By Steve Ginsburg
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Baseball is known as the national pastime of the United States. The same cannot be said in Israel, but a new program enlisting American Jewish ballplayers is aimed at honing the skills of Israeli hopefuls and elevating the game in the Jewish state.
The Israel Association of Baseball is hoping its "Israel Baseball Experience" program, importing the American players for five months starting in January to play in the top Israeli baseball league, will turn out to be a grand slam.
"We want guys to come over just to raise the level of playing and coaching in the country," said Nate Fish, the association's head national team coach. "If you can take 10 or 20 Division I college baseball players and you put them in the Premier League it would drastically impact the level of play. I'm not really worried about having too many of these guys."
Art Shamsky, an outfielder with the 1969 World Series champion New York Mets who in 2007 served as manager of a team in a now-defunct Israeli baseball league, said his Israeli players "didn't understand the nuances of the game."
"Baseball is a very subtle game in a lot of ways," Shamsky said. "Sure, there's run, throw, hit, pitch and field. But there are parts of the game you learn playing Little League or in high school. They didn't have that."
Shamsky, who is Jewish, said there are some Israeli players who have some ability. "I wouldn't rule out some player over there eventually playing minor league ball and then make it to the big leagues (in the United States). This program could help make it happen."
Shamsky, 74, said the program could help Israel qualify for the World Baseball Classic (WBC), an international tournament sponsored by Major League Baseball.
'NOT SO FAR-FETCHED'
"It's not so far-fetched to think that the game can get developed there and kids can play it at a competitive level," Shamsky said. "Who knows what can happen? At one point they said that about Japan, about China and Australia. It can be done."
The American players, ages 18 to 29, will be set to play in the Premier League and go into communities around Israel to help promote and develop the game, the program's organizers said. The Americans are due to work with Israeli coaches and children in five cities, including Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
The Israeli national team, ranked 22nd in the world in baseball and sixth in Europe, is preparing to try to qualify next year for the 2017 WBC.
Few of the Israeli national squad's players are on Israel's WBC team, which consists mainly of American Jews who qualify to play for Israel in the tournament. WBC rules allow players to represent a country if they are merely eligible for citizenship.
Israel lost in the WBC qualifying round in 2012, losing to Spain in the finals.
Shawn Green, 42, a retired two-time Major League Baseball all-star outfielder who is Jewish, said baseball "has started to take off in Israel" and that "the key is to get American players there."
"Not only can they help instruct and show the Israeli players how to play the game, they can also go out there and demonstrate what it takes to perform as a professional baseball player and exemplify the right way to play the game," Green said.
Fish acknowledged that current Premier League attendance is little more than "a few parents and friends scattered around," with no stadium announcer or concessions.
He also noted that Israel's current security problems can intrude on sports.
"Baseball is an escape," Fish said. "We've had a lot of problems over the last month. For the kids that play, it's essentially a time where they don't have to think about it."
Fish added, "We were running summer camps last year and almost every day the sirens would go off and we'd have to hustle kids into the bomb shelter behind the third-base dugout. It's just a reality that we deal with."
(Reporting by Steve Ginsburg; Editing by Will Dunham)