“The challenge in Boston was to bring a World Series championship because they hadn’t had one in 85 years,” said onetime Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette in 2006, comparing his former job to his role as director of player development for the Israel Baseball League (IBL). “They haven’t had baseball in Israel in over five-thousand [years],” he continued, deliberately overstating the case, though in no way diminishing the monumental challenge of launching a professional league in a country that lacked facilities, players, coaches, fans, and even bats and balls. Yet Duquette and league founder/big macher Larry Baras did manage to get the IBL off the ground in the summer of 2007, only to see the league fold after a single eight-week season that included an on-field tragedy, not to mention ongoing labor strife.
Among the players who participated in Israel’s short-lived baseball experiment was left-handed pitcher-turned-teacher-turned pitcher Aaron Pribble, who recounts his experience in “Pitching in the Promised Land” (University of Nebraska Press), a book that is part baseball memoir and part voyage of self-discovery. Pribble, then 27, toiled for the Tel Aviv Lightning, earning $250 a week to face batters from the likes of the Modi’in Miracle, Netanya Tigers, Petach Tikva Pioneers and Ra’anana Express.
As Pribble illustrates in the book, the fledging six-team league made certain concessions designed to appeal to or accommodate Israelis, like playing seven inning games, settling ties via home run derby, and remaining idle on the Sabbath. But in the end, the IBL looked a lot like a low-level minor league in the U.S.—except for the local flavor, of course. Think: hummus and schnitzel-fueled players schvitzing in the summer heat, each quick to acknowledge a teammate’s good play with a pat on the tuchus.
Tellingly, when Pribble’s college baseball coach advised him there was going to be a professional baseball league in Israel he assumed his mentor was joking. “I didn’t think twice about it until about three weeks later when I google’d ‘Israel Baseball League’ and up popped the Web site,” he recalls. Being half-Jewish and having played professional ball in the Western and Central Baseball Leagues, as well as France, Pribble considered himself a good fit for the league. “I sent Duquette a baseball résumé, he offered me a contract,” and before long the San Francisco native was on a flight to Tel Aviv.
When Pribble arrived he met fellow players representing nine different countries—Israel, the United States, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan and the Ukraine. The talent level was uneven, he recalls, noting that the best hurler in the league, Juan Feliciano, had played for Hiroshima in the big leagues of Japan the year before, and that almost all of the Dominicans had minor league baseball experience, including Double- and Triple-A. On the other hand, “towards the bottom of each roster there were guys who might not have made a good junior college team,” assesses Pribble.
“The formula I decipher[ed] was this,” he writes in the book. “On the one hand, if you weren’t Jewish at all, like the Dominicans, you had to be very good. On the other, if you were [an] Orthodox [Jew] or, better yet, Israeli, all you needed was a heartbeat.” Pribble goes on to describe himself as “squarely in the middle of the talent pool: half-assed Jew and half-assed former pro.”
But what the league lacked in talent it made up for in notable <i>characters</i>. There was Adam Crabb, a lanky pitcher from Adelaide, Australia, who featured a one-fingered fastball. “Instead of gripping the baseball with the middle and pointer fingers on top, he dropped his middle finger off the side of the ball and moved his thumb up the other side—like he was throwing with two pincers,” explains Pribble.
Then there was Leon Feingold, who failed to reach the major leagues as a member of the Cleveland Indians organization, but did distinguish himself on the Major League Eating circuit, winning Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating regionals three times, and competing in the July 4th-Coney Island competition on three occasions. Finally, there was Alan Gardner, a forty-something criminal lawyer from New York, who doubled as the players’ labor representative when the players threatened to strike due to delayed salary payments.
“The main reason why the IBL failed is because of lack of money—and the lack of fans,” says Pribble, noting that a few thousand spectators would turn out for special events like Opening Day and the All-Star Game, but that not nearly enough ticket buyers came to the games on a day-in, day-out basis.
Logistics were also a season-long issue. “Bats, balls, and uniforms got held up in customs, and that almost delayed the start of the season,” notes Pribble. But getting the players paid was by far the biggest problem, and not just because banks in Israel are closed on Shabbat. Check or direct deposit? Dollars or Shekels? And what about the exchange rate? All issues of concern, especially for the Dominican players, many of whom were relying on the income to support families back in the Dominican Republic.
Money aside, the players were also frustrated by the mostly inadequate facilities. There was one proper baseball field in the entire country—Yarkon Field at Ha Yarkon Sports Complex—which had been constructed by Baptist missionaries from Texas, and was as well-maintained as most ball fields in the U.S. But the other two venues—one a converted softball field on an old kibbutz—left much to be desired.
“At Kibbutz Gezer the bases were all the way at the edge of the grass [beyond the dirt cutouts],” begins Pribble. “They had moved the fence back—which meant that outfielders had to run up a hill to get to the fence—and that placed the warning track in the middle of the outfield. And there was a light pole in the middle of right field, with a mattress duct taped around it so no one would get hurt,” he concludes.
No player was injured running into the light pole, but it was a lack of safety equipment—specifically a turtle shell cage—that led to an early-season tragedy. During batting practice prior to a game between Petach Tikva and the Modi’in Miracle, the Pioneers’ Ronaldo Cruz was hit in the back of the head by a screaming line drive off the bat of Miracle leadoff hitter, Adalberto Paulino. Cruz was rendered unconscious and suffered a brain aneurysm. “He would remain in the hospital for several weeks,” recalls Pribble. “And he would never play baseball again.”
Despite the myriad challenges the league did play its full 40-game schedule (Pribble’s Lightning finished 26-14), with the black socks-wearing Bet Shemesh Blue Sox capturing the first (and only) IBL crown. But if anyone held out any hope of coming back for a second season in 2008, those hopes were dashed when the players’ final paychecks bounced.
Immediately after the season came to a close, Pribble returned to his teaching job in Marin County, California, despite being offered a chance to continue pitching professionally, this time in the Atlantic League, an independent baseball league on the east coast of the U.S. Four years later he says he has no regrets about going to Israel—or discontinuing his baseball career. “I went to explore my identity, as well as who I was as a baseball player. Getting to spend time in Israel was really impactful on my sense of self. If I had it to do over again I’d make the same decision.”
As for the IBL, there has been talk of re-starting the league, but to date no investors have moved forward with concrete plans. So while the prospects for the IBL seem bleak, there is hope. One can imagine the few diehard Israeli baseball fans still saying to themselves: Maybe next year … in Jerusalem.