A swing and a miss? IBL still facing difficulties

In a country devoted to soccer and basketball, the emergence of Israel's first professional baseball league has been met by both enthusiasm and criticism, with native Israelis generally contributing to neither. The Israel Baseball League, created by a confluence of North American Jewish businessmen and fans, has fluctuated between success and failure ever since opening day. The inaugural game, played on June 24 between the Modi'in Miracle and the Petah Tikva Pioneers, drew an unexpected crowd of 3,112, but since then attendance levels have dropped into the low hundreds and sometimes even the double digits, with many crowds consisting solely of family and friends. Despite the low turnout, those involved in the league are still optimistic for its future. "I would love for there to be a longstanding league in Israel," said Tel Aviv Lightning pitcher Daniel Kaufman. "Baseball [compared to soccer and basketball] has more strategy and downtime, which takes time for Israelis to become accustomed to." Kaufman, a native of Atlanta, discussed the excitement of being part of Israel's first profession baseball league. "The general consensus among the players is that we are excited to have the opportunity to promote a game that we love." Still, not everyone shares Kaufman's enthusiasm. Sources within the league have expressed disgust over its lack of professionalism, ranging from player living conditions to workout facilities, and including the general management of the league. "It is going to take some time," responded outfielder Josh Matlow. "Baseball has endless opportunities in Israel." Matlow, originally from Toronto, left semi-professional baseball in Canada to play for Tel Aviv. In comparing the conditions of playing in Canada versus Israel, Matlow said, "The accommodations have to be worked on, there are a couple of kinks in the chain." Yet the kinks continue to multiply, and the league faces new problems daily. Games are constantly canceled or switched, and completion of the league's main stadium in Tel Aviv continues to be delayed despite assurances it would be opened on Sunday. At the stadium at Kibbutz Gezer, games had to be called twice in the first week because the lights were not strong enough to illuminate the entire field, forcing league officials to start games an hour early to ensure they finished before dusk. And on Sunday, the league announced a change to its playoff system. In addition, many Israelis still don't know about the league's existence. "It is mainly Americans coming to the games," Matlow said. "When I tell Israelis why I am here, most of them don't understand." Both Matlow and Kaufman agree there is work to be done to insure the success of the league. "Getting more games televised will help," said Kaufman, who said Israeli friends who watched the league's first televised game expressed interest in watching additional games. However, in his opinion, "the league has to do more to create a buzz." Asked if he would return for another season, Matlow was less assertive. "It is something I will have to think about," he said, "but I honestly think the IBL will turn out to be a great league." League Commissioner Daniel Kurtzer said he was remaining positive. "I think we're doing extraordinarily well for a start up in a new league and we're trying to fix any problems," he told The Jerusalem Post. "Frankly, we expected a little more challenges. Our major issue now is getting Israelis into the ball park. We've been averaging 125-150 people a game. We would probably like to move that up to 200-250," he said. Kurtzer said the league was "going to do some advertising." "There will be some giveaways, some promotion. I was in Jerusalem this morning and handed out a few tickets to shopkeepers and said give them to your customers," he said. Responding to accusations of the league being too American, Kurtzer, a former United States ambassador to Israel, added: "I think we are in a transition. Had we not marketed to the Americans in Israel we would have got nobody at the beginning." Kurtzer admitted the attendances have not been as high as he hoped but dismissed concerns that the entire league could be disbanded if numbers do not increase. "I'm somewhat disappointed with the attendance but it's the start of the exercise," he said. "Some of the problem is the timing of the games. To play at Gezer you need to start evening games at 5 p.m., even earlier now. "So we think until the real summer vacation kicks in, with people working, its hard to get the kids organized and to get them here. It is one of these issues we will deal with." Jeremy Last contributed to this report