As U.S. ambassador to Israel, Dan Kurtzer has been involved in some major-league negotiations.
Now, he’s set to negotiate with the major leagues. Kurtzer has been named commissioner of Israel’s fledgling professional baseball organization, navigating obstacles between owners and players. A cinch, he says, compared to his diplomatic work.
"These are two friendly sides who are not at war with each other," said Kurtzer, a New Jersey resident and Yankee fan, now teaching Middle East policy at Princeton.
The emerging Israel Baseball League, set to debut next June, was first reported Saturday in The New York Times. Kurtzer’s role, which may require him to go to Israel several times a year, is still being defined. But he says he won’t be trying to further diplomatic aims, like setting up games with Palestinians or a joint team. "We’re just trying to set up a good professional sports league in Israel," he said. "We’ll see what comes later in terms of expanding." He does expect Israeli Arab players to be drafted.
The league is the brainchild of Brooklyn native Larry Baras, who has been pitching the idea for years and believes he now has enough financial and logistical support to make it a reality. He has the enthusiastic support of Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, corporate sponsors are responding and he was to leave Thursday on a mission to scout stadiums. (Could Osem Field be far behind?)
But are Israelis, die-hard soccer fans who tend to emulate European sports culture, ready to pack the bleachers?
"I don’t think the evolution of sports in Israel is a natural event," Baras, 54, founder of a baked goods company, told The Jewish Week. "It has a lot to do with Israel being shut out from international leagues for political reasons. But as a society they are much more American oriented."
He notes that there are some 300,000 Israelis with roots in North America, as well as an average 10,000 Americans who spend a year in Israel. Add to that thousands of Israelis who have joined Little Leagues, and you have a domestic following, he says. Then, there are the tourists.
"There’s not much else to do at night besides going to a cafe on [Jerusalem’s] Ben Yehuda Street," says Baras.
Kurtzer, 56, who lived in Israel for eight years, believes the locals will see baseball as "a family friendly sport." He and Baras are committed to keeping the rules identical to American teams, with one exception: Tied games may de decided by a home run derby or similar improvisation, since unlimited extra innings may test the enthusiasm of notoriously impatient Israelis.
Kurtzer recalled an interview he did on a TV show hosted by Eli Yatzpan, in which the Israeli comedian asked "How could you like a sport like baseball? We conquer countries faster than you finish a game."