Four Hits for Israel Baseball League

By Nathaniel Popper

Published February 16, 2007, issue of February 16, 2007.

With its inaugural season set to start in June, the fledgling Israel Baseball League has tapped three former Major Leaguers to manage teams and, in a page straight from Hollywood, signed a 45-year-old American to take the field.

The league announced the hiring of three managers: former New York Yankee Ron Blomberg, 58, who made history by becoming baseball’s first designated hitter and later wrote an autobiography titled “Designated Hebrew”; Ken Holtzman, 61, the winningest Jewish pitcher in Major League history, with a lifetime 174-150 record (Sandy Koufax went 165-87), and Art Shamsky, 65, a member of the “Miracle Mets” of 1969 and author of “The Magnificent Seasons: How the Jets, Mets, and Knicks Made Sports History and Uplifted a City and the Country.”

Perhaps the most fitting move for this upstart league, however, was the decision to sign Ari Alexenberg, a 45-year-old pitcher. The IBL is not the Major Leagues but rather a hardscrabble, Disney-ready story of its own. The league is slated to have six teams on opening day, June 24, but it’s currently struggling to make sure it has enough game-ready playing fields. Finding enough fans to fill the stands is another problem.

But for Alexenberg, the league means a chance to get a paycheck for playing the game he loves.

Alexenberg, a New Hampshire resident, grew up in an Orthodox family that moved to Queens, then to New Jersey and finally to Israel. In Queens he spent every free moment playing stickball in neighborhood games with kids from every other religious and ethnic background. He had talent, but to make it in Little League he had to play Saturday — and that he couldn’t do.

Alexenberg’s family moved to Israel when he was 16, but he stayed in America to work on his game. He eventually got a tryout with the Pittsburgh Pirates, who directed him to a semipro team in San Diego. He played a year there and also helped coach the San Diego State college team, which rose to number one in the national rankings. After a few years, though, he gave up. “I was very raw talent,” he said. “Baseball is one of those games — from a sporting perspective — that takes years to hone. I realized that pretty quickly, and that’s why I moved on.”

For the past 20 years, Alexenberg has lived in New England, running various technology ventures. Throughout, he never stopped working on his game, and he has been playing in amateur leagues with college kids.

Last fall, when he first heard about tryouts, he was tempted but didn’t have enough faith in his game. Then a new set of tryouts was announced in the very town in Israel where his parents live, Petah Tikvah. His wife pushed him, and he ended up flying over and becoming one of a dozen players chosen from the 70 who showed up.

The league will run for three months this summer and is giving all its players a plane ticket, housing and a weekly paycheck — and there won’t be any games on the Sabbath.

The team on which Alexenberg will play has not yet been established. League officials will make the division of players once they find 120 who are qualified. Alexenberg is likely to be the oldest player on the diamond, but as a pitcher he sees this working to his advantage.

“I have a good moving fastball, but I really use it to set the batters up. I have a very good change-up,” he said. “To me, it’s really an art form.”



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