America's Favorite Pastime Heads for Holy Land

Professional baseball may be coming to Israel. In a move some believe is quixotic at best, a Jewish businessman is trying to bring America's pastime to Israel. Organizers hope the new Israel Baseball League builds lasting support for the sport and offers an entertaining distraction in a land of conflict.

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This spring, professional baseball is coming to Israel. Soccer and basketball are still the big sports there, but organizers of the new Israel Baseball League hope they can get people excited about their sport.

NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of baseball being hit)

ERIC WESTERVELT: The Boston bagel baron who brought the world frozen pre-filled holeless bagels is now working tirelessly to bring baseball to the Holy Land. Fifty-four-year-old Larry Baras founded and runs SJR Food of Boston. He's finding that building a new league from scratch can be as tough as building a better bagel.

Mr. LARRY BARAS (Founder, Israel Baseball League; Owner, SJR Food, Inc.): Yeah, I'm fine, like, during the day. And I can see all the progress, and know where we are and what has to get done. It's when I wake up at 2:00 in the morning and I wonder what in the world am I doing.

(Soundbite of clapping)

WESTERVELT: In the Israel Baseball League or IBL, falafel will sell alongside hot dogs and burgers, all kosher, of course, no cheese. No games will be played on Fridays or Saturdays to respect the Jewish Sabbath and there is no Hebrew word for baseball bat.

Yet the bagel magnate remains positive about bringing professional-level baseball to this land of skepticism and soccer despite big struggles to secure the fields, players and more. He's upbeat in spite of frustrated efforts to get Israeli corporate sponsors and has many run-ins with Israel's notoriously capricious and stubborn bureaucracy and business culture.

Mr. BARAS: It's more than a show-me attitude. I think it borders on hostility. I think the first word in Israel that they learn is not mommy or daddy, I think it's no. Because I am finding that every time I run into something here, the answer first is no, and then they want me to clarify the question. Nonetheless, it's a wonderful place.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Mr. BARAS: Hello. Everything okay?

WESTERVELT: Baras fields another phone call as he watches young players warm up in the rough Israeli equivalent of Little League. In June, the opening game happens here at this field at the Baptist village outside Tel Aviv. A chapel steeple is visible over the centerfield fence.

Unidentified Man #2: Play ball.

Unidentified Man #3: Yo, play ball. Batter up.

WESTERVELT: Few of the players here will actually get to play ball in the IBL. Most in the new league will be foreigners. More than 175 Israelis tried out, but only a dozen made the cut. Jeff Mor is one of the chosen 12. Mor is taking time off from his job as a diamond dealer to play for his hometown team, the Bet Shemesh Blue Sox, where he's already becoming something of a local hero.

Mr. JEFF MOR (Baseball Player, Bet Shemesh Blue Sox): Kids are looking at me like, you know, some kind of idol. It's pretty cool.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WESTERVELT: That's great.

Mr. MOR: They cheer, when I'm pitching or I'm hitting, we want Mor. We want Mor.

WESTERVELT: Mor is 36 years old. Most of the rest of the players are in their 20s. They hail from nine different countries including Japan, Venezuela, the U.S., and those baseball powerhouses, Ukraine and Belgium. Many washed out of other semi-pro leagues or played college ball. Others were long shots trying to catch a dream. The oldest player to make the new league, and perhaps an inspiration to aging baby-boomers everywhere, 51-year-old Scott Cantor from suburban New York. Israeli pitcher Jeff Mor will be making the somewhat improbable leap from softball back to hardball.

Mr. SCOTT CANTOR (Player, Israel Baseball League): I know I'm one of the older players in the league. I mean I've kept up my baseball skills, played on the national softball team in the last six years. In softball, I played shortstop.

WESTERVELT: You're making a switch from a softball shortstop to a starting fastball-hardball pitcher? A lot of people - look, it's going to be tough too for everybody.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CANTOR: I'm not worried. I'm excited about it. You know, intimidated maybe a little bit, but totally excited and juiced up for it.

(Soundbite of baseball being hit)

Unidentified Man #4: (Foreign language spoken)

WESTERVELT: But it's not clear many Israelis are all that juiced for a new baseball league. Despite strong ties with the U.S., Israelis like to do things their own way. American cultural and business stalwarts don't always take root here. Israelis warmly embraced basketball and McDonald's, but told Starbucks and Taco Bell to take a hike.

Larry Baras, the bagel-baron-turned-baseball-czar, insists he's not trying to force this iconic American game on Israel, but simply offering a fun diversion from the anxieties of conflict.

Mr. BARAS: There is a love-hate relationship that Israelis have with things American and the hate part comes in when they feel that we're trying to impose something upon them. So we have to let them know that this is truly something that we're bringing to the country just out of - an act of goodwill. I think it's the kind of pace and sport that actually Israel craves and needs, whether they realize it or not.

WESTERVELT: But Baras and the IBL have made some adjustments to that pace that some die-hard fans would consider baseball blasphemy. In an effort to enliven the game's pace, what some consider the slow rhythmic splendor of the sport, IBL games will last just seven, not nine innings. And there will be no extra innings. Instead, tie games will be broken with a winner-take-all home run derby. And to emphasize a family-friendly feel, IBL games will offer upbeat entertainment between most every inning.

(Soundbite of baseball being hit)

WESTERVELT: You go to a carnival and a baseball game might break out. Larry Baras.

Mr. BARAS: Balloon hats and face painting. We're going to have speed-dating night. Play hooky from workday...

WESTERVELT: But on this night, at this nonprofessional, anyone-can-play-league game, the focus is on baseball. And pitcher Jeff Mor, the Israeli softball and potential baseball standout, is having a rough time of it on the mound.

(Soundbite of baseball being hit)

Unidentified Man #5: (Foreign language spoken)

WESTERVELT: Teenagers, some wearing blue jeans and ill-fitting helmets, smack Mor's fastballs across the outfield. But Mor says he views this as a kind of spring training and remains realistic, yet upbeat about the new league.

Mr. MOR: It's going to be a tough sell, especially the first year, you know? But if it breaks through after a few years, then it could be something, you know, very, very popular in the future.

Unidentified Man #6: They're running the base...

WESTERVELT: For now, anyway, Jewish-American and Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax politely declined, but on June 24, someone will throw out the first pitch to start the Israel Baseball League's opening game.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Petah Tikva, Israel.

(Soundbite of baseball being caught)

Unidentified Man #7: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #8: Go fish.

(Soundbite of clapping)

Unidentified Man #9: (Foreign language spoken)

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