U.S. ambassador returns to Israel &mdash to lead baseball league

petah tikva, israel | As the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Dan Kurtzer spent years trying to negotiate peace between Israelis and Palestinians. These days, the retired diplomat is keeping the peace on a different field, as commissioner of Israel’s new professional baseball league.

One month into the season, Kurtzer already has put his three decades of diplomatic experience to good use — resolving a dispute over an illegal bat, solving scheduling mix-ups and heading off a threatened players’ strike.

“All of whatever skills I developed in that time [as ambassador] have come into play this summer,” he said. “There are issues here.”

The 58-year-old Kurtzer is part of a lineup of American executives and baseball professionals drafted by Boston businessman Larry Baras to bring the American pastime to a country where soccer is king, basketball is a distant second, and baseball is little more than a curiosity. In an interview before a recent game between the Modiin Miracle and the Netanya Tigers, Kurtzer acknowledged the league’s chances for success are a “long shot.”

Kurtzer jumped at the opportunity to be part of the league after completing his four-year term as ambassador in 2005 and retiring from the foreign service the following year. The chance to return to Israel, where he was a high-profile figure and still has many friends, complemented his “day job” as a professor at Princeton.

“It just seemed like the most fun thing to do at this point in my life,” he said.

It also allowed him to reconnect with the game he loved during his childhood in New Jersey.

“The real dream would have been to be out there,” he said, pointing to the field. “I see in some of these young men that same kind of enthusiasm that we would have had, had we had the shot.”

While Kurtzer’s playing days ended after Little League, he said he loved baseball so much he used to joke about a second career in the sport with his former boss, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. She has said she would one day like to be commissioner of the NFL.

“I said to her, ‘I want to be the commissioner of baseball. We’ll see who gets there first,”‘ he said. “I was in touch with her when this happened, and I said, ‘I got mine first!”‘

He said he has invited Rice, who is expected in the region Aug. 8, to throw out a ceremonial first pitch.

“We’ll have to see,” he said with a smile.

The Israeli league has six teams competing in a 45-game season. Kurtzer is responsible for making sure the 120 players obey a conduct code — there have been no off-field incidents so far — and enforcing league rules. In this league, games are seven innings instead of nine and ties are broken by a home-run derby.

Kurtzer, who attends at least one game a day, already has settled three protests, including a home-run derby in which an umpire wrongly allowed a player to use an illegal bat. In a ruling he described as “Talmudic,” Kurtzer, an observant Jew, said the bat was illegal, but he allowed the final score to stand because the umpire acted in good faith.

Last week, Kurtzer fended off a strike after players reacted angrily to an apparent salary cut. In reality, one paycheck was reduced to make up for a previous accounting error, but players were furious.

“I met with them that same day and said, ‘I don’t threaten, therefore you don’t threaten; let’s talk this out.”‘ Kurtzer said. “Then it was understood and that ended.” Games were played on schedule the same day.

There’s also the matter of monitoring players, including those from the Dominican Republic, U.S. colleges and Israeli army veterans, in addition to the American baseball veterans managing teams.

“We’ve covered in 33 days what most pro leagues don’t encounter in an entire season,” said Baras, the league founder. “Dan is everything you look for in a commissioner. He’s not afraid to take on difficult matters, yet he’s a diplomat.”

Kurtzer’s biggest challenge lies far beyond the diamond. The league’s main mission is to hook Israelis on baseball. About 90 percent of the players are foreign, a number the league hopes to reduce in coming years.

The league has tried to recreate the small-town atmosphere of minor league baseball, albeit with an Israeli twist. Announcers speak in English and Hebrew, no games are played on the Jewish Sabbath and food stands are kosher.

Kurtzer also has encouraged the teams to sponsor clinics, visit hospitals and bus in groups to games. Players mingle with fans after games, signing autographs and giving baseballs to children.

After a nationally televised opening game that attracted more than 3,000 fans, attendance dropped sharply. And virtually all the fans are North American immigrants. The few Israelis who are familiar with the sport tend to find it boring and complicated.

“Most Israelis don’t even know we’re here, and those who do don’t bother showing up,” Kurtzer said. “We were slow getting off the dime on that, and there’s a lot of work to do.”