Readers of The American Spectator cower in horror. A dark cloud looms on the horizon. They shuttle emotionally between hopelessness and despair. Who knew that such fear could be inspired by baseball? Yes, my friends, it is true. We may lose our esteemed friend and editor, Wlady Pleszczynski, to the land of Israel. He would have no choice but to move, you see, if Sandy Koufax takes the mound. Koufax at 71 would not have been thinking about coming out of retirement. But Art Shamsky drafted him for the Miracles. One thing is clear, Wlady would have to follow his hero.
Here is the story, and an odd one it is, an odd one indeed. The state of Israel, recently turned 59 years old, has been expanding its sports interests into more and more American-oriented areas. U.S.-based philanthropists have underwritten much of this, but the zest has come from a combination of American emigrants to Israel and the gratitude of Israelis for the loyalty of the United States as an ally. New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft donated half a million dollars to convert a soccer field into a football stadium, and that sport has been gaining more Israeli enthusiasts with each passing year.
A personal anecdote about that, if I may. The first time the Super Bowl was broadcast in Israel was during the first Gulf War. President George H. W. Bush had given Saddam Hussein a January 15 deadline to get out of Kuwait, and the war started a day later. Every time the U.S. bombed Baghdad, Hussein sent Scud missiles toward Israel. There was a fear they might have chemical warheads, so every home had a sealed room where people repaired when they heard the air-raid siren. Sometimes an hour or 90 minutes would pass before the all-clear. Moments later the sirens might sound again and the ordeal was repeated.
In that environment, it was thought Super Bowl XXV would provide a welcome diversion. The game was played on January 27 between the New York Giants and the Buffalo Bills, with the Bills favored by 6. The only way Israel TV could hope to show it intelligently was to import a professional American sportscaster, but the big names were all reluctant to come to a war zone. Warner Wolf of CBS responded to the call and showed up. A special show two nights before explained to Israelis what to expect, with Wolf speaking English and an Israeli translating to Hebrew. Asked for a prediction, Warner surprised the audience by picking the underdog Giants to win 20-17.
When the Giants won 20-19 in what is still the only one-point Super Bowl ever, the Israeli sports audience decided Warner Wolf was not only the nicest guy and most loyal Jewish brother, he was also the biggest genius. To this day, when he needs a lift Warner jumps into Israel and is immediately given his slot as a guru on the Israeli sports shows. As for me, I watched that Super Bowl in one of those sealed rooms dodging some incoming missiles. I was squinting at a TV with a two-inch screen; the game ended about 4 a.m. in Israel (7 hours later than our Eastern time).
Fast forward to 2007 and the new hot sport is baseball. The Israel Baseball League will begin play on June 24. The president of the new league is Dan Duquette, former major league general manager for the Boston Red Sox and Montreal Expos. There are six teams, three of them with former major leaguers as managers: Art Shamsky, Ken Holtzman and Ron Bloomberg. The season will be 45 games long. Each game will be seven innings. In case of a tie, the game will be decided by a home run derby, borrowing from the shootout concept in soccer and hockey. There will be a limited version of the designated hitter; Bloomberg is the answer to the trivia question, “Who was the first designated hitter?”
As it happens, right now is a good moment to inaugurate a Jewish baseball league. The longstanding #1 Jewish home run hitter of all time was Hank Greenberg with 331 career long balls. Shawn Green, now playing for the New York Mets, has five homers so far this year to bring his career total to 323. He will wind up creating the new Jewish record at approximately the same time the IBL kicks in to gear, clearly a felicitous confluence for the new league.
The teams ran a draft, bringing players from all over the world, mostly Jewish. Only about ten percent are Israelis, a total they hope will increase with each passing year. As a tribute to the great Sandy Koufax, Shamsky used his last draft pick for the old lefty and issued an invitation for him to be the Opening Day starter. The team is the Modiin Miracles, named after the Hannukah miracle enjoyed by the Maccabees who were based in that city about halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. And Miracles do happen.
I’ll tell you what, if Koufax does pitch let’s all of us chip in to buy Wlady a ticket. But only if he promises to come back.