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On Friday morning, more than 60 players came to the Yarkon Sports Complex in Petah Tikva to try out for the inaugural season of Israel s first professional baseball league, which is set to begin play on June 24, 2007.
The potential players became aware of the Israel Baseball League (IBL) from a variety of sources, including newspapers, Internet, friends, and even their rabbis, and their motives for coming to the tryouts were just as varied.
For Natan Mandel, who tried out as an infielder, the day had little to do with expectations of making an IBL roster. "I figured I d go out and it would be a good time," said Mandel after learning that he had not advanced past the first cut. It was fun to play a little ball. If there are tryouts next year, I ll come out [again]."
For other players like Amit Kurd, who has played on six national teams, Friday s tryouts were more serious.
"If they pick one guy [from Friday's tryouts], then I doubt I'll make it," said Kurd, "but if they take 10-12 guys, then I think I ve got a decent shot."
If Kurd s evaluation of Friday s talent pool is accurate, then he may not earn a spot on a team. IBL director of player development Dan Duquette says that although he wants to sign as many deserving players as possible, realistically only a couple from Friday s tryouts will make a roster.
But with only five players already signed and 120 needed for the league's six teams, Duquette knows there is still a lot of work to be done. "We have a long way to go, but we re scouting the leagues," said Duquette, referring to US independent and international leagues. "And we ll have some more tryouts in the States between now and April." Duquette especially hopes to sign players from the Australian baseball league, which he believes has a high level of talent. He also points out that the Australian off-season directly coincides with the IBL's season, making it possible for players to participate in both leagues.
But IBL officials hope that with each new season, the league will be decreasingly dependent on borrowing players from other leagues and instead rely on an increasing number of Israeli players. Friday's tryouts consisted of very few Israeli-born players, which did not come as a surprise. "Until we can build up the grassroots of baseball in Israel," noted Duquette, "we're going to be importing a lot of players."
Building Israeli interest in baseball is one of the IBL s biggest priorities. One youth baseball clinic held over the summer in Israel drew a surprising 165 participants. IBL officials hope that clinics like these will instill an interest and love for the game in the younger generation.
This would not only give the league more talented Israelis to choose from in the future, but also make it more likely that families will come to the games in the summer.
Attracting fans will be one of the biggest challenges for the IBL in its first season.
Dan Rothem, an Israeli-born pitcher, said it could be a tough sell. "Average Israelis look at baseball and see nine guys standing there," said Rothem, 30, who played at Gardner-Webb University, which competes in the highest US college baseball division, in North Carolina.
Rothem, who said he was the first native Israeli to play college ball in the US, is expected to be one of the first signees in the new league.
"Hopefully if we can get a good league up and running here, people will be more open to what baseball really is," he said.
League founder Larry Baras believes that the curiosity of Israelis and novelty of the first Israeli professional baseball league will be a big draw.
"I think people will come to check it out," said Baras. "Then it's up to us to make sure they enjoy it and come again."
Final results of Friday s tryouts had not been announced. The IBL will hold more tryouts in the US in the coming months and sign players from other leagues in preparation for the draft by the end of spring 2007.
AP contributed to this report.
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