(photo credit: Yehuda Boltshauser / IBL)
With managers with World Series titles under their belts, the players in the newly launched Israel Baseball League have a lot to live up to.
Beit Shemesh Blue Sox manager Ron Blomberg was part of the New York Yankees team that won the World Series in 1977. And Modi'in Miracle manager Art Shamsky was the right fielder for the "Miracle Mets," when they won the World Series in 1969 against overwhelming odds.
"It's because of that people still know my name," said Shamsky. "It's a wonderful feeling having been part of that team that lives on forever. Nobody thought we could win."
Having never visited Israel before, Blomberg and Shamsky said they are thrilled to be part of the first professional baseball league here, both doing what they love.
"It's great, this is God's country," Blomberg said in his thick, southern drawl.
As a Jew, Blomberg feels a strong connection to the Holy Land. "This is my heritage here, so to be able to come and play major league baseball and promote the game that I love, it's a no-brainer. It's wonderful," he told The Jerusalem Post.
Blomberg is clearly proud of his achievements. "I was a lifetime .293 hitter and won the World Series," he said, making it difficult not to notice the ornate, gold ring he has to show for his accomplishment.
"I was the first designated hitter in Major League history, the first draft choice in 1967, and I was chosen the most popular in New York for two years."
While playing with the Yankees in the 1970's Blomberg was asked to come to Israel by Moshe Dayan and Golda Meir, but declined because of the political issues and the dangerous situation.
This time he is ignoring the risks.
The managers are enjoying their first time in the country, but have been kept so busy with the start of the season that they haven't had much time for sightseeing.
"I want to see this beautiful country," Shamsky said. "I'm looking forward to being able to see some of the biblical and historical sites and to talk to the people and get a feel for what life is like here."
For now the league is the number one priority.
While the Americans in Israel can't get enough baseball, it's taking Israelis a little longer to warm up to this all-American sport. However, these managers are ready for the challenge.
"This is a building process," Blomberg explained. "People think baseball is a slow sport. It's not, it's a great sport that everyone can play. You don't have to be big, you don't have to be strong.
"When soccer came to America no one knew too much about it and then it got bigger and bigger, and people started to play. Baseball is the same way."
Shamsky, who played professionally for 13 years and was inducted into the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1994, compared the introduction of baseball in Israel to countries all over the world.
"Whenever people say that baseball in Israel is not going to work, I tell them 'well if that was the attitude that they would have taken in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Australia, or Italy, or other European countries, then baseball wouldn't be as universal as it is,'" he said.
The managers recognize the importance of an Israeli fan base.
"If we, in the professional league, can collectively talk to the youngsters and get them involved in the game, then the league can start developing Israeli players," suggested Shamsky. "Perhaps have it played in high school and college."
The key is to give the fans someone to root for.
"It's very difficult when you have Israelis that have not played on this level," said Blomberg. "It's going to take time in order to bring the Israelis in. You've got to nurture them and they have to go from one level to the next."
Baseball is a game of progress and people will naturally be critical, but according to Blomberg it is "the best game in the world."
Beit Shemesh is already becoming one of the leading teams in the IBL and Blomberg is developing pride in his new club.
"It's okay, as long as it's not the Red Sox," he quipped. "It's got to be pinstripes," he added flaunting his Yankee spirit.
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