Over the years, 33-year-old Dan Rootenberg has participated in every kind of baseball tryout imaginable — from 1995 spring training with the New York Mets to minor league squads to a team in Zurich, Switzerland. But he said he'd never seen a tryout quite like the one in Massachusetts back in August.
From a baseball perspective, things seemed pretty routine: hitting from a pitching machine, running a 60-yard dash and practicing situational fielding, but other aspects struck him as unusual.
"Having played baseball my whole life, I've never seen an Israeli flag on a baseball field or people with tefillin praying before a tryout," said Rootenberg of his workouts with the upstart Israel Baseball League, which plans to bring pro ball to the Jewish state starting this summer.
Four IBL teams are set so far — the Netanya Tigers, Tel Aviv Lightning, Bet Shemesh Blue Sox and Modi'in Miracle — with two more to come, according to founder Larry Baras. The teams will play games at three ball parks: one in Petach Tikvah, just outside of Tel Aviv; another at Kibbutz Gezer, approximately halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem; and one at a site to be determined.
'Go a Little Faster'
To make the game exciting for the average Israeli, Baras and his staff have done a little tweaking of the American style of play.
"We've been hearing that the Israeli mentality is an impatient one," relayed Baras. "We need the game to go a little faster, not three or four or five hours, so we'll have a seven-inning game rather than a nine-inning game."
While in Israel gathering ideas for the IBL, Baras noticed that Israelis kept asking the same question: "Are you going to have barbecues?" said Baras, who now seems to be as focused on food and entertainment at the games as he is on other aspects of the league.
And while he understands that some of the cultural differences make baseball in Israel a gamble, he believes it can pay off. "With American tourists and Americans who moved there, we have a terrific beginning fan base," he said.
Aside from the 45-game seasons each summer, IBL organizers hope that the league's best players can team up with Jewish major leaguers to make up an Israeli team to enter the World Baseball Classic in 2009.
Any player who makes one of the inaugural IBL squads will have impressed some pretty savvy baseball minds, one in particular being Dan Duquette. Now the IBL's director of player development, he is the former general manager for the Montreal Expos and the Boston Red Sox.
"Putting together a team is interesting, [but] assembling a league is even more interesting," said Duquette.
The league will be made up of Jews and non-Jews alike from all parts of the world, including some Israeli natives. The players — who will not be forced to become Israeli citizens — will receive around $2,500 for the season, a round-trip flight and housing during their summer-long stay.
During the Massachusetts tryouts — actually held at the Dan Duquette Sports Academy — Rootenberg said that the talent level was mixed, with some who wowed and others who looked like they were playing for a synagogue softball team.
"There were at least three [pitchers] that were bringing major heat — in the 90s," attested Rootenberg, of the speed of some of the fastballs he faced.
After his daylong workout, Rootenberg, employed as a physical therapist in New York City, was among the first players chosen to the IBL.
And the son of a Six-Day War veteran said he could not be happier: "To give Israelis another little place of respite — some entertainment to take their minds off their stressful lives — feels like a worthy endeavor."