NEW YORK (Reuters) - A trio of retired Jewish major leaguers will try to help grow professional baseball in Israel in this year’s opening season of the Israel Baseball League, organizers said Monday.
Former pitcher Ken Holtzman, outfielder Art Shamsky and baseball’s first designated hitter Ron Blomberg will manage three of the league’s six teams during the inaugural 45-game schedule that begins on June 24.
The brainchild of Boston businessman Larry Baras, the league boasts former major league general manager Dan Duquette as its director of baseball operations, and former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer as commissioner.
Organizers said they believed Israel was ripe for another professional sport besides soccer and basketball.
“I think Israel is ready for a third major sport,” Kurtzer told a New York news conference.
Eighty players, including two promising Australians, were signed in tryouts at Duquette’s Massachusetts baseball academy and at Yarkon Sports complex in Petach Tikva, Israel.
Another 50 players are expected to sign from upcoming tryouts in Miami, Los Angeles and the Dominican Republic, said Duquette, former general manager of the Montreal Expos and Boston Red Sox.
While the majority of players drawn to the venture are of Jewish lineage, the league has no restrictions. About 15 Israelis have made the league, a number that is expected to grow as the country is more exposed to the sport.
“We’re going to build up the infrastructure of the sport, so we can perpetuate the growth of baseball,” said Duquette, who said the league has already applied to compete in the 2009 World Baseball Classic.
A few special wrinkles distinguish the league.
Games will be seven innings long and contests tied after seven innings will be decided by a Home Run Derby. A designated hitter can be used only twice per game.
There will be no games played during the Jewish Sabbath.
Participants were enthused by the prospect of pioneering the American pastime in Israel.
“For 41 years up to now, September 1966 was my mother’s proudest day, the game I pitched against Sandy Koufax,” said Holtzman, who won 174 games in a 15-year career spent mainly with the Cubs and Athletics — nine more wins than the great Dodgers’ Jewish Hall-of-Fame left-hander.
“This is making her proud.”
Shamsky, a member of the 1969 “Miracle Mets”, who were unlikely World Series champions said: “The idea grew as a challenge, to use my experience to be able to grow the league. I think it’s great for the game to be played in the most historical place in the world.”
Duquette said players would make between $2,000 and $2,400 for the season.
“I don’t think anybody is doing this for the money,” said 45-year-old New York lawyer Alan Gardner, who was signed as a player/coach after showing he could hit 95-mph fastballs.
“For most of us, we’d do this for free. For me it is achieving a dream and bringing something to the region, maybe bring Arab and Israeli kids together. I’d prefer people throwing baseballs than throwing rocks.”