The inaugural player draft for the Israel Baseball League started with a 22-year-old Jewish prospect and ended with a 71-year-old Jewish Hall of Famer.
With the first selection in the six-team draft on April 26, the Modi in Miracles chose Aaron Levin, a power-hitting outfielder from Contra Costa Community College in California.
The Miracles had the last pick, too, and went with Sandy Koufax, the left-hander from the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers who famously refused to pitch in the 1961 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur.
It was an obvious publicity stunt, as even league organizers acknowledged it would take a real miracle for Koufax to suit up for Modi in but Jewish organizations trying to associate with the league are hoping the publicity pays off.
The IBL, Israel s first professional baseball league, will play a 42-game schedule starting June 24. It has purposefully attached itself to several high-profile names from the Jewish American sports world.
Three of its managers are well-known former major leaguers: Art Shamsky, a member of the 1969 “Miracle Mets”; Ken Holtzman, a left-hander who notched 174 victories pitching for four teams; and Ron Blomberg, baseball’s first designated hitter as a member of the New York Yankees.
The draft was hosted in part by prominent Jewish sportscasters Len Berman and Jeremy Schaap.
Even before its first game, the league has created quite a buzz, getting more than 3 million hits on its Web site since its launch two months ago.
Helping to stir interest is the league’s public relations director, Marty Appel, the former PR head of the Yankees.
But just as the IBL attached its name to Koufax The Associated Press and espn.com each ran a story on the draft Jewish organizations are lining up with the league in what they see as a unique way to connect Americans to Israel.
We are giving a big segment of the ! North Am erican Jewish community a way to identify with Israel and to define their own Judaism, league founder Larry Baras told JTA.
Baras said he receives calls every day about potential partnerships with an assortment of Jewish organizations.
The league is working with the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry to provide baseball equipment and baseball training to Ethiopian Israelis. It is working with Maccabi USA to provide baseball equipment to Maccabi teams such as Argentina that cannot afford it. The aim is to have those teams compete in the biennial Pan American Maccabi Games and the quadrennial games in Israel.
There’s a Bat mitzvah project in which b’nei mitzvot can help buy baseball equipment for those in need.
And perhaps most notably, the Jewish National Fund has partnered with the IBL on “Project Baseball” to build diamonds throughout Israel.
Baseball has had a hard time getting off the ground there because the kids had no place to play, said the JNF s campaign coordinator for Los Angeles, Joyce Sacharpoff. “There were three fields, and at the best one you had to run uphill to get to first base.”
Sacharpoff said JNF, which will take a mission of 25 to Israel for the IBL s first two games, sees the IBL as a marketing tool to involve potential donors in Israel.
“It opens up different doors with young people and with baseball fans,” she said. “For Americans going over there, it is fascinating to see something so typically American being started in Israel. We are in the business of creating connections between Americans and the land of Israel.”
Baras said that wasn’t what he had in mind when he started the league after attending a minor-league game outside Boston, where he lives. He said he just wanted to give Israelis the light, friendly experience of baseball.
The charity aspect has been a happy byproduct, he said, and grander projects could be on the way.
! Baras sa id he has had discussions with birthright israel about treating the more than 20,000 young adults that birthright takes to Israel for free each year to a night at the ballpark.
Indeed, the draft April 26 at Cardozo Law School in New York City was sponsored by birthright and the New York Cornell Connection, a young leadership alumni group of the Hillel at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
David Borowith, the founder of Dor Chadash, a group designed to connect young Americans to Israel, said the IBL would be a great way to sell aliyah to Americans because it could offer them a creature comfort of the American lifestyle in Israel and ease their transition.
Baras said he has had several discussions with Nefesh B Nefesh, which helps thousands of Americans make aliyah each year, on collaborating with the league. Perhaps, he said, Nefesh B’Nefesh would offer new Israeli immigrants free tickets to games.
At the draft, most of the players selected were just happy for the chance to spend two months in Israel this summer playing the game they love.
For Alan Gardner, a Manhattan lawyer who at 45 is going to finally live a boyhood dream of playing professional baseball, it s a more than enjoyable way to give back to Israel.
Joking before the draft, Gardner said, “Thank God I m being drafted by the Israeli Baseball League and not the Israeli army.”