Marin man takes a swing at improving baseball in Israel

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Andy Bloch’s relationship with baseball is one of love, not skill. “I played Little League, but not beyond that,” Bloch replied when asked if he was any good at the sport.

But because baseball “is in my DNA,” the retired 63-year-old Marin resident has helped create and bankroll a new initiative that aims to bring U.S. Jewish baseball prospects to Israel to play in the country’s fledgling top league and promote the game among Israel’s youth.

Fish with his arm around Bloch
Israeli baseball official Nate Fish (left) and philanthropist Andy Bloch of Marin

The concept of the Israel Baseball Experience, Bloch said, “is to attract Jewish players, 18 to 28, primarily from the United States who already know how to play baseball. This isn’t a program to teach, per se, but to bring skilled players over to Israel and raise awareness of this skill level to Israelis.”

The inaugural five-month IBE program is launching this month under the auspices of Masa Israel Journey, which provides an internship-like framework that encourages young Jewish professionals from the diaspora to live and work in Israel. The Jewish Agency for Israel is also involved.

The experience for the U.S. players — as it does for Masa participants generally — includes opportunities to work in their professions, learn Hebrew and take educational trips.

They’ll be playing in an adult league, coaching at Israel’s new baseball academy and teaching baseball to schoolchildren. Until now, coaching baseball to kids in Israel mostly has been handled by parents and other untrained volunteers.

Israel Association of Baseball director Nate Fish, a Cleveland native, believes the IBE can “revolutionize” the level of play in Israel.

“If you have 10 to 20 college players coming in, and put two to three on each team, the level of play goes up,” Fish said of the adult league. “And when we send them to the communities to coach once a week, it gives the little kids some real baseball role models. You’ll get better practices. There’s no substitute for that.”

Bloch, a former technical consultant executive, now lives comfortably in retirement with his wife, Robin, in Belvedere, near Tiburon. His father, Richard Bloch, 95, a real estate mogul, was a part-owner of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns for 21 years, and he also helped Phoenix land a Major League Baseball team, the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Now, by providing much of the seed money for the IBE, Andrew Bloch is carrying on that baseball tradition. But just how did it happen?

At a baseball clinic in Israel, Nate Fish teaches the proper throwing motion. (Photos/Masa Israel)

He said that after he and his wife took several trips to Israel to visit their 24-year-old son, who was working in Tel Aviv and playing what amounted to intramural baseball, they got to thinking: Israel needed to step up its game.

Bloch said it was his wife who came up with the idea for a baseball education program.

“She kept bugging me,” he said. “She thought she had a great idea and I said, ‘Leave me alone. Go away. I’m busy.’ But she persisted. And here we are.”

The Israel Baseball Experience is not without a cost — roughly $9,400, which includes housing for five months in Tel Aviv. Masa Israel offers $3,000 grants and other needs-based grants along with skill-based scholarships, a spokesman said.

Players in the inaugural group started arriving Jan. 17, though Bloch, who greeted them in Israel upon their arrival, isn’t altogether pleased with the numbers: only six participants in the first class. “It’s still at the beginning stages,” he reasoned. A Masa spokesman said he expects numbers to rise next year, noting that there wasn’t much time to market the initial program and some interested parties couldn’t participate in the winter due to school and jobs. Also, he added, the program is interested in only high-caliber players.

To wit, one of this year’s participants is Brent Powers, 26, a 2011 Oakland A’s draft pick who pitched in the minor leagues for four years. A Christian from Texas who toured Israel with his wife in 2012 and fell in love with the country, he said his reaction was “Whoa — that’s exactly what I want to do,” when he found out about the program.

To help get things rolling, the IBE has recruited former major league outfielders Shawn Green and Art Shamsky, both of them Jewish, as spokesmen and potential coaches.

“I think it’s a great idea,” Green said of the venture in a press release. Israel “has a strong contingent of fans that are in need of something like this.”

Shamsky, a member of the “Miracle Mets” that won the 1969 World Series, said that “it’s not so far-fetched to think that the game can get developed there and kids can play it at a competitive level.”

Added Bloch: “There are 1,000 kids in Israel playing baseball today and there are only three bona fide baseball diamonds in Israel — and two aren’t so good. I think it’ll be a big, big program. There are a lot of émigrés from the U.S. in Israel who are dying to get out and watch some baseball.”

The new program comes as the Israel Association of Baseball is starting to form a team to compete in September in the WBC’s qualifying round in Brooklyn, New York. “The timing couldn’t be better,” Green said. “The better the [Israeli] team does in the qualifiers, the more that momentum kicks in … to help grow baseball in Israel.”

Bloch’s next step is to “raise money for the scholarships so we can attract a lot more players. That’s our highest priority.”

He said he also plans to persuade Jewish owners of Major League Baseball clubs to become involved and contribute financially. “I’m hoping to capitalize a bit on my background and my relationships with a variety of big-time sports guys.”

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