February 23, 2020

Israeli baseball pursues its dream of fields with L.A. fundraiser

“The cliché is true. If you build it, they will come,” Peter Kurz, president of the Israel Association of Baseball (IAB), said at the Los Angeles Sports Museum on April 27.

He, of course, was evoking the words of Ray Liotta, playing the ghost of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson in the 1989 film “Field of Dreams,” as he tells Kevin Coster’s character to build a baseball diamond in his Iowa cornfield.

Kurz might not be hearing voices, but his organization is teaming up with Jewish National Fund’s (JNF) Project Baseball to transform some of Israel’s dilapidated lots into new fields to meet the needs of an upstart baseball culture.

“There are about a thousand kids playing baseball in Israel, but we have a serious lack of fields,” Kurz said. “We have one good field in Israel in Petah Tikvah, where our national team plays and practices, but we need other fields.”

Riding the wave of momentum created in March by the Israeli national team going 4-2 overall and qualifying for the second round in the World Baseball Classic, the IAB and JNF hosted a fundraiser dubbed “Build a Field of Dreams.” Nearly 80 people, mostly baseball junkies, paid $250 each to admire the L.A. Sports Museum’s vast memorabilia collection, pose in a green screen photo booth, munch on Cracker Jack and participate in a silent auction to raise funds for a new field in Beit Shemesh.

Los Angeles Dodgers Director of Player Development Gabe Kapler, a former major leaguer, was scheduled to speak but a last-minute scouting assignment called him away.

“If the Dodgers could hit, he’d be here,” Kurz joked, surrounded by many patrons clad in Dodger blue.

A two-minute video played for guests illustrated the current situation in Beit Shemesh, where baseball-loving kids play on rocky, weed-infested fields in nearby kibbutzim and moshavim.

“In Beit Shemesh, we have 150 kids playing, but if we had a field in the middle of the city, I’d have 300 or 400 kids, without a problem,” Kurz said.

Kurz, who lives in Israel with his family, told the Journal his organization would like to see ground broken on the Beit Shemesh field by the end of the year, followed by six months of construction. The IAB hopes to raise a third of the $1.7 million cost through donors in the United States with Beit Shemesh’s municipality prepared cover the rest.

Lou Rosenberg, Los Angeles’ executive director of JNF and the lead on its Project Baseball task force, said the need for fields in Israel existed well before the national team reached the final eight in the WBC tournament. But his organization, in conjunction with the IAB, is taking full advantage of the team’s success.

“Project Baseball is a niche sort of interest,” Rosenberg said, wearing his pin-striped Valley Beth Shalom softball league uniform. “There was always this need, but the WBC has definitely helped get the word out to people who are interested in this and get things going like this event tonight. We have a lot more ideas to keep the momentum going and get us in front of the right people.”

Rosenburg and Kurz are hoping to find someone to be for baseball in Israel what Robert Kraft, the Jewish owner of the New England Patriots, is for American football there. Last year, Kraft donated $6 million to build a sports complex in Jerusalem to expand football culture in Israel.

Days before the fundraiser in Los Angeles, Kurz met in Milwaukee with former Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, a meeting Kurz had sought for 10 years. During his 23 years as commissioner, Selig pushed to expand the sport’s international appeal.

“I showed him how much interest there is in baseball in Israel and how wonderful the whole WBC experience was, and that we need help to get more fields built,” Kurz said of his conversation with Selig, who is Jewish.

Kurz told the Journal that Selig promised to help the IAB connect with Jewish major league team owners like Jerry Reinsdorf of the Chicago White Sox, Fred Wilpon of the New York Mets and Ted Lerner of the Washington Nationals.

Jonathan Fishman, 16, came to the fundraiser with his dad, Jeffrey Fishman, to learn more about baseball in Israel. Jonathan, who wore a Jackie Robinson Dodgers throwback jersey, plays third base for Shalhevet High School. He said he was compelled to come after seeing Jewish ballplayers shock the world in the WBC.

“It made me really proud. It was cool to see,” he said. “Hopefully, we get to see more Jewish ballplayers making those kind of contributions.”