Friday, August 31, 2007

Our Man Elli & Israeli baseball: The story spreads

It started here and here on Tabloid Baby.

Now, Our Man Elli in Israel's controversial and explosive story of the first season of the Israel Baseball League is showing up in print... and being read around the world... The New Jersey Jewish News... The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles... The Jewish Week... and Haaretz... so far...

Stay tuned...

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Our Man Elli's exposé goes to print!

Prepare for a Friday morning nuclear blast in Israel.

Metaphorically, of course.

Right about now, Our Man Elli's atom bomb of a story on the disastrous first season of the Israel Baseball League is rolling off the presses of the esteemed Haaretz newspaper-- a paper known as The New York Times of Israel. Soon the paper will be delivered to newsstands and hundreds of thousands of homes across Israel and the Middle East. Elli's story will take up the entire Page 4. (It will also appear in Jewish weeklies across America-- and we predict that it will soon be appreciated as brave, clear-eyed journalism at its best).

While the unblinking report has been hurtling through cyberspace since we ran it exclusively on Tuesday, this is the first time a version will be appearing in cold, hard, smudgy newsprint-- to be debated over in cafes, screamed about in buses, or in utlimate anger, behind closed doors, used as toilet paper!

By sun-up, Elli Wohlgelernter will surely be the most hated man in Israel. If it were a choice between aiming for him or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the dunking booth at an Israeli County Fair, many local sports fans would give pause before throwing the baseball at a target.

(UPDATE: Read the Haaretz article, 'The Boys, and Oys, of Summer,' here.)

Israel's Most Hated: Elli's article to become a book!

First it was an explosive article here on Tabloid Baby.

Now, sources tell us, Our Man Elli In Israel's frank, stunning, brutally honest and lacerating exposé of the first season of the Israel Baseball League is bound to become a book.

Elli Wohlgelernter's 3200 words, each one a shard of shrapnel, were first published on this site two days ago. In the past 48 hours, their power has reverberated across the globe-- from the box seats at Yankee Stadium to cafes in Minsk, resorts in the Catskills to Israeli troop encampments on the Gaza Strip. Sports fans and Zionists everywhere are debating whether Elli's expose was ill-timed death blow (coming, as it did on the very week the first season ended) or an early warning to save the league before the boneheaded mistakes of Year One have people planting trees in Israel in its memory.

Elli is sports editor of the Encyclopeadia Judaica. He saw his first professional baseball game in Yankee Stadium in 1962, and who helped Roger Kahn write his demi-classic 1985 book, Good Enough To Dream, about a momentous season for the Class A Utica Blue Sox, also worked in the sports department of The New York Post, where he competed against the New York Daily News' Pulitzer Prize winning columnist, Jimmy Breslin, who in 1963 wrote the classic Can't Anybody Here Play This Game?, about the first season of the hapless New York Mets.

Who will win the honor of publishing Elli's book on the first season of The Israel Baseball League? New York publicists, agents, and editors are reading the treatment here on Tabloid Baby. It's only a matter of time before someone makes the deal.

We'll keep you posted.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Exclusive! Our Man Elli to critics: "F*** OFF!!!"

Elli Wohlgelernter, known to you as Our Man Elli in Israel, is the most controversial-- most hated-- man in the Jewish sportsworld today after our publication of his scathing exposé of the first season of the Israel Baseball League.

Elli, a veteran journalist, sportswriter— and fan-- had covered the league’s debut for The New York Times back in June. Yesterday, after the season ended, he released the bombshell to Tabloid Baby: an article that exposed a bush league of disappointed players, a former major league pitcher-turned-coach who trashed the league, and an incompetent, amateur league management that couldn’t wrangle up ice for the athletes-- and almost killed one of them.

We snagged Elli for an exclusive interview:

Who are you to write such an article?

I'm a journalist. I’ve been a journalist for over 30 years, and have covered sports, local and national politics in America and Israel, and I’m more than qualified to write a story about baseball in Israel. Truth is, one doesn't need any of those credentials; a high school journalism student could have done the same thing, simply by asking questions, keeping eyes open, and listening to what players were saying when no one was looking.

Do you feel you were in any way too hard on the Israel Baseball League?

Is this a moral question or a journalistic one? My interests were journalistic, and my point of view was that of the players-- a bunch of 23-year-old dreamers who had no strength as a union, and who were put upon in numerous ways by league management. Organizers certainly had good intentions, but they bobbled the ball time after time, and not only from Opening Day, but for over two years of bad planning before the first pitch was ever thrown. Publicity, it seemed, was more important than substance. How else can you explain the absence on the ground of any kind of baseball professional to handle the needs of the players? Those needs were eventually addressed by a couple of 22-year-olds, who tried to keep their fingers in the dike while water was spraying everywhere, but could only do so much.

Look, I’m not saying the league was good or bad. I didn’t need to take any angle. I wrote a story about what happened. Period. If there’s any sentence in this story that is not true, then I welcome a player to stand up right now and tell us— and I’ll retract it. But as far as I know, from everyone I talked to, everything I wrote here is the truth.

Whether the league is in financial trouble and looking to investors, whether "this press is not going to make their job any easier," “promoting whatever growth the league has enjoyed-- none of that is my business. I’m in the journalism business. That is my business, and this story is just good journalism.

Why you think there’s been such an angry reaction to your story?

It's the nature of Jews not to want to hear any kind of bad news about Jews or Israel. Which I understand completely. And certainly something as benign and unpolitical as baseball in Israel should be the one area where there is no controversy, 'cause God knows we’ve got enough of that as it is.

And then there’s the fear that my story will kill the league (my favorite comment was, "Do you want to watch soccer for the rest of your life? Because if you do you should keep covering the IBL.") Truth is, I love baseball as much as any fan, if not more, as anyone who knows me will attest. I enjoyed watching the IBL games tremendously-- as a fan coming to watch games, and I hope I can continue to do so the rest of my life.

And I-- as opposed to some of my friends-- was incredibly impressed by the level of play and the spirit of the players despite what they had to go through. These were terrific guys, each one, down the line.

But I have to emphasize: The IBL mistakes were not just common mistakes made by any start-up company, as comments here keep saying. Because if Reynaldo Cruz had been killed by that line drive in batting practice, along with the tragedy itself, there would have been no baseball in Israel for the next 30 years.

Given the choice, I would rather see the league die than Reynaldo Cruz.

We’ve gotten emails to the site. You’ve been called an anti-semite. And you’ve been called brave. Which is it?

Oh, please. This isn't segregation in the South I'm exposing, this is about the problems of a new baseball league and how players had to adjust to a new environment made all the harder by a league that gave no forethought to those players. Is there any sport, anywhere in the world, where athletes don’t require ice? And no one in management of the Israel Baseball League thought about it before the season started?

Was the season a failure?

No! Not at all. There's something good to work with as a start. But it's got a a long way to go.

Does baseball have a future in Israel?

Only if the league remembers that Israelis live here. The Israelis were completely ignored. As in any sport: no fans, no league.

The Jews Are Burning: Did Our Man Elli kill Israel's baseball dream?

From the uproar he’s kicked up, you might have thought Our Man Elli in Israel had led a campaign to elect Mel Gibson to the Knesset. Elli Wohlgelernter's article about the disastrous first season of the Israel Baseball League has hit a raw nerve among Israelis, baseball fans—and players’ moms! He’s been called a “dirt digger” and “crap scraper” and accused of potentially killing the league the very week its first season ended. He’s also been hailed as brave and as simply a good journalist.

And now, one IBL athlete has gone on the record in support of Elli’s write-up. All Star Ryan Crotin of the Petach Tikva Pioneers writes:
I think the news story was true and accurate and powerful. I hope all players, management and spectators read the details mentioned for higher awareness. I believe that the problems will finally become apparent to the higher powers that be. As players and participants, if we do not publicize, if we do not criticize, if we do not expose problems, the league will ultimately remain in status quo.

If they decide not to reinvite players who potentially give the management "trouble," then we (meaning a fellow troublemaker) have done a justice to the IBL, as our voices had not fallen upon deaf ears. They (management) have to spend money on particulars to improve the treatment of players, for if the players are unhappy with whatever circumstances that can arise, then you have nothing. The players run the league. They are the league's product.
And then there are fellow journalists, like David Brinn of the Israelity blog:
I know, the name’s been taken, but Ball Four seems like the perfect title for this comprehensive play by play of the first season of the Israel Baseball League… For all of us who had great times at the games we went to, the behind the dugout controversies and fights seems like one of those Israeli telenovelas that we’re addicted to. Here’s hoping that despite all the problems outlined here, the IBL will be back for another season next year.
Expect lots more flak as the article appears in various editions of Jewish weekly newspapers across the USA.

Meanwhile, here’s a sampling of the response, so far:
“Elli you obviously enjoy pulling down the efforts of what others try to constructively do. Good job! What have you tried to do positive lately? If you need any help with sensationalist headlines why not check out the British media. I am surprised you could not find any sex scandals in what was a beautiful first season enjoyed by many…”

“You are an absolute a$$. Do you want to watch soccer for the rest of your life? Because if you do you should keep covering the IBL. How could you say nobody cared? I took my son to many IBL games to watch our beloved BlueSox and he and all of the other kids his own age, (probably 30) were chasing down foul balls like their lives depended on it… You sucker punched the league, and you better hope it doesn't die.”

“I cannot imagine why anyone would feel the need to try to find the negative during such a positive event for israel. You can find the crap in every event. This is such a positive one. Why would you look to find the negative and seek fame leeching on this? …How can you call yourself a journalist? You are a dirt digger, crap scraper. That ought to be your business card: Dirt Digger, Crap Scraper, Leech.”

“I think it is pretty disgusting that the writer here wants to tear down something so positive. Given it was the first year, I think it was a fantastic season…. (The players) must be having a sensation of feeling like they have sacrificed a lot and made a lot of boulders move, all to be criticized. When was the last OTHER time when Israel was in the worldwide media in a positive way?!! …The games were something great… Elli you will be remembered as being someone who brought forward vicious and degrading tabloid smut to feed your own deficiencies.”

“You people are getting mad at the wrong person. These things actually happened. You should be mad at the league for not putting the time to make this league the best it can possibly be. The league sucker punched the players by making them play and have no ice…”

“elli left out the story about the baseball "chanas," the israeli "baseball annies" (see Bull Durham, Ball Four and others for a fuller definition) who made it a point of having as much sex with the ballplayers as possible.”

“Elli is a brave journalist. He followed the story where it led him. He stated the facts. I saw no sensationalism in the article and suspect readers were misguided by the ‘tabloid’ name of the blog.”

“As a player who sought and continues to seek to solve some of the growing pains of this league, I can say that there is much truth to the factual information provided by some of the sources in the article... Elli's angle comes off particularly hard, but not really knowing him, I can't say that this is a result of sensationalism rather than his personal disappointment in what he expected this league to be, even in Year 1….The positive sense Elli seems to have about a future for the IBL may well have leaked out in his somewhat disconnected final quote from Eric Holtz, the gist of which is, the vast majority of players would be happy to come back next year… To see what fun it was so you can get in on the action in '08, enter in your browser and find the photo gallery of game and other photos…”

“…Elly, you moved to Israel, you are supposedly starved for baseball... Why the need in a sensationalist way attempt to tear down the positive efforts of others and a league which is in its infancy? Anyone who has ever set up a brand new league thousands of miles away… all from a standing start--- are the only people who are in a position to judge how the management did…”

“I had a thought after reading this sensationalist blog: How many of these players thought to get off their butts and instead of going to bars after games and complaining, thought to be a part of creating some solutions to fill in various gaps? …This blog brings forward these gripes to a new lousy level. Assuming the writer thinks is important to have baseball in Israel, besides just trying to be famous for this muck, did he ever contact someone and say, Hey, I have been in Israel for 10 years… maybe there are some issues whether it be in obtaining adequate ice? …Or maybe he could have said, Can I invite some of these players for a homecooked meal?”

“We ought to look in the laundry pile of any start up company, household, or school for that matter--- to get jollies if we enjoy reading this stuff. I am thrilled my son got a chance to play professional baseball in Israel and I would be unhappy to think he did not recognize the enormity of the variables which were put in place very well this summer as to enable something great which never existed in Israel before… There is no other professional baseball league outside of the U.S. besides Japan that gets close to the crowds which the first season IBL got. There are no start up leagues that accomplish anything outside of the U.S.close to what happened this summer THAT IS BECAUSE IT IS HARD HARD HARD TO DO to ANY EXTENT !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! WHY DONT YOU PEOPLE GET THIS! …This was a START UP that was incredibly successful. Don’t tear it and the memories down!”
Stay tuned as the controversy continues to develop...

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

World Exclusive! Special Report! Can't anyone here run this game? Elli Wohlgelernter on the scandalous debut of the Israel Baseball League

Readers of Tabloid Baby know him as Our Man Elli in Israel, our longtime pal and veteran print and broadcast journalist who, more than a decade ago left his native New York City and Yankees for life in Jerusalem, Israel (and subject of the documentary film project, Sex & Baseball. Many others know him as Elli Wohlgelernter, television reporter for the Israeli Broadcasting Authority and freelance print journalist whose reports on life in the Big Bagel have appeared in newspapers from The Jerusalem Post to The New York Times.

Now, in this exclusive report, Elli Wohlgelernter reports on the wild first season of the much-anticipated Israel Baseball League, which led off an eight-week, 45-game season in June:

The Oys of Summer

How Israel's season in the sun
turned into a season in Hell


BAPTIST VILLAGE, Israel - The Israel Baseball League started out with high hopes, an almost mystical dream that resonated deeply with Jews across the United States: a professional baseball league in Israel!

But the result, say many, were more errors than hits: players threatening to strike when paychecks were late; a manager hired to help give face to the fledgling league leaving in the middle of the season, after trashing the league to the media; and a player almost killed by a batting practice line drive, an accident that might have been prevented with proper equipment.

The IBL was created two years ago by Boston businessman Larry Baras, who cultivated glowing press and fan interest in the United States. Baras assembled a distinguished team of advisers, executives, financial backers and former players, to help launch what in essence was a start-up company in a foreign country.

The stated idea was to generate enthusiasm and fan interest by promising, among other things, a range of marketing gimmicks borrowed from minor league ballparks in the states: karaoke night, speed dating night, sack racing, sumo wrestling competitions, and even ballpark weddings. To further build anticipation, the league’s Web site prominently displayed a countdown clock giving days, minutes, and hours until opening day.

But while the marketing may have worked among the Jews in the U.S. and the English-speaking “Anglo community” here, the league barely registered with Israelis, who were largely ignored in the marketing plans-- and insulted to boot.

David Rosenthal, a sports reporter for Walla!, the biggest Israeli Web portal, posted a story four days before opening day, critical of the way the six-team league was being sold exclusively to an overseas audience. “Excuse me, what about us?” read the headline.

Still, for those Anglo fans who did come out, it was a joy, whether hearing Hatikva sung before each game-- without taking off their hats-- eating kosher hot dogs, getting close to the players, or hearing a call for afternoon prayers being announced in the middle of the fifth inning.


But what they didn't know was what was going on in the dugout. Many of the players-- 120 recruited from around the world-- had previously played some professional baseball, a half-dozen even at the Triple-A level, a rung below the Major Leagues. As such, they were expecting a more professional environment, and were greatly disappointed: the housing accommodations were called a hostel, an army barrack, even a homeless shelter; air conditioning wasn’t working in a half-dozen rooms the first week, in the midst of a brutal heat wave; there was no arrangement for laundry service; and the food was so bad, players said, that they eventually lost an average of seven to 10 pounds, or more.

“I’ve lost almost 17 pounds since I’ve been here,” said Scott Jarmakowicz, a catcher for the Bet Shemesh Blue Sox. “Over half my paycheck, at least half, has gone to food. It’s not sustainable eating the same schnitzel and boiled eggs three times a day. I’m a catcher, and it takes its toll. I’m sure I would have lost some weight, but not 17 pounds.”

But that wasn’t even the main gripe. Players just wanted to play baseball, and were expecting the necessities that accompany any sport. But when they arrived at their dorm facilities at Kfar Hayarok just north of Tel Aviv, there was no ice to soothe sore muscles, nor a weight room facility, absolute staples for athletes in any sport.

The league made provisions for ice to be bought, until an ice machine was obtained a couple of weeks into the season; and arrangements were made for players to use nearby gyms. Most of the players were willing to look past the peripheral deficiencies in order to play baseball, a love they all shared, and a dream they all nourished. But here, too, they were working under a severe handicap.

Bones of contention

Arriving only three days before the season began, the players had no time for pre-season workouts; and then there were the fields themselves. The best facility was Baptist Village in Petah Tikva, a beautiful diamond that hosts baseball and softball for the Maccabiah Games.

But the other two fields were bones of contention among the players: One was at Gezer, where the outfield grass sloped upward; there was no warning track in left and center fields; the outfield fence wasn’t padded; and there was a light pole on the field in right. Moreover, the right field foul line was 280 feet, making it feel like a little league pasture, and skewing players’ statistics.

The third field was Sportek in Tel Aviv, which was not even built when the season started. This situation left two fields for six teams and a schedule out of whack: teams had too many days off, managers were unable to set up a proper pitching rotation, and no team completed its full 45-game schedule-- four teams played 41 games, and two played 40. Moreover, neither Gezer nor Sportek had lights, which meant games had to start at 5 p.m., an inconvenient time for working fans.

When Sportek finally opened July 10, 16 days into the eight-week season-– and with a right-field line even shorter than Gezer's-- it still wasn’t ready, with potentially dangerous field conditions.

“There are rocks, glass, and pieces of rusty metal we pulled out of the ground,” said Jarmakowicz. “You can slide on a rock anywhere, but most fields aren’t gong to have three bars sticking out of it. And these are hard fences, you can really get hurt.”

Commissioner Dan Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, concurred. “We need to improve the fields. We used them [Gezer and Sportek], but they are not really at a professional level.”

Near-fatal disaster

At first the ballparks also did not have proper equipment, from little things like pitchers’ resin bags, to important items like screens at the bases during batting practice, to crucial equipment like batting cages, which protect those not on the field from getting hurt during pre-game batting practice. This lack of protection almost resulted in a fatal disaster.

On July 11 at Gezer, Reynaldo Cruz, a 24-year-old star outfielder from the Dominican Republic playing for the Petah Tikva Pioneers, committed a cardinal sin and turned his back on batting practice. Standing near his dugout situated very close to the field, he was struck in the back of the head by a line drive off the bat of Modi’in’s Adalberto Paulino.

Cruz was knocked cold for a couple of minutes and lay on the ground shaking, which gave the surrounding players a fright.

There was a 20-minute wait for an ambulance to arrive before Cruz was taken to Assaf Harofeh hospital, where he stayed for two weeks, was released, and went back in complaining of dizzy spells.

Cruz’s season was done, but he was alive.

“Gezer is a particular problem-- we probably should have anticipated more safety requirements at Gezer,” said Kurtzer. “Secondly, the players themselves have been too lax all season, not wearing batting helmets, and not paying attention on the field during practice. So the horse escapes, the barn door gets closed. We did institute some better safety procedures at Gezer.”

The forfeit

The players were also vociferous in their criticism of the umpiring. In one famous incident that was subsequently posted on YouTube (above), one of the league’s best players, Ryan Crotin, argued an umpire’s call, got thrown out of the game, refused to leave the batter’s box, and his team was declared to have lost on forfeit.

“There [have] been a couple of problems with the umpires here,” said one player on his independent blog. “They don't know some of the rules. They don't know correct umpire positioning. They have inconsistent strike zones at times. They have a bad habit of ejecting players for no specific reason. And most importantly, some of them have trouble taking control of the game.”

Because of all this happening the first three weeks of the season, the league worked hard at spin control. In a July 13 letter from Martin Berger, president and COO of the IBL, the players were told that everything was fine.

“Things over here continue to be strong,” Berger wrote from the U.S. “We are meeting with investors every day and we have a meeting with Major League Baseball Affiliates this week. The buzz is fantastic.”


Three days later was payday, and miscommunication between the league and players resulted in smaller paychecks than were expected. Players-– led by those from the Dominican Republic, who were much more in need of the money to send to their families back home-- threatened to strike, 22 days into the brand new league.

In rushed the league’s commissioner, who scrambled up to Kfar Yarok to stem the rebellion. Around noon, a meeting was held on an outdoor basketball court with the player’s improvised union, led by 45-year-old Alan Gardner, centerfielder for the Blue Sox and a practicing New York lawyer.

“It was funny because the IBL was close to striking-- it was surreal,” said a player in attendance. “Some of the players took video of the makeshift meeting because we all thought it was so funny.”

Not to the league it wasn’t. Kurtzer-– a savvy veteran of tough Middle East political negotiations-- told the players that there had been a misunderstanding, but that he would not negotiate under threat - and, according to players who were there, that he would cancel the league if they struck, a threat Kurtzer denied.

“I didn’t say that,” Kurtzer said. “I said, ‘I’ll talk to you all day, and we’ll fix the problem, but I’m not going to be here with you saying if you’re not happy you’re going out on strike.’ I said, ‘If you want to go out on strike that’s your choice, I can’t stop you.’ ”

Kurtzer explained the mix-up, saying: “The problem at the beginning of the season was that they didn’t understand that we overpaid them the first time, and therefore we adjusted it the second, and our communications broke down. In other words, after two weeks there were supposed to get a week’s pay, and then have that week delay, as in most businesses. After two weeks we paid them for two weeks, so after the second two weeks, we paid them for one week, and we were gong to start the delay, and they said ‘hey, wait a minute, we worked two weeks, and threatened a strike. It was explained to them, and they understood it.”

At a subsequent payday, money was again late. The players, having heard rumors about the league’s financial difficulties, were upset that the league was not more forthcoming.

“I believe that they knew seven or 10 days ahead of time that it was going to be late,” said Jamarkowicz. “Don’t just have us show up, keep telling us you’re going to pay us, and then when we get there, when you knew 90 percent chance that it wasn’t going to come through, tell us, ‘Hey, we’re really trying to get you paid, it could be up to a week late. We’re gonna push it back. We’re gonna try and give you 100, 200 shekels to try to get you by, just work with us.’ I’m more than willing to work with anybody 100 percent. I understand financial backing, new league, things are going to happen. I’m OK with that. But be up front with me, be honest with me, don’t BS me around.”

No balls

Meanwhile, the threatened strike was headed off, and baseball continued. But not all the teams were doing well. The Petah Tikva team, managed by former Jewish Major Leaguer Ken Holtzman, was losing a lot of games, and was destined for last place early on. The losing, and the problems encountered all season, finally got to Holtzman, and he publicly criticized the league, the teams, the players, the fields, and the Israeli fans. (see sidebar)

The league, understandably, was outraged over his words and his going public. It was the black eye the league had been working to avoid all season. Two weeks later, the league and Holtzman reached an agreement for him to leave.

But the league was in trouble, financially most of all. At one point there were no more baseballs, partly a result of players handing out too many souvenirs in the spirit of promoting the league. The IBL had to order more, and the players were ordered not to give away any baseballs to fans, under threat of a 50 shekel fine.

“I know how hard it is to say no and I am very aware of how persistent and sometimes over-zealous our fans can be,” Berger wrote the players on July 31. “But we cannot throw balls into the stands anymore. I just brought over 3500 more baseballs. This is it for the rest of the season. If we run out, we stop playing.”

The players were upset.

“Do you have any idea how hard it is to say no to a seven-year-old boy asking for a ball?” wrote Jesse Michel on his blog. “What should I tell him, ‘No son, the league has threatened to fine me if I give you one?’ Right.”

Fans in the dark

All of the various issues plaguing the league were unknown to the public during the season, the result both of an absence of news reporting, and a major effort at spin control by the league.

With the notable exception of Rosenthal writing all season on Walla!, the Israeli press-- Hebrew and English-- was mainly uninterested. The stories that were printed were written by the league’s amateur reporters, who consistently led with the wrong news day after day: a story on a no-hitter led with the news that the game was the quickest of the year, while the story on the All-Star game began with the home run-hitting contest, to cite two examples.

The league was happy with the free, non-controversial publicity, and tried to control any negative publicity by censuring players blogging on their Web site, as well as influencing independent bloggers to remove negative postings.

So the fans kept in the dark on the dugout intrigue supported their teams blindly. By far the teams with the most fan support were Bet Shemesh, followed by Modi’in, two cities with large Anglo communities. One fan from Bet Shemesh celebrated his 45 birthday by baking a cake and traveling to Tel Aviv to hand out slices to his beloved Blue Sox.

“It brought back innocence,” Alan Krasma said of his summer experience, while dishing out the desert. “If you look at the last two summers, we had Gush Katif two summers ago, we had the Lebanon war last summer. This summer was just really relaxed. I was able to come with each of my kids to the game, we met a few of the players, and we really got to know them. It was like coming to watch a bunch of friends play.”

Too little, too late

But while Americans supported the sport-- the league’s attendance ranged from an average of 73 for Netanya to 418 for Bet Shemesh, though it was often a matter of guesswork-- there were few Israelis who attended. The promised marketing gimmicks never happened, and outreach to communities was too little, too late: teams visited their respective city’s malls to give out free tickets and paraphernalia in the seventh week of the eight-week season.

“We did, I think, a superlative job for a new league marketing among Americans in America and among Anglos in Israel,” said Kurtzer. “And we did nothing with Israelis. Part of it had to do with organization. We talked about it a lot, and then we didn’t hire anybody to do it for a long time, and then there was a budget issue, we spent a lot of money on the television contract… This was our management fashla,” he said, using the Israeli slang for a screw-up. “That’s what it was."

Not all Anglos felt the outreach. Rabbi Stewart Weiss, a lifelong fan of his hometown Cubs and a former Bleacher Bum, is director of an organization in Ra'anana helping new immigrants. He and his family attended several games to root for the IBL team named after his adopted city, the Ra'anana Express-- but heard little, if any, information about the team and league in Ra'anana itself.

"They're called the Ra'anana Express, but they don't play here, there is no publicity about them in town, and you can't buy tickets locally," said Weiss. "There ought to be a concerted attempt to reach out to Ra'anana - a city of 75,000, one-third of whom are English-speaking immigrants. There has to be a stronger connection to the city in order to build team spirit and team support. Can you just name a team after a city without actually involving the city or its inhabitants?"

No pay, no play

The league did try one marketing drive aimed at Israelis-- they paid the Israeli sports channel to broadcast Sunday night games in Hebrew. But when payment stopped coming, so did the broadcasts.

“It’s a shame this is what they are doing to us, after we put our heart and soul in it,” Yaron Talpaz, sports channel’s vice president for business development, told Walla! “We did not expect this kind of management from a league whose commissioner was the former U.S. ambassador to Israel.”

Kurtzer said everyone would eventually be paid, including, he admitted, himself, and that it was a shame the sports channel chose not to broadcast the second half of the season, including the championship game.

“Yes, we do owe them money, but I’m confident that they are gong to get paid. It’s a haval that we didn’t have the cash flow to pay them, it’s haval that they didn’t want to do it on faith that they are going to get paid, so, haval. Everyone’s going to get paid.”

Kurtzer said that plans for next season are already under way, that he and league management knows what needs to be done, and that a replay of this season’s problems isn’t likely.

“It will be different in the sense that you will have other complaints-- the food is always going to be a complaint-- but I’d say that 75 percent of the legitimate stuff that these guys complained about this year-- legitimate being because it was true-- we’ll fix it. And they’re gonna get paid on time, and we now know that you gotta get the laundry right, so all that stuff will be done right.

The main problem, he said, was not enough hands on board.

“We need more personnel, league personnel, just to handle issues. Very often players didn’t know to whom to turn, so you just need enough people – someone who is responsible for x, and responsible for y, and you know where to go. So those are the things we’ll work on.”

The players themselves understood that. By the time the Blue Sox beat the Modi’in Miracle for the championship, the players had put all the problems behind them, and were sad to see the inaugural season end. The camaraderie was evident the night before the playoffs, when they held an award night and gave out “The Schnitzel Award” in a number of jocular categories.

Almost to a man, all players asked said they would love to come back and play another season, if they don’t get offers to play anywhere else.

“My personal experience has just been wonderful in every aspect of it,” said Eric Holtz, the 41-year-old player manager for the Blue Sox. “To be able to play and compete, having my wife and children here for three weeks and having them involved in one of the most exciting things of my life, has just been phenomenal. And being a Jew, you can’t come here and not feel some sense of spirituality. And I’m not a religious Jew.”

Asked if he and the other players would come back next season, after all they went through, Holtz didn’t hesitate.

“If they lived through the worst and survived,” he said, “then why wouldn’t they come back next year?"

Elli Wohlgelernter contributed to Roger Kahn's semi-classic baseball book, Good Enough To Dream, and considers this story something of a bookend. Watch Tabloid Baby for more exclusive reports from Our Man Elli in Israel.

And don't forget to read the sidebar on the mudslinging exit of manager Ken Holtzman.

World Exclusive! Elli Wohlgelernter on the Israel Baseball League: The manager who melted down

World-renowned journalist Elli Wohlgelernter-- known here as Our Man Elli In Israel-- is already causing shockwaves around the sportsworld with his exposé of the new Israel Baseball League. In this sidebar story, he explores one of the most embarrassing incidents of this first season: the outburst and ouster of one of the league's most high-profile figures, team manager and former Major League pitcher Ken Holtzman:

The Holtzman Affair


In an interview on July 20 with the Israeli Web portal Walla!, Petah Tikva manager and former Major Leaguer Ken Holtzman let loose with a sweeping broadside against the Israel Baseball League, sparing no one.

He criticized the baseball fields: “They would reach the level of high schools in our country”; the teams: “Chosen at random, and in a strange manner”; the Israeli players: “There are no good Israeli players”; the other players: “According to what I can see, none of the players can reach even semi-pro baseball in the United States… the really good player would never come here”; and the Israeli fan: “There is no chance that baseball will succeed in Israel. People here relate to baseball the way people in America relate to soccer. They see it as something very boring, and it will never catch on… you can't make a big impression because there is no culture of baseball, and the facilities are the worse possible.”

A season of frustration all came pouring out, and against league organizers as well.

“They wanted to make the league work very very quickly,” Holtzman said. “The main point to them was that there would be a league, that they could then go to Bud Selig, commissioner of Major League Baseball [and a member of the league’s advisory committee], to tell him that ‘we provided the goods,’ that there is also baseball in Israel. But they opened the league a year too soon. It makes no sense that they would sit in the Eastern United States doing publicity and creating the league, and at the same time, there is nobody here supervising. Look at this field,” he said, referring to Sportek Field in Tel Aviv. “The league opened, and this field still wasn't ready. They pushed off 25 games because of scandalous management. They should have waited.”

Holtzman said that the lack of care on the part of management was a detriment to the league’s success.

“They talked about a 1,000 fans a game? Here in Petah Tikva, we get a 100 in the best case. The players also complain about the lack of concern. It's not good, because when they go back to their homes, they will tell other players not to come. I also asked myself, what is the goal here? To create a major league, or just to give players a chance? This league will last a year, and in the best case, two years.”

Two weeks later, Holtzman left Israel, by mutual agreement with the league. Commissioner Dan Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, would not comment on the Holtzman affair.

“There were issues, and we had differences of view. The time had come when, mutually, we agreed that it was best for him to go home. We suggested to him that it would be best for everybody if this didn’t get all over the press. So far we haven’t heard that he has, so we haven’t talked about it either.”

Kurtzer did respond to the question of whether the league started a year too soon.

“No. I think if we had not started this year, whatever momentum we had built up in the states we would have-- not lose it, but it would have dissipated, and it would have been real hard. There’s a constant struggle we had between getting it going, and convincing people we were serious, and getting everything organized, and you’re balancing all the time.”

If the league was upset, the players more so, not so much over Holtzman’s criticism of the league-– much of which they agreed with-- but of his going public with it, and, first and foremost, the knocking of his own Pioneer players.

“To have a man do that, and just bash the team like that - it’s a team game, don’t throw your team under the bus like that,” said Steve Raab, of the Rana'ana Express. “It’s one thing to keep something like that contained within your team; if he wants to talk to his team like that, that’s his prerogative. But these are 23-year old kids that he’s telling couldn’t even make a high school baseball team?

“He didn’t even give it two months-- I don’t think he gave it a chance from when he got here. He saw how the team looked in practice, and that was it.”

How the team looked, and Holtzman’s criticism of his team being chosen at random, and in a strange manner, had some validity, according to someone in league management. He said that the lack of expertise by the person who drafted the Petah Tikva team made it obvious that the Pioneers were not going to be the same caliber as the rest of the league. “I knew that day that the team was in trouble,” said the executive, who was present on draft day.

Players were divided over Holtzman’s comments.

"He had some very valid points," said pitcher Leon Feingold of the Netanya Tigers, a native New Yorker and a professional competitive eater who has been ranked as high as 12th in the world. "Obviously I don’t agree with the way that he did it. But as a major leaguer accustomed to a certain level of both treatment and infrastructure in organization, I can see why he was very surprised and disheartened by what he saw going on here."

Nate Fish, a league All-Star who lives in Brooklyn and is a student at the New School, said everyone tried to put his best foot forward when dealing with the press, and when dealing with people outside the league. "I think they did make an effort to keep it under wraps when things went wrong," Fish said. "But it's certainly brave of him, in a way, to be honest about what he thought, and not just give the cliché answers that everyone always gives. So I respect people who are honest, especially when they can shy away from speaking their mind. But at the same time, you have to have tact. It's in all of our best interest to promote the league, as opposed to ream it."

"I would disagree with the way he said it, but he wasn't wrong with the issues," said Aaron Levin, who was born in Los Angeles and now lives in San Luis Obispo . "I think he was a just a little frustrated, as everyone else is. He just expressed himself in a different way than I would have."

”I didn't bother to read Holtzman's comments," said Jacob Levy, who was born in Santa Monica and now lives in Los Angeles . "If Holtzman's assessment was that the league started a year too soon, I respectfully disagree. Baseball can never be played too soon. Could the fields have been better? Certainly. Perhaps if Israel 's tax rates were lower, the economy would readily offer the expertise and materials required to build excellent baseball fields usually developed first for other applications. As for the assertion that most of the players couldn't play professionally in the U.S., that holds true for all leagues save the professional leagues of the U. S. of A."

“He really doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” said Nat Ballenberg, 22, from Long Valley, New Jersey. “He knows pitching mechanics, but he doesn’t know how to run a team. The things he said about his players - that’s just totally unprofessional.”

“You assume a guy with five championship rings can conduct himself in a professional way,” said Travis Zier, a graduate of Haverford College outside Philadelphia, where he is second all-time in wins. “He shouldn’t have done it. He’s a professional baseball player? He can’t manage for s--t.”

Tuesday, August 14, 2007


With condolences to Our Man Elli In Israel, pride of the Yankees fans.