(photo credit: Jay L. Abramoff)
In the small town of Brockton, Massachusetts, at a Brockton Rox baseball game in the Canadian-
American Independent League, Larry Baras got an idea.
"I'm looking at a wonderful time these people are having," Baras told The Jerusalem Post, "and I'm thinking, if I could take this and bring it to Israel, what a gift that would be."
It might seem like an odd endeavor for someone like Baras, who owns the highly successful Boston-based baking company SJR Food Inc., but in July 2005, Baras was looking for a way to further connect with Israel. The Israel Baseball League (IBL) seemed like the perfect opportunity.
As Baras's first order of business, he set the date for the season's opening day: June 24, 2007. Although not set in stone, that game will take place at Kibbutz Gezer, which has a field that Baras predicts will be the face of Israeli baseball.
To many, an Israeli semi-professional baseball league might not appear to be the most practical way to connect with Israel, but for Baras it makes plenty of sense. As a boy growing up just outside Washington, DC, he was surrounded by both baseball and Judaism. Instead of studying Torah all night on Shavuot, Baras's father would open up his Baseball Register and spend the whole night studying the game.
"My orientations to baseball and religion were so intertwined," said Baras. "I was so young, I couldn't even determine where one began or one ended."
Less than a year away from the league's debut, the pieces are starting to come together with the support of an impressive staff, including league commissioner Daniel Kurtzer, former US Ambassador to Israel and Egypt; and former Boston Red Sox and Montreal Expos general manager Dan Duquette, the IBL's Director of Player Development.
Duquette now operates the Duquette Baseball Academy in Hindsdale, Massachusetts, but during his tenure with the Expos, he played a vital role in the development of baseball in Canada, where ice hockey is the most popular sport. Duquette plans on implementing the same procedures he used with the Expos in Canada to help baseball's growth in Israel, where other sports also are the top draw.
Kurtzer believes that with the help of Duquette, Israel will be able to make room for baseball. "We know that the two major sports in Israel are basketball and football," Kurtzer told The Jerusalem Post, "but there is room in a country as important and large as Israel for a third major sport."
Baras and Kurtzer also are quick to point out that baseball isn't just about the game itself, but the entire atmosphere of the ballpark. Baras sees a void of family entertainment in Israel that baseball can fill.
IBL games will feature barbecues and between-inning entertainment aimed at young children. Premium seating sections not only will offer fans food delivered directly to their seats, but also in-seat haircuts and massages.
But before Baras can concentrate on improving the fan experience, he needs to finalize stadium locations and team rosters. Instead of immediately building new stadiums in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Baras instead has focused his attention on locations with existing facilities, such as Gezer, Netanya, Petah Tikva and Beit Shemesh. Owners have not yet been finalized, but according to Baras, inquiries to buy teams are made on an almost daily basis.
Progress also is being made to sign players by the end of April in time for the spring draft. After one tryout at the Duquette Baseball Academy in August, four players have committed to the league. Dan Rootenburg and Nate Bumpus come from independent minor leagues in the US, Adam Crabbe from the Australian League, and Leon Feingold from the Cleveland Indians farm system.
A total of 35 players have signed up so far for the next tryouts, which will be held November 10 at the Yarkon Sports Complex in Petah Tikva. Duquette, who has never traveled to Israel before, will be in attendance with Baras.
While there is a great desire among IBL officials to raise Israeli interest in baseball, there is also a dependence on American support to help boost that interest.
"There is a big buzz here about this issue," said Kurtzer, in reference to excitement in the US. "It's all over the papers, and not just the Jewish papers."
Baras recognizes that there are plenty who doubt the league's ability to succeed, admitting that he often wakes up in the middle of the night panic-stricken, but he still remains optimistic.
"Ask me if I really think this is going to happen," said Baras. "There's no doubt in my mind it's going to happen. June 24 at seven o'clock at night, we're throwing out that first pitch."