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.

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