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Perspective: Baseball in the Holy Land01/28/2009 10:00 AM ET
By Jonathan Mayo / MLB.com
If you build it, they will come? Oy, such a thing would make me kvell.
Back in 2007, there was much excitement -- OK, a little buzz -- about the start of the Israel Baseball League. There were interesting components to the league, from former Red Sox GM Dan Duquette being director of baseball operations to former big leaguer Ron Blomberg managing one of the squads. Art Shamsky and Ken Holtzman were involved as well.
And there were some promising, though small, signs of progress. Eight of the league's players were signed by affiliated teams or given invitations to Spring Training tryouts in 2008. Eladio Rodriguez played in 14 games in the Yankees system last year, picking up just 45 at-bats. Juan Feliciano turned down several Minor League offers and pitched for Minatitlan in the Triple-A Mexican League as well as in the Dominican Republic this winter. Aussie Jason Rees was signed by the Yankees, but is no longer with the organization. Maximo Nelson pitched briefly with Chunichi in Japan last year and a couple others were signed by independent league clubs.
Hardly earth-shattering, but for a first-year league it seemed like a good start. But it was over almost before it began. When I spoke with Bloomberg after that first season in 2007, he hinted at some issues regarding how the league was run. Overall, he loved the experience but had concerns about the long-term health of the league.
Blomberg's concerns were well-founded. There was no league in 2008 and it doesn't look like there will be one this season either. So why the optimism? Why write about a defunct league?
Because of Marv Goldklang, among others. Goldklang is a limited partner of the Yankees and also owns a host of Minor League teams -- Fort Myers, Charleston, Hudson Valley and a pair of independent league clubs. He was on an advisory committee for the Israel Baseball League back in 2007, but left when he became displeased by the operation.
Instead of giving up, though, he wants to give it another try doing it the right way. He's part of a group that includes Jeff Rosen, who owns a basketball team in the Israeli Premier League and some other investors involved in Major League Baseball.
And why not? Baseball, especially with the second World Baseball Classic just around the corner, is all about globalization. If Goldklang and company feel they can make this fly, they should give it a shot.
He seems to know how to make it work this time. Nothing will be rushed -- he has said that the league will not be up and running until 2010 or maybe even '11. The partners clearly want to have all their ducks in a row before giving the undertaking a second shot.
The biggest obstacle is the state of baseball-ready facilities in Israel. There's just not a lot to work with right now. The field at Kibbutz Gezer is nice -- I played softball in a league there nearly 19 years ago -- but it's not fit for professional ball. And that's the best of the group. If the funding exists to build a couple of decent parks, that's a big hurdle cleared.
After that, I think Goldklang has the right idea of how to make it work from a marketing standpoint. The blueprint is fairly simple: Follow what's worked here in the Minor Leagues.
Sounds obvious, right? It wasn't really done in 2007. But Goldklang's teams in North America have been very creative with their promotions and entertainment. Baseball isn't a natural in Israel, so there has to be a reason for people to check it out. Throw in some bobbleheads -- how about Golda Meir night? -- and the like and you'll at least get some folks in the seats. From there, they can be entertained (will the ZOOperstars fly to the Middle East?) and learn the game.
I hope the Goldklang group is serious about the undertaking -- and not just because I want to see the globalization of the game. I've spent considerable time in Israel -- my sister and family live there, in fact -- and love the idea of being able to take in a ballgame when I next visit.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.