Miracle victory for Israeli baseball

petach tikvah, israel | In an atmosphere that was both ceremonial and haimish, pro baseball made its debut in Israel.

The visiting Modi’in Miracle defeated the Petach Tikvah Pioneers, 9-1, in the opening game of the Israel Baseball League’s inaugural season Sunday night, June 24.

An unexpectedly large and mostly English-speaking crowd of 3,112 more than filled the temporary bleachers and plastic lawn chairs surrounding a beautiful and well-lit field in the Yarkon sports complex.

Players from the league’s six teams and dignitaries were on the field for the opening ceremonies, which included the singing of “Hatikvah,” before the game.

The kosher barbecue stand was mobbed, and youngsters hawked programs, T-shirts and water. Players whose teams were not on the field ambled throughout the complex happily signing autographs for fresh-faced kids and plenty of middle-aged fans.

It was a scene reminiscent of an American minor league game and a country fair, but with a heavy press and television presence

In a concession to concerns about the attention span of Israeli fans, the game was seven innings instead of the typical nine. Even with a break for a “fifth-inning stretch” and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” the game was completed in a crisp 2 hours, 12 minutes.

Players and fans mingled happily for a half-hour after the last out was recorded.

No one seemed to mind that the game, featuring two former major leaguers as managers — Art Shamsky for Modi’in and Ken Holtzman for Petach Tikvah — wasn’t exactly a classic.

The tone was set in the first inning when a botched pitcher-to-short-to-first double play put two runners on base for Modi’in. They scored on a triple into right-center by Eladio Rodriguez, who also doubled.

Petach Tikvah right-hander Abel Moreno was wild and was yanked with one out in the third, trailing, 7-0. The Miracle capitalized on seven walks, two errors, a couple of hits and sacrifice flies to build its lead.

Petach Tikvah’s sole run came on a towering homer by third baseman Ryan Crotin. Fully aware of the historic meaning of the blast, the crowd rose to its feet.

The league opener culminated a two-year dream of Larry Baras, a Boston-based entrepreneur in his 50s. Baras not only put in much effort but also capital. The league’s commissioner is Dan Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt.

In addition to Modi’in and Petach Tikvah, the league is fielding teams in Bet Shemesh, Tel Aviv and Netanya.

The six teams are sharing fields in Kibbutz Gezer and Tel Aviv, in addition to the veritable “field of dreams” maintained in Petach Tikvah on a site called “The Baptist Village.”

The IBL rosters consist of 77 Americans, 15 Dominicans, 13 Israelis, nine Canadians, six Australians, two Colombians and a native of Japan.

Generally the American players represent a mix with college and professional experience. The Israelis are products of a highly developed amateur league, the Israel Association of Baseball, and the rest have some professional experience.

The players were recruited by Dan Duquette, former general manager of the Boston Red Sox. The league estimates that approximately 40 percent of the players are Jewish.

Along with Shamsky and Holtzman, former major leaguers managing are Ron Blomberg and Steve Hertz. Ami Baran and Shaun Smith, experienced coaches from Israel and Australia, complete the managerial roster.

Teams will play a 45-game schedule, with the championship to be determined in a one-game playoff Aug. 19 between the teams with the two best records.

Will Israelis take to America’s pastime, a game without a clock and the constant action of other sports?

It’s a long season, and too early too know, but Opening Day was a promising start.