Saturday, February 9, 2008

Batting cleanup on the Israel baseball meeting

So the big money mullahs met in New York City two Thursdays ago to decide the future of baseball in Israel, but in light of last year’s season, in which American-based businessmen set down in the Holy Land with their documentary cameras, boxes of souvenirs and imported players who couldn’t cut the mustard in the States, ignored the natives and then left town without paying their bills, who in Israel really cares whether there’s a Season Two this summer or next?

No decisions came out of the Penn Club powwow, and not even New York Timesman Murray Chass, who can be counted on to do his part for the cause by dishing up whatever promotional information he’s fed, has yet to come up with a report on Israel baseball’s Yalta (or at last Appalachin) conference (Murray’s usually late to the plate, but not this late).

The one journalist who got the lowdown on what went on behind closed doors is the same journalist who’s kept the Israel baseball saga a priority since the summer: Our Man Elli in Israel (Dig that crazy new headshot at left!). Elli Wohlgelernter spoke to many participants in the meeting despite an edict to keep him away from the truth— and despite childish mockery from one participant who should know better.

(Read to the end to find out who made that mistake).

The Lowdown

Two sides came to the meeting with separate agendas. Marvin Goldklang, the New York Yankees shareholder and former IBL advisory board member who chaired the meeting, and former IBL commissioner Dan Kurtzer (the former US ambassador to Israel and Egypt), wanted to settle up the bills left behind by Larry Baras and the IBL. Kurtzer has told IBL players that they’d be paid, and has said he wants the vendors paid as well.

The “other side,” led by Jeff Rosen, who’s heading up the most obvious successor, the Israel Professional Baseball League didn’t want to do it. In the words of one participant: “That’s easy for them to say when they’re spending other people's money.”

(Elli reports that Larry Baras and the Israel Baseball League left a debt that surpasses $1 million. The IBL raised about $1.5 million from investors—who are still demanding an accounting of where their money went.

(The estimated cost of a new season: $2.5 million to $3.2 million.)


The most optimistic proposal for Holy Land hardball fans was to shrink a league to four teams with an abbreviated schedule this summer. “That would help operationally and logistically,” Elli quotes a source. “But the idea was countered by arguments that it’s preferable to take an extra year to line up the ducks more impressively and professionally. And finally, to recognize that any league's long-term success will depend on its ability to attract native Israelis as fans and sponsors.”

Then there’s the Israel Association of Baseball, which governs the game and licenses any potential league. The IAB wants any successor to the Israel Baseball League to pay the $420,000 in unpaid bills the carpetbaggers left behind in Israel.

Rosen took the position that his group will not. As one summit participant told Our Man Elli, “Several people at the meeting pointed out that the Rosen’s refusal to cover at least some of the debts could hurt his efforts. There’s a perception that the IPBL is led by former IBL investors— major IBL investors— who set up a new company as way to avoid paying those debts.”


Sources tell Elli that Rosen’s got people looking into the possibility of sidestepping the IAB altogether, and establishing a league without a license. Those same sources don’t think it’ll happen, though, since the Israel Sports Authority, which governs all professional sports in Israel, sanctions the IAB (and depends on those licensing shekels).

While some insiders think the threat is simply leverage to force the IAB to drop the creditor clause, others tell Elli that Rosen feels so strongly about the issue, he just might go for it.

Ami Baran, the manager of the IBL’s Netanya Tigers who for some reason showed up, brought up the spectre of violence if a new league moved in without paying the IBL’s debts, saying there would be demonstrations, and things “could get ugly.”

“He was basically trying to shake down the room,” said one participant in disgust.


Other observations? The meeting’s chairman, Marvin Goldklang, the New York Yankees shareholder and former IBL advisory boardmember, told Elli: "Although I don't have a horse in the race, my hope is that, whoever moves forward with the professional baseball effort, will do so with a sensitivity toward the many people, including creditors, who placed their faith in the idea that baseball can succeed in Israel---regardless of who may have let them down. In the end, it’s the credibility of the sport that is at stake, more so than the reputation of any one individual or group."

Rosen (sounding a little like Mark McGuire speaking to Congress), said: “We are rowing forward. With little help from our friends. Our focus is the future, not the past. And we believe in the The Dream, not past mistakes.”

Off The Record

Still more participants spoke off the record:

“The bottom line is that all of the parties shared the vision of the greater good: baseball in Israel,” said one man who was at the meeting. “Everyone recognized the need to resolve things quickly to have a 2008 season, but by the end of the day, there was no resolution. Everyone left with a more complete understanding of the operating costs, which was a big step. Private conversations in coming days will hopefully bear fruit.”

Sadly, many believe that the IPBL's Rosen is naïve: naïve in thinking that a new league (whose name sounds so similar to the old one) can rise up from the debt-strewn ashes of the IBL and throw out the first ball without covering the bills left behind from last season. And one businessman who was a minor investor in the IBL laid out the most obvious: “Baseball is not basketball. And it’s not soccer. Baseball is not a priority in Israel. It’s not on the 'must-need' list! When you bring in a new product, you need to be very flexible and prepare yourself at least the first few years for some probable big financial losses and a lot of birth pains.

“All this hostility against Baras is taking away from a positive solution. If you’re serious about solutions, you go to the heart of the problem. If you don't satisfy the Israel Baseball Association and the vendors who are owed, you are not a serious player! I do wonder if this whole Rosen thing is something of a farce.”

Who said “Wohlge- liar”?

By the way, we're told it was Martin Berger, the president and COO of the Israel Baseball League, who referred to journalist Elli Wohlgelernter as “Elli Wohlge-LIAR.”

He has not, of course, pointed to one “lie” told by Elli or any misstatements in his reporting.

And how would he like it if we called him Marty Berg-ler?

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