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April 6, 2012 Nissan 14 5772

MAGIC?
New Orioles boss brings Israeli-style work ethic to team.
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BRINGING BACK THE

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Cover Story |

By Ira Gewanter

MAGIC?
New Orioles boss brings Israeli-style work ethic to team.
Justin Tsucalas

BRINGING BACK THE

In Baltimore, where Orioles fans have endured 14 futile seasons, Dan Duquette is determined to make a difference. The Orioles’ new vice president of baseball operations — the team’s highest-ranking official — is a 53year-old front office veteran. Today he is clad in slightly ruffled businesscasual attire, suggesting he would rather be wearing jeans and a T-shirt. His manner is gruff and straightforward, without pretense. His eyes are alert, collecting answers to unspoken questions. He still seems every bit the field captain from his days as a varsity catcher in the scholarly setting of Amherst College. For Duquette, the 2012 season is a fresh start to a familiar, albeit formidable, challenge. Constructing champion-caliber clubs has been the hallmark of his major league career — first as a scout in Milwaukee, then as general manager in Montreal and Boston. In 1992 and 1995, he earned recognition from e Sporting News and Boston baseball writers as Major League Baseball Executive of the Year. Yet Duquette’s least-heralded role may prove the true game-changer in Baltimore — his tenure as a founding member of the Israel Baseball League. In fact, his last Opening Day was in 2007 on a windswept desert field just outside Tel Aviv. Could the same pioneering spirit needed to cultivate America’s pastime far afield deliver the Birdland Faithful

to Baseball’s Promised Land? Duquette bristles some, but is clearly amused by the question. Then he’s all in. “Orioles Moses. I guess I’m Orioles Moses now.”

IBL Calling
Baseball and Israel seem worlds apart. Duquette credits the conviction of Boston businessman and IBL founder Larry Baras with drawing him, a Catholic, to the unlikely venture of baseball in the Jewish state. “The league was Larry’s idea. It seemed like baseball for all the right reasons, mainly because it’s a way to bring all types of people together. The sport is democratic like that. All-Stars come in all shapes and sizes. Because the game historically brought immigrants together in America, we thought it would make a great gift for Israelis, too.” This pure baseball enthusiasm echoed hopes, Duquette recalls, from his former Expos employer, Charles Bronfman. The well-known Jewish philanthropist who later founded the Birthright Israel program always dreamed of exporting baseball to Israel. But the thought of constructing a league from scratch was undeniably daunting. Duquette breaks into a disbelieving half-smile, as though still awed by the chutzpah of Baras’ initial proposal. “The challenge in Boston was to bring a World Series Championship to a team that hadn’t had one in 85 years. Here, [in Baltimore] it’s to bring a World Series championship to a city that hasn’t had one in 29. ... In Israel they hadn’t even had a game in over 5,000.” But the magnitude of the IBL challenge only amplified Duquette’s desire to participate. Already owner of New England’s Collegiate Baseball League Pittsfield Dukes and the renowned Dan Duquette Youth Sports Academy in Massachusetts, he reveled in this chance to test his baseball-building mettle on a whole new scale — as architect of an entire league and its accompanying farm system. Duquette’s theory for how the pro league would benefit the game’s amateur status resembles the baseball equivalent of trickle-down economics.

“Hopes were really high,” he says. “We thought a pro-league could basically spearhead development of an amateur talent pipeline for Israel. I mean when kids get interested they want to play. So that grows a demand for youth academies. And there was a chance to build a team for the [2009] World Baseball Classic.” Duquette shrugs, and avoids getting ahead of himself. He deadpans, “I mean, other than fans, facilities, franchises, players and coaches, we began with everything we could possibly need.” His broad smile is back only halfway through completing his thought. “I knew this was going to be the ultimate baseball adventure,” he says. And indeed it was.

Play Ball!
What followed is a story set at the unlikely intersection of the movies “Exodus,” “Field of Dreams” and “Bull Durham.” Duquette recalls how stewarding the league to a June 2007 launch was a “continued exercise in prioritizing and accepting compromises. To get anything done you had to focus on your role first.” As director of player development, Duquette’s responsibility was player acquisitions. e league aimed to uphold baseball’s best egalitarian ideals. is meant Duquette’s

Extra Innings
To learn more about Jews and baseball, check out: “Holy Land Hardball”: An award-winning documentary about the Israel Baseball League. “Coming Home”: A forthcoming documentary detailing Ari Alexenberg’s experience playing in the IBL. “Jews And Baseball: An American Love Story”: A documentary about the evolution of Jewish Americans’ relationship with the National Pastime. “Pitching In The Promised Land:” A memoir penned by IBL pitcher Aaron Pribble, the league’s ERA leader.

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IBL Game: Petach Tikva Pioneers vs. Bet Shemesh Blue Sox at Gezer Field

Playing For Israel’s National Team
The World Baseball Classic is an international tournament. Israel’s team faces a qualifying round in 2013. The qualifier will be held at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Fla., this November. Any player eligible for Israeli citizenship is qualified to play for the Israeli team. For more information, visit baseball.org.il or contact the Israel Baseball Association, isbaseba@017.net.il .

Courtesy of the Israel Baseball League

scouting was not limited to players of Jewish descent. In fact, he had particular interest in signing Palestinians. “I tried, but we just couldn’t find a single Palestinian ballplayer. It’s a shame because that would have been really special. I know we signed at least one Muslim, but he was American,” he says.

“The day-to-day work is what’s going to get us where we want to go. But a winning culture is also born by example.”
— Dan Duquette

Emphasis on diversity aside, all IBL players would share one common characteristic — they were pro baseball’s exiles, castaways whose talent somehow passed beneath the radar of established leagues. Those leagues had deeper pockets for signing premium talent, whereas Duquette was asked to deliver 120 players for only $2,000 each. His process of identifying and signing undervalued players would demand the utmost of his scouting background, an approach he affectionately calls “Shekelball.” Collecting worldwide talent meant a worldwide mission. “The pilgrimage to recruit players took us everywhere,” he says. “We physically went all around the U.S. We went to the Dominican, and we went to Israel. Through the Internet, we were also able to recruit players from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Germany and Russia. In the end,
28 Baltimore Jewish Times April 6, 2012

we wound up with players from eight countries.” ese efforts culminated in a dra hosted by the Cornell Hillel and televised on ESPN. Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax was draed last in a ceremonial gesture. Six teams were born from the process — the Bet Shemesh Blue Sox, the Modi’in Miracle, the Netanya Tigers, the Petach Tikva Pioneers, the Ra’anana Express and the Tel Aviv Lightning. By this point, Duquette was not the only big-name baseball personality associated with the league. Among others, prominent front office figures in an advisory role included Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Kurtzer, New York Yankees minority owner Marvin Goldklang and Yankees President Randy Levine. Former major league players Ron Blomberg, Art Shamsky and Ken Holtzman were enlisted as coaches. Granted, declaring the league a reality from nearly 6,000 miles away was easier said than done. “I mean there was only one genuine field in Israel when we first scoped out venues for the league,” Duquette says. “It was in the Baptist Village outside Tel Aviv. The other two we had to make by retrofitting softball and soccer fields.” Duquette laughs. ”My first time ever visiting Israel was for the IBL. One thing you quickly learn when you’re over there is that real estate is at a premium. I visited holy sites like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and walked along Christ’s journey. Going through security checkpoints so oen, you really start to understand the demand for space from three separate religions.” Another case in point: “We also wound up having to house our players at this kibbutz, called Kfar Hayarok. ink of it as like a summer-camp style bunk-bed arrangement.

Basic cafeteria food. e whole deal. You know … roughing it. Yet the allure of playing baseball against the Israeli landscape’s historic backdrop elevated each field to a sacred status. “Our field in Gezer was something else,” Duquette says. “I mean we were playing ball right where King Solomon had his summer home. You know if you hit a ball up over the light tower, it ended up in King Solomon’s backyard. at was such a cool place for a ballpark.” Running bases in the footsteps of biblical figures was just the start of migrating America’s game in Israel. Traditional ballpark fare like hamburgers, hot dogs and Cracker Jacks would be sold alongside Israeli staples like shwarma and bamba (a popular snack-food akin to peanut butter Cheetos). e famously zany carnival atmosphere from American minor league parks would expand from activities like sack races, sumo wrestling and karaoke to include promotions like “Bat Mitzvah Days” and a sped-up pre-Tisha B’Av “Fast Game.” No games were scheduled on Shabbat. Significant changes were made to games as well. ey would last only seven innings with ties determined by

Justin Tsucalas

Dan Duquette: “I feel spoiled every day. This place looks like it’s right out of a storybook. It’s perfect. … I just love being around this ballpark.”

a home run derby. As a baseball purist, Duquette grudgingly agreed. “You really have to meet your audience where they are. Israelis are a fast-paced people, and we thought this was the best way to introduce them to the game.” Opening Day was held to much fanfare on June 24, 2007. In addition to 3,000 spectators, an American au-ience watching on PBS saw the aptly named Petach Tikvah Pioneers and Modi’in Miracle stand behind opposite foul lines. Warm desert air was stirred by meandering coastal breezes carrying the solemn notes of Israel’s national anthem, “Hatikvah” (The Hope) rising from the field. Here in the Jewish homeland, on a field built by Baptists, representatives from all three Abrahamic traditions were gathered in a faith shared by ballplayers everywhere.

The Aftermath
Less than a year later, it was over. There had been 45 regular-season games and a gripping All-Star Game.

The Bet Shemesh Blue Sox were crowned the first-IBL champions. To the shock of Duquette and others involved in league operations, Baras had become embroiled in alleged finanical improprieties that would force the IBL to close. The new Orioles executive declines to point fingers, but it’s obvious he has a strong opinion. He grimaces as though swallowing a bitter aftertaste of memories from the league’s unceremonious demise. “You know, when the season ended they immediately razed the field we built in Tel Aviv,” he says. “All that time, money and effort and then they just plowed right over it. “That hurt.” Duquette glances sideways and flashes a half-hearted grin. “I guess it wasn’t Shekel Ball after all. … It was No-Moneyball.” Yet even after most IBL investors left, Duquette volunteered for an expanded role. “I gave it my all to stay. You can’t invest as much time and energy as I did and just walk away. It was over two years at that point.” Duquette’s optimism has the last say. He finds satisfaction in the harvest from the league’s first crop of talent. “We were definitely successful from a personnel standpoint,” he says. ”Out of 120 players signed who thought their careers may have been over, I was able to place over 20 with established leagues the next season.” He likewise appreciates the IBL’s longterm impact. “We put Israel on the baseball map, and it’s there to stay.

The Israel Association of Baseball [a nonprofit Israelibased organization] is trying to build a state-of-the-art ballfield and complex in Raanana Park. Fans can donate to that. They hope to open in May of 2014. They also want to launch a new professional league that year. … We’ll see.” Bronfman has even founded a baseball-themed Birthright trip so Jews can explore common ground through the sport. The pilot trip had more than 30 participants this past January. Duquette also is excited by Israel’s bid to compete in the 2013 World Baseball Classic. The 16-team international tournament highlights baseball’s growing global appeal. This year includes a qualifying round for countries with an emerging baseball profile. Anyone of Jewish heritage can play for Israel, and Duquette is committed to help gather players. “I’m an Oriole first,” he says emphatically. “It’s not like I’m dedicating extra time to scout for the Israeli team. But a lot of the players the Israelis are looking at are presently signed to major or minor league teams. Some are amateur players we’re already scouting. So the Orioles are already gathering their information which means we have detailed scouting reports to share.” Duquette takes an extended moment to reflect on the entirety of his Israel experience. “Even now, I would do it all over again,” he says “It was fun. … Baseball is always fun.”
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Now In Baltimore
Duquette is entirely immersed in his new role. His top-floor executive suite inside the Camden Yards warehouse seems strikingly plain. Its minimalist decor powerfully reflects the same mix of pragmatism and faith that were cornerstones of his IBL approach. The wall to his right is an overview of the Orioles organization. An array of charts, graphs and an oversized draft board form a collage of his metrics mindset. Duquette gestures toward this display, saying, “It’s a work in progress. Let’s face it. Fans want to see a winning team, and the winning needs to begin now. We should be .500 or better this season. We’re building a solid foundation from the ground up.” Duquette’s two biggest offseason signings were star Japanese League pitchers Tsuyoshi Wada and Wei-Yin Chen. “The Israel Baseball League really kept me fresh on the international scouting scene,” He chuckles. “You know that we got Chen from the same Japanese team that I sold [IBL pitcher] Maximo Nelson to after the IBL season.” Duquette also is paving a path to success along routes to lesser-known international baseball locales. While strengthening the Orioles’ presence in baseball strongholds like Japan, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, the Orioles are now players in remote baseball destinations like Costa Rica, Guatemala, South Korea and New Zealand. Yet Duquette’s statistics-based approach does not discount his belief in the vital role intangibles play in any winning formula. He laughs, recalling his role in a 2003 production of “Damn Yankees” (a Pittsfield, Mass., charity benefit featuring a cast of Broadway regulars). “I played the part of the [Senators] manager Van Buren, that Jimmy Durante played in the movie. I sang ‘You Gotta Have Heart.’ And you do. Stats tell a lot of the story, they point you in the right direction. But the great ones have heart.” The two pictures Duquette has chosen to adorn his office walls underscore this sentiment. One is an autographed photo of Cal Ripken Jr. hanging directly above his desk. The other is a picture of Brooks Robinson’s iconic leap following the 1966 World Series victory. Both players were lifetime Orioles who embody the blue-collar determination Duquette admires. “The day-to-day work is what’s going to get us where we want to go. But a winning culture is also born by example,” he says. “No one gets that better than [Orioles manager] Buck [Showalter]. We’re fortunate to have six Hall of Famers, and we’re unveiling their statues during this season’s 20th anniversary of Camden Yards. Putting those guys on a pedestal reminds us of the proud heritage that comes with being a Baltimore Oriole. That’s great for our team and great for this city.” Duquette’s IBL friends are rooting for him to succeed in Baltimore. Eric Holtz, a star shortstop from the Bet
30 Baltimore Jewish Times April 6, 2012

Provided

Israel’s Orioles
Members of the 2012 Maalei Adumim Orioles are pictured here with their coach, Mordechai Frist. Their uniforms were donated by the Baltimore Orioles at the request of University of Baltimore law school professor Kenneth Lasson, who delivered the material last January while visiting his children and grandchildren. Along with three dozen orangeand-white tee shirts and caps, the gift included bats, a bucket of baseballs, equipment bags and scorebooks. “I’m a lifelong Orioles fan,” Lasson says. “I have two grandsons who play in the Israeli Little League. It’s growing in popularity, with a very long season running about eight months of the year. As far as I know, the Orioles are the only major league club that makes this sort of contribution, which is a big help to these kids.” — I.G.

Shemesh Blue Sox, recently flew to Sarasota, Fla., to visit him at the O’s revamped spring training home. “Dan is one of the most proud professional guys I’ve ever come across in my life,” Holtz says. “He invited my son to play in a July Fourth weekend tournament at his youth academy. Picture this. It’s pouring rain. I mean pouring rain. Dan’s got at least 15 employees there. But who’s out there on the tractor with a spreader doing the fertilizing of the field by himself ? Dan. What’s amazing is that he was doing it just for kids who’d be happy with anything. But Dan wanted it done to his standards.” So it’s no surprise that whenever Duquette really needs a jolt of inspiration, nothing does it quite like the view of the field framed by his office window. Baseball is always about the journey home and when Duquette stands to peer at the field, it’s clear he has arrived just where he wants to be. His expression softens. “I feel spoiled every day. This place looks like it’s right out of a storybook. It’s perfect. … I just love being around this ballpark. I love being part of a team, being part of the process of building a team. I mostly like being part of something bigger than myself, that if I do well, other people can feel good about it, too.” JT
Ira Gewanter is a Baltimore writer.