The Best Sports Story in 2007? Oy! Baseball in Israel
There are so many stories that captivate the mind in 2007: Michael Vick’s arrest for torturing animals, Sean Taylor’s murder, and the widespread steroid’s scandal in baseball. But why focus on the negative?
To me, the biggest and best sports story of 2007 was the flowering of baseball in the Holy Land.
The Holy Land? Yes, it’s true. But who would have thunk it? Normally we associate the game outside the United States in places like Korea, Japan, South America, the Dominican Republic, or Puerto Rico. But the Middle East?
The Bible tells the story of Moses sending scouts into the Holy Land to ensure easy conquest over the inhabitants. But the scouts that the Israel Baseball League hoped to lure aren’t the kind Moses had in mind.
Larry Baras, a millionaire in his mid-50's, developed the idea to bring America’s national pastime to Israel because he believed that Israelis, who already have a passion for basketball, would be intrigued by America’s oldest and most enduring game. Also, Israelis enjoy other aspects of American culture like food (pizza and hamburgers, for instance), and corporations (Home Depot and McDonald’s).
An entrepreneur who owns SJR Food Inc., Baras also cooked up the idea because of Israeli’s intellectual reputation. The tiny nation has been able to produce the highest ratio of university degrees, the second highest output of books per year, and the highest rate of home computers per capita. Baras believed that these factors could lure Israelis to the ballpark and the playing field.
Though Israel is noted for its spectacular biblical moments or, more recently, failed peace initiatives, the birth of a professional baseball league in one of the most underrated, and too-often-criticized, democratic nations in the world is truly one of the most amazing sports stories of 2007
Already the cradle of the three major religions, Israel can now call baseball, along with soccer and basketball, a viable game. The League successfully recruited a number of ex-baseball players like former miracle Met Art Shamksy and ex-Yankees Ron Blomberg (the first designated hitter in baseball history) and Ken Holtzman to manage teams. The league features a modest six clubs ranging from cities like Netanya (Tigers) to Tel Aviv (Lightning) to Modi’in (Miracle).
While a few of the current players are Israeli (most of the athletes are players lured from the west, some Jewish), there is hope that with growing spectator interest, there might be room to groom more Israeli athletes. Someday ball players with names like Avi Greenberg and Moshe Horowitz could be donning the uniforms of American baseball clubs in the future.
The league began their modest 45 game schedule on June 24. Each club boasts a 20-man roster and all the games were played on only three different fields. The League is also played under slightly different rules. Games are only seven innings and in case of a tie there are no extra innings, but rather a Home Run Derby to determine the winner.
To date, the Israel Baseball League already boasts of a player who has been acquired by a major league club—Jason Rees, an Australian outfielder with power and speed who signed with the New York Yankees. Rees played for the Bet Shemesh Blue Sox and finished first in home runs and RBI, while leading the Blue Sox to the championship in the league’s inaugural season.
While there is no plan to expand (the league has moved the Petach Tikva Pioneers to Jerusalem and changed their name to the Lions), there is hope that interest in the league will grow. After all, it is commanded: Be fruitful and multiply!
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