By Marty Appel
I had the pleasure of being part of two rather extraordinary events within days of each other recently, with both getting a lot of interest from baseball fans.
First, I was on a public relations assignment to Israel for the launch of the first pro baseball league in the Middle East – the Israel Baseball League.
Composed of six teams, with the 120 players coming from nine nations, the league included ex-big leaguers Art Shamsky, Ken Holtzman and Ron Blomberg as managers, playing a 45-game schedule. The quality of play was sought to be Class A or independent league style, in order to give Israelis a credible look at skilled players, with the hope that the game might catch on. They love basketball and soccer there; it is an athletic, fit nation, and when opening day found some 4,000 people on hand to see Shamsky’s Modi’in Miracle beat Holtzman’s Petach Tikva Pioneers 9-1 – well, it was an emotional moment. To see the first pitch thrown after two years of work, to see the fans (many of them with American roots) buying yearbooks, lining up for food, doing the wave, yelling at the umpires and celebrating the league’s first home run, was a great sight to see.
Within a week, there was a near double perfect-game (resulting in a no-hitter), two home run derby tie-breakers (yes, if the game is tied after the regulation seven innings, a three-round home run derby is staged), an ejection, two protests, a pair of two-homer games, and a third base coach who wrenched his back waving home a runner.
The league will have its share of growing pains, many set before the Commissioner, former US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer, and the league’s founder Larry Baras of Boston, but so far it has been fun and fast paced. We had the first game telecast on a number of PBS stations in the US (to high PBS ratings!); each Sunday a game is telecast on Israel’s equivalent of ESPN, and the newspapers – English and Hebrew – are covering the league daily. The website (www.israelbaseballleague.com) has received rave notices.
In addition to putting a communications plan in place during my ten days there, I also served as associate producer of the opening day telecast and editor of the yearbook, getting to put some old skills from my Yankee days into action. I even took the photo of the Ra’anana Express pitcher celebrating his no-hitter, which I emailed to the Jerusalem Post from the field. But surely the best part for me was sitting around in the afternoons and after the games, sharing baseball stories with the managers (did you know Holtzman won more games than Sandy Koufax, making him the winningest Jewish pitcher in history?), and challenging Blomberg, the game’s first designated hitter, to explain how you lose a DH when he goes in defensively. (He screwed it up and hence, one of the protests).
Bud Selig is among the members of the Advisory Board for the IBL, and there is a hope that Israel will get a call to participate in the next World Baseball Classic. Oh, and Koufax, rested after 41 years since his last start, was drafted by the Miracle back in March, and was “touched, honored, amused, and pleased,” but seems unlikely to take his turn on the mound. He’s still in Florida, but they will clear a roster spot if, at 71, he changes his mind.
The league is 40% Jewish and 18% Israeli, and when I asked a Jerusalem cab driver if he happened to know how Petach Tikva did last night, he responded, “no, but I know Modi’in won 9-1 on Opening Day.”
I considered that a PR victory.
Days after returning home I got to attend the premiere part for ESPN’s 8-hour mini-series, “The Bronx is Burning,” based on the book by Jonathan Mahler about 1977 when the Yankees were in turmoil, the Son of Sam was killing young women, New York City went through a blackout with rampant looting, and a wild Mayoral race was in progress.
The film, directed by Jeremiah Checkick, stars John Turturro as Billy Martin, Oliver Platt as George Steinbrenner and Daniel Sunjata as Reggie Jackson, and unlike the book, is mostly about the Yankees of that season, a season best remembered for Jackson’s three World Series home runs in the final game after bitter in-fighting between Jackson-Steinbrenner-Martin. The famous Fenway Park dugout standoff between Martin and Jackson is perfectly choreographed, but this time we get to hear what they were (probably) shouting at each other.
Erik Jensen as a very convincing Thurman Munson, and we became friends as I was asked to serve as a consultant to the project, having been on the scene doing PR for the Yankees in the period. (I wrote Munson’s autobiography with him in ’77).
In fact, after many days on the set (shot mostly in Connecticut), I was offered a chance to wear a period-style brown suit and to play myself in the scene in which Reggie’s press conference is held to welcome him to New York. So I was me, 31 years earlier, for a day, and hopefully, played myself in a convincing manner. My one spoken line was cut, but I was there, sitting on the dais, as Reggie spoke (“I brought my star with me”), and the scene even made it into the trailer for the film (www.bronxisburning.com).
Sports people love to walk onto a movie set and I was no exception, but by the same token, actors love to wear baseball uniforms and live out their fantasies, so everyone involved had a great time. I know baseball fans love to rate their favorite baseball movies (Bull Durham, Major League, Field of Dreams, Pride of the Yankees and Bad News Bears are usually among the leaders), and I’m not sure what we’ll do with an eight-hour made-for-TV miniseries. But the attention to detail, the actor’s skilled capturing of their characters look, speech and habits (I suggested that Turturro channel Sonny Bono to get Billy Martin’s voice), and the hard work by the actors to look like baseball players, made this first rate. It was an honor to be involved.
It was quite a month.