NEWYORK - Put "baseball" and "Israel" in the same sentence and American Jews get excited. That was the spirit Thursday evening when hundreds of young Jews came to cheer as the new Israel Baseball League held its first draft at Cardozo Law School in New York.
The evening also included a panel discussion moderated by Len Berman, who is a sports anchor at the WNBC television station in New York, and featured former New York Met and current Modi'in Miracle manager Art Shamsky, IBL founder Larry Baras, and former Yankees PR director and IBL spokesman Marty Appel, among others.
Panelists exchanged jokes throughout the night, winning over the audience time and again. "This being Israel, where you read from right to left, we thought about having players run from third base to first base," said Baras.
First to be drafted was 22-year-old Aaron Levin, a power hitting corner infielder who played at Cuesta Community College and was chosen by the Miracle. Second came Reynaldo Cruz, an "exciting player" from the Dominican Republic who will play for the Petah Tikva Pioneers.
The final player chosen Thursday night was 71-year-old Sandy Koufax, who, if he comes out of his 41-year retirement, would also be on the Miracle. "His selection is a tribute to the esteem with which he is held by everyone associated with this league," said Shamsky. "It's been 41 years between starts for him. If he's rested and ready to take the mound again, we want him on our team."
Due to time constraints, only 60 of the 120 players were drafted Thursday night. The rest will be assigned by league officials.
"Many of my colleagues are busy with another kind of draft [the NFL draft began Saturday night], but I got the better one," said host and ESPN reporter Jeremy Schaap to loud cheers from the audience, minutes before the draft began.
"The idea for the league goes back to the summer of 2005," Baras explained. He was looking for a "small" project involving Israel. "I went to a minor league game on a Saturday night in Brockton, Massachusetts, a tough town where teenagers pierce every orifice."
What he saw was a multi-generational gathering, where everyone was having fun. "It seemed so wholesome," said Baras. "I thought if this is something that could be transported to Israel, how much greater that would be."
From then on, Baras has been working "24/7" to make the IBL possible.
Players for the league come from nine nations - the US, Canada, Israel, Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Australia, Ukraine, Japan and Belgium - the result of extensive tryouts in Israel, the US and the Dominican Republic.
Nate Fish, who was drafted by the Tel Aviv Lightning, said his "heart was racing" as he waited to hear his name called Thursday night. "I didn't know where I was going or what they thought of me," said the 27-year-old from Cleveland, Ohio.
Fish, a good looking guy with shoulder-length curly hair, added that he was "thrilled to be a poster boy for Israeli baseball." At one point, panelists joked about whether "long hair" was allowed.
A question that has been on the table from day one, is whether Israelis unfamiliar with the sport, will take to baseball. "Israelis love soccer and basketball, but we have to win them over to baseball," said Appel.
Baras spoke of the "love-hate" relationship Israelis have towards America. "At first, they thought this was just another way Americans were imposing their culture," he said. "But they have moved from antagonism to grudgingly embracing it, and over time they will learn to enjoy it."
For Dan Rootenberg, who was drafted to the Netanya Tigers, Israeli ambivalence to baseball was familiar. Rootenberg told the crowd about how growing up with an Israeli father delayed making his dream of playing baseball a reality.
"My dad was Israeli and had no idea what baseball was," said Rootenberg. He was forced to wait three years until his father finally signed him up. Within just two years, his dad had learned everything about the game and was managing his son's team.
"This league combines two passions of mine - baseball and Israel," said Rootenberg. "It's an area of the world known for conflict and this is giving Israel a different kind of attention."
For Rootenberg, whose father, Jacob, died 16 years ago on the same date as the draft, Thursday night brought him full circle. "I have a love for the country and couldn't be more excited."
AP contributed to this report.