Former Red Sox GM Dan Duquette with Israel Baseball League hopefuls. (Marty Appel for ESPN)HINSDALE, Mass. – On the site of the former Camp Wyoma, where an eighth grader named Dan Duquette once played volleyball and pitched horseshoes at his church picnic, 60 American ballplayers of various skills, ages and religious persuasions have gathered in pursuit of a common goal: To play professionally in the Israel Baseball League in June 2007.
The good news: The morning signups, pre-workout salutations and several 60-yard dash trials are complete before the first ambulance is summoned. Barely 10 minutes into the tryouts, activity ceases and hearts commence thumping when a camper mysteriously collapses on the grass. After several anxious moments, the camp trainer determines that it’s nothing serious. The fallen player, more winded than injured, gets to his feet and hits the showers while the ambulance drives away.
Shortly thereafter the pristine, tree-ringed grounds of the Duquette Sports Academy are awash with a sense of bustle and hope. Infielders chatter, catchers’ mitts pop, and too many hitters swing the bat with the authority of a rolled-up Boston Globe.
Duquette, who scouted in Milwaukee and ran the Expos’ farm system before stints as general manager in Montreal and Boston, says tryout camps are a “truth serum” of sorts. When you dispense with the sprints and long-range throwing out of the chute, the rest is just a charade for lots of candidates.
As Duquette assesses the talent before him, he acknowledges that three or four positive reviews out of 60 would be a decent haul.
“You have to start somewhere,” he says.
Near the end of the best-selling novel Exodus, Leon Uris writes of Israel’s magnetic pull for dispossessed Jews in search of refuge in the late 1940s.
“Many came with little more than the clothes they were wearing,” Uris writes. “Many were old and many were ill and many were illiterate, but no matter what the condition, no matter what the added burden, no Jew was turned away from the doors of Israel.”
Today’s audition in the heart of the Berkshire Mountains has less to do with Zionism than the search for employment. The campers have hauled out their sweats and dusted off their dreams in hopes of playing a kid’s game in a region that’s too often rated NC-17 for violence.
All the ballplayers here have seen the images on CNN and Fox, of age-old hostilities festering to the surface and cross-border reprisals giving way to tenuous cease-fires. It’s a near-constant loop of suffering and despair. But several profess not to be concerned.
“I would say 95 percent of the country is totally safe,” says Jacob Schulder, a camper from New Jersey who recently visited Israel for the 20th time. “There are places in the Bronx you can’t go and there are places in Israel you can’t go. That’s the way life is.”
Baseball’s quest to globalize has helped the sport make inroads in several new frontiers. When Jim Lefebvre is preaching the gospel in China, Lee Smith is teaching curveball grips to young pitchers in South Africa and Stubby Clapp and the Canadians are beating the tar out of the United States in the World Baseball Classic, the baseball landscape clearly is changing.
So why not Israel, a nation with a fondness for pizza, bowling, malls, reality TV, McDonald’s, Home Depot and Blockbuster Video? Statistics show that Israel has the highest percentage of home computers per capita in the world, the highest ratio of university degrees and the second highest per capita output of new books each year. Shouldn’t a society this enlightened embrace the most cerebral sport of all?
That sentiment mirrors Larry Baras’ thinking when he hatched the idea last year of bringing pro ball to the Land of Milk and Honey. Baras, 54, owns SJR Food Inc., a Boston-based specialty baking company. While various newspaper profiles have referred to him as a “Boston millionaire” or “Boston baker,” those descriptions make Baras wince.
“Don’t let me anywhere near a kitchen,” he says.
Baras’ signature product is the “Unholey Bagel,” which comes with the cream cheese already inside. Eight years ago, Baras thought he might drum up some business by dropping a bagel from the top of the Prudential Center in Boston and having Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek catch it on the street. But he couldn’t negotiate a satisfactory price with Varitek’s agent, Scott Boras, so the promotion died.
As an Orthodox Jew, Baras was interested in doing volunteer work in Israel last summer when the light bulb clicked. His son works for the Brockton (Mass.) Rox of the independent Canadian American League, and Baras was attending a game when it struck him how family-friendly baseball can be.
“Brockton is a tough town, but I would go to games and see families,” Baras says. “There were teenagers with tattoos on their arms and balloon hats on their heads. I’m thinking, ‘Here it is, Saturday night, and you have thousands of kids enjoying this most wholesome thing and having a blast. If I could take something like this and transfer it over to Israel, what a gift that would be.'”
Baras has spent the past year on a quixotic journey, making trips to Israel, soliciting sponsors and educating himself on the ins and outs of retrofitting stadiums. He has garnered media attention while navigating the inevitable bureaucratic hassles, dotting his “I’s” only to stumble across an endless array of uncrossed “T’s.”
The Israel Baseball League hierarchy is full of heavy hitters. Baras’ list of advisers includes Marvin Goldklang, who ran minor-league teams with Bill Murray and Mike Veeck, Smith College economics professor and author Andrew Zimbalist, and former Portland Trail Blazers president Marshall Glickman.
Daniel Kurtzer, former US Ambassador to both Israel and Egypt, brings credibility as the new league’s commissioner. When Kurtzer’s three sons learned he had been chosen for the role, they congratulated him for finally doing something worthwhile with his life.
Duquette, a Dalton, Mass., native and Amherst College graduate, is the league’s director of player development. His camp has been designated as the US training ground for the Israel initiative.
When Duquette was working for the Expos, former Montreal owner Charles Bronfman talked wistfully of expanding baseball to Israel one day. The Expos helped plant the seed for baseball in Canada by establishing two academies, and Duquette sees the same potential for Israel. About 2,500 youngsters and adults currently play organized baseball or softball in Israel, a country roughly the size of New Jersey.
“The Israeli culture is very Americanized and baseball is the American game, so there’s a level of interest there,” Duquette says. “If you can make your sport important to the people in the culture and have the kids look up to the professional players, you have a chance to succeed.”
Given the abuse Duquette received in the Boston papers and on talk radio after allowing Roger Clemens to leave for Toronto and trading for Carl Everett, he’s certainly accustomed to operating in a hostile environment. If anyone is equipped to help run a league in the shadow of Hizbullah, it’s a former Red Sox general manager.
Along with bringing pro ball to Israel, Baras and his group are pushing for an Israeli entry in the 2009 World Baseball Classic. Rules permitting, they will explore the possibility of asking Jewish major leaguers to take part. That means Shawn Green, Jason Marquis and others could get a call.
Boston outfielder Gabe Kapler, who routinely wears a blue T-shirt with “Red Sox” inscribed in Hebrew letters, won’t require much prompting.
“I would jump at the opportunity,” Kapler says. “It would be an amazing, pride-building experience. I feel very strongly about my bloodline – being Jewish as a culture, not necessarily as a religion. It’s part of who I am, what my makeup is all about and how I’m perceived.”
Until the big names come on board, this flick is a cross between Bull Durham and The Bad News Bears Go to Tel Aviv. Roughly 80 percent of the candidates in Hinsdale are Jewish. Some have negligible talent and are here strictly on a lark. Others have played college ball at a decent level and see this as their best chance to continue.
Adam Crabb, a right-handed pitcher, flew all the way from Australia to try out. Crabb, 22, works in the agricultural industry buying grain from farmers, and during a recent slow day on the job he was trolling the Internet when he came upon the Israel Baseball League Web site. He bought a plane ticket to Boston, attended a Red Sox-Tigers game at Fenway Park, then took his long-limbed, funky motion and infectious smile to the heart of the Berkshires.
“He might be the new Graeme Lloyd,” says Jacob Schulder.
Schulder, a former Yeshiva University rabbinical student, is pursuing his masters degree in real estate development from Columbia University. Jim Pierce, a shortstop for Division III Thomas College in Maine, plays summer ball in the Boston Park League.
Justin Prinstein, a former George Washington University pitcher, majored in international affairs and wants to learn to speak Arabic, but not before he runs out of chances to play pro ball. Prinstein has attended tryout camps run by the Pirates, Tigers, Brewers, Reds and Braves, only to be told that his 83-85 mph fastball is a tad short.
“It’s an exhausting process,” Prinstein says. “I’ve been all over the country. And the funny thing is, I still don’t feel like I’ve explored all the options. There’s a ton of leagues out there.”
Reggie Evans, 49-year-old assistant baseball coach at Compton Community College in Los Angeles, is the only African-American in camp. Evans played Little League ball with Hubie Brooks, spent eight years in the Mexican League, and was a teammate of former major leaguer Mark Whiten with the Northern League’s Thunder Bay Whiskey Jacks.
Just to set the record straight, Reggie Evans is not and never has been Jewish.
“When I found out you didn’t have to be Jewish and you can be old, I said, “I’m there,'” Evans says, laughing.
While basketball and soccer are extremely popular in Israel, some observers are skeptical that baseball will develop a following. It might be too slow, complex and labyrinthine in its nuances to resonate.
Amit Kurz, 18, a member of the Israeli squad that finished ninth in the European Cup tournament this year, elicits puzzled expressions when he tells his countrymen that he plays baseball.
“The first question people ask is, ‘Do you hit or do you field?'” Kurz says.
When Daniel Kurtzer was Israeli ambassador and speaking to academics visiting the US.on fellowships, he urged them to do two things to understand American culture: (1) Visit a Civil War battlefield, and (2) Attend a baseball game. While many of the Israelis were captivated by Gettysburg or Appomattox Courthouse, they were confused or bored to tears by baseball.
“We have work to do,” Kurtzer concedes.
This is why Larry Baras hopes to emphasize the family angle that’s made minor-league ball such a hit in the US Parks at Israeli games will have barbecue grills, picnic tables with umbrellas and lots of between-innings diversions.
In the town of Beit Shemesh, located between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, there are 10,000 transplanted Americans and 240 kids in Little League. Baras is convinced the ballpark will be a happening place on summer nights. At Kibbutz Gezer, where the first Israeli baseball field was built in 1979, the view alone might suffice. “It’s the most beautiful field I’ve ever seen,” Baras says.
There’s something to be said for dressing appropriately, and it becomes evident on tryout day that some aspirants haven’t chosen wisely.
“You can tell who the novices are,” Larry Baras says at 7:30 a.m. “Dan Duquette is running the camp, and 20 guys show up wearing Yankees hats.”
Shortly after 8 a.m., the aspirants line up to sign the necessary forms and confirm they’ve paid the $50 registration fee. Judging from the pre-workout speakers, excitement is building for the new league in Israel.
This is a recurrent theme: Israelis could use a new diversion from upheaval and stress. And by promoting a new venture, Baras and his group are showing a welcome confidence in the future of Israeli society.
Despite an early misstep or two, Duquette and his staff unearth a few ballplayers. Camper Nate Fish attracts attention when he steps in the cage and drives a batting practice pitch off the chain-link fence in left field. Fish deftly shifts from shortstop to third base to the outfield, then squats behind home plate and throws several strikes to second base from the catcher position.
Fish, who is currently studying creative writing in New York, played college ball at the University of Cincinnati with Kevin Youkilis, the starting first baseman for the Boston Red Sox. They remain close friends, staying in touch by text message and reminiscing about old times whenever the Red Sox visit the Yankees.
Like Gabe Kapler, Fish is intrigued by the thought of combining his love of baseball with his affinity for Israel, a special place in his heart.
“I’ve been there twice and I feel really comfortable,” Fish says. “I think they’ll be cautious and smart about when and where we’re playing. I think they would cancel games if they had to.”
At the end of the day, Duquette and his staff designate several players – including Fish and Australian Adam Crabb – to be invited back for another camp in the Berkshires next spring. The campers who weren’t selected receive a certificate of participation and a souvenir Israel Baseball League ball signed by commissioner Dan Kurtzer.
More tryout camps are scheduled for Arizona and Florida in early 2007, and Duquette foresees adding collegians, independent leaguers and players released by professional organizations next spring. The end result: A six-team league that will begin a 48-game schedule on June 22.
The outlook is considerably brighter than three months ago, when Baras joked that the new league had everything it needed “except for stadiums, players and fans.” But when the magnitude of his venture dawns on him, it still sends a shiver through his spine.
“I’m fine during the day,” Baras says. “I have to admit at 2 o’clock in the morning, when I wake up, I wonder if I’m nuts.”
Maybe he’s just a visionary. According to Psalm 1:3, a praiseworthy man is “like a tree deeply rooted alongside brooks of water, that yields its fruit in its season, and whose leaf never withers.”
This is one of the miracles of Israel – that a nation perched on a desert is so abundant in date palms and fertile orchards. The trees are already in place. Now they’ll try to grow a game.
(Reprinted with permission from ESPN.com)