurtzer, who will begin teaching Middle Eastern Policy Studies at WWS this fall.

Kurtzer, who served as ambassador to Egypt and Israel, designed the tour as preparation for a graduate policy seminar entitled Jerusalem: The Contested City – Exploring Options for a Settlement.

"I couldn’t see going through a whole semester describing Jerusalem if the students had never seen it," Kurtzer explains. "The object was to get them familiarized both visually and conceptually with Jerusalem so that for the rest of the semester, in the lectures and in the research they do, it's not going to be a foreign object."

Several hours after landing in Israel, the students were already hiking down the Mount of Olives to get an initial look at some of the holy sites that complicate the sovereignty issues and everyday management of the city.

"You can read about how Jerusalem is important to three major religions, but until you see the people interacting with the sites it doesn't really hit home," says Ryan Close, one of the graduate students. His classmate, Joy Sinderbrand, notes that the group "kept hearing the comparison that the Old City of Jerusalem is smaller than our Princeton campus." She was impressed that "a place that small could have so many levels and intricacies and holy places and people all packed into it."

The whirlwind tour, which included briefings by local policymakers and nightly dinners with prominent intellectuals and leaders, left the students feeling a bit overwhelmed. WWS student Crystal Frierson explains: "There was an enormous amount to learn and I think it will probably take a few weeks to really gain a perspective on it."

The personal narratives they heard left an especially strong impact on the students. "I can't underestimate the effects of those very moving accounts," Frierson says. Still, her overall impression from the meetings with Israelis and Palestinians is that "everyone seems to have a sense of hopelessness for the immediate term."

Kurtzer's intention was to emphasize the complexity of the problems in Jerusalem, but he also hoped to end the trip on a upbeat note. "Look, if you're going to work on this conflict, you have to be optimistic," he explains. With this in mind, he scheduled the group's last dinner with Ami Ayalon and Sari Nusseibeh, the authors of a succinct statement of principles for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"Our last dinner was just amazing," Sinderbrand says. "These two people have boiled things down and say, 'Right, there are lots of details, but there really is a simple way to look at this and there are some general principles you can go by.'"

Ross Cohen, another member of the group, says he left Jerusalem feeling both optimistic and frustrated. "Pretty much everyone we met was so moderate and desirous of peace that a final settlement looks just around the corner. When you pull back, though, you remember pretty quickly that the two sides are barely even talking right now.

"The week has convinced me that leadership - from Palestinians, Israelis, and Americans - really makes a difference here," Cohen suggests. "The answers seem to be more or less in front of us. We just need leaders willing to take us to them."

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