The homegrown talent of the IBL

A handful of Israeli players prepare for their first season as pros.

baseball 298 88 (photo credit: Jay L. Abramoff)
baseball 298 88
(photo credit: Jay L. Abramoff)
As the inaugural season of the Israel Baseball League draws near, a slew of foreign players, both Jewish and non-Jewish, will be making their way to Israel. However, a select group of Israeli players are welcoming the IBL as a chance to play the sport they love professionally. Amit Kurz, Ophir Katz, Orr Gottlieb, Dan Rothem, and Daniel Maddy-Weitzman are among the handful of Israelis who will take the field for the IBL. All five have been brought up through the Israel Association of Baseball's youth leagues. Due to the relatively low number of Israeli baseball players, all five have also competed against each other regularly. Kurz, an 18-year old utility infielder who lives in Givatayim, will suit up for the Netanya Tigers next month. Born in New York, but an Israeli citizen since birth, Kurz moved to Israel when he was young. A self-described singles hitter, Kurz is a huge fan of New York Mets shortstop Jose Reyes. Kurz has been one of the major proponents of baseball in Israel, writing a blog for the IBL Web site to help update fans. Katz, 20, will join Kurz in Netanya. Katz's father is American and pushed him to play baseball. His Little League coach encouraged him to play catcher, and the position stuck. Katz is a tremendous admirer of Roberto Clemente, and a huge Pittsburgh Pirates fan. Gottlieb, a 23-year old, right-handed pitcher, will play for his hometown Tel Aviv Lightning this summer. Gottlieb, though considered a pitcher, is versatile enough to play most positions in the field. This is a common trait in Israeli baseball, where good players are sparse, and therefore are needed by their teams in several capacities. Gottlieb currently holds the Israel Association of Baseball record for home runs with five. Gottlieb, a big fan of Greg Maddux, typically pitches around 120 kilometers per hour. Right-handed pitcher Rothem, at 30-years old, is the elder statesman of Israeli baseball. He will join his cousin, Gottlieb, on the Tel Aviv Lightning. Rothem became the first Israeli to play baseball at an American college at Gardner-Webb University in North Carolina, which competes in NCAA Division I. As such, he has had much more exposure to foreign players than the rest of the Israelis. Rothem was dragged into baseball in sixth grade when a friend pulled him along to the Sportek in Tel Aviv for Friday practices. Twenty-year-old Maddy-Weitzman, also a right-handed pitcher, will suit up for the Ra'anana Express. Maddy-Weitzman began playing baseball at age eight. He's known for having weird mechanics but good arm strength. As a batter, Maddy-Weitzman is a contact hitter with solid bat speed. His favorite players include the Florida Marlins' Dontrelle Willis and Roy Halladay of the Toronto Blue Jays, "pitchers that attack hitters" he says. Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, all five were in agreement that more needs to be done to advertise the league to Israelis. Kurz noted that "the game should be a family environment. You don't just watch baseball for three hours, you spend time with friends and family." Nearly all of them also commented that there needs to be more effort to explain the game to Israelis. Rothem suggested focusing on "the duel between pitcher and batter." "It's gotta be fun," said Katz. The players also expressed excitement at the prospect of playing for Israel at the 2009 World Baseball Classic. Although Gottlieb readily admitted that "we can't compete without Jewish major leaguers," there was enthusiasm at the prospect of facing the best national teams the world has to offer. Even if that would mean that native Israelis ride the bench, Maddy-Weitzman stated, "it's good to have high goals." These five players will be joined by a handful of other Israelis, including high-school aged Nate Rosenberg and Alon Leichman of the Modi'in Miracle. All of them were hopeful that fellow Israelis will be there to cheer them at the June 24 IBL season opener. "The league is a big thing for Israeli baseball," said Maddy-Weitzman. "I hope they build around the country; more fields, more players. I hope it becomes one of our country's major sports."