Baseball fanatic makes big pitch to promote the sport in Israel

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JERUSALEM –Most Israelis don't know a sacrifice bunt from a suicide squeeze, and there are not more than one or two ball fields in the country. But Major League Baseball International has chosen the perfect person to get the ball rolling here.

Charles Harris moved to Israel six years ago, giving up a dream job as a senior executive with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Recently his Ra'anana-based PR firm, Coast 2 Coast Communications, landed the contract to represent Major League Baseball in Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. There are similar operations in only Japan, the Dominican Republic, South Africa, and Germany.

Asked the contract's worth, Harris deadpanned: "Ballpark figure, somewhat less than Mark McGwire's salary."

He's not doing this strictly for the money, he says. Actually, his wife was the motivating reason he took on the job.

"She's from France. From the time we met, she hasn't understood why I go on and on about baseball. Now I have to talk about baseball all the time, and I can tell her, 'but it's my job, dear.' "

Harris hobnobs with league officials and team owners about marketing, advertising, corporate sponsorships, promotions, TV rights and nationwide baseball programs.

He chitchats with the likes of Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley and Charles Bronfman, former owner of the Montreal Expos. Even baseball commissioner Bud Selig is within reach.

They're easily accessible compared to the one name in baseball tantalizing Harris, the man he dreams of bringing to Israel: Sandy Koufax.

The Dodger legend, revered as one of the greatest pitchers of all time, is further hallowed by his fellow Jews for refusing in 1965 to pitch in a World Series championship game on Yom Kippur.

It hardly matters to Jewish fans that Koufax has never assumed a public role in community affairs.

Harris is bewitched by the thought of escorting Koufax through the Jewish state, but the Hall of Famer is not exactly trying to get through to the publicist's cell phone. Koufax is reclusive, and seldom emerges from his Florida home.

However, if anyone can coax Koufax to come here, it's Harris, who was well liked and respected by the Dodger organization throughout his four years in their front office as assistant public-relations director. Harris has maintained close contact with the team, including some staffers who are in touch with Koufax, now 64.

Harris also strives to bring other big names here to promote the game.

The most obvious would be Jewish Dodger Shawn Green. That shouldn't be difficult. Green, a dominant hitter, is in the heyday of his career and has no reticence about being in the public eye. Also, he is demonstrably Jewish. In fact, when he compelled his former team, the Toronto Blue Jays, to trade him, Green stipulated that he go to a team with a large Jewish fan base.

Commissioner Selig, who is Jewish, visited Israel two years ago. "Jim Lefebvre [a retired player] was here in 1995, and he raved about the potential of the sport here," Harris says. "There is already a foundation, with so many kids playing. And of course, we have the perfect climate for playing year round."

It was a visitor who in fact first got Harris thinking in coming here. "I never even thought about seeing Israel until Vin Scully, the Los Angeles Dodgers announcer, told me what a fabulous time he had during an off-season visit with his wife. He encouraged me to come." Harris did in 1993, and he liked what he saw.

Harris decided at an early age that he was destined to work in pro sports. He played some baseball in high school, but had no illusions about being a pro athlete himself. He knew the only way he was going to get inside a big-league ballpark was to buy a ticket.

But ultimately, Harris found a way into "the Bigs" — through the employees' entrance.

He started off as an intern with the Anaheim Angels, in 1985 and 1986, and was selected by Major League Baseball to work on the publicity during the 1992 World Series between Toronto and Atlanta.

In 1994, after four years with the Dodgers, he was the No. 2 man in a PR staff of 10. Then came "the hardest decision in my life.

"I had a dream job, I had a tremendous amount of responsibility at a young age [he was 28], and I had the opportunity to see many parts of the world — not least of which," he adds, "the inside of Wrigley Field." That's home to his favorite team, the Chicago Cubs.

"People always ask how I could leave all that for Israel. But I knew if it didn't work out here, I was young enough, I could always get back into sports."

Harris made his move at an auspicious time. "The baseball strike was looming, and in Israel, [the] Baruch Goldstein [massacre] had just happened. People in baseball were trying to talk me out of leaving, and everyone I knew was telling me it was too dangerous to come to Israel. But something inside of me said I just had to go and do it."

What do baseball fans here have to look forward to?

"We want to improve baseball's visibility in the region, and make people aware that we need to build new fields and improve existing ones. We will work to get more baseball games on TV, and give people in this region the experience of watching a game in person through corporate promotions. And we will bring players here to help with development.

"Baseball is the greatest game, and everyone should experience it. There is so much to it, and I think once people in the Middle East learn the strategies, understand what goes into a game, and how things change with every pitch, they'll come to like it," he said.

"I love seeing Israelis playing Little League. It excites me that there's an all-Israeli softball team. We've even had the first Israeli baseball player, Dan Rotem, attend a U.S. university on a baseball scholarship. What a wonderful thing!

"I love hearing that there are Palestinian kids playing baseball, kids from eastern Jerusalem playing in the Jerusalem league. It gives me hope."