Haim Katz comes by his love for baseball naturally, and in true Pittsburgh fashion.
“I played as a kid,” the Mt. Lebanon native said. “One of the earliest games I went to was the 1960 World Series; that was the first year I got interested in baseball.”
Unfortunately, the game he attended was Game 2 in which the Yankees creamed the Pirates 16-3.
But that didn’t deter Katz. He went on to become a vendor at Forbes Field. He saw the last game ever played at the venerable ballpark, and the first one to be played at Three Rivers Stadium.
While he was hawking peanuts and watching Willie Stargell take his home run swing, Katz probably never imagined himself as the central figure in establishing baseball in Israel.
But weeks away from Israel’s debut in a qualifying round of the World Baseball Classic (WBC) in Jupiter, Fla., that’s exactly what he’s become.
Katz, 59, is president of the nonprofit Israel Association of Baseball (IAB), the central authority for the game in the Holy Land. He returned to Pittsburgh in July as an assistant coach of the Israel National High School Baseball team, which played tournaments against high school teams in Squirrel Hill and Freeport, but he also used his stateside visit to drum up support for Team Israel.
Israel is one of 12 new countries invited to play in four qualifying rounds for the 2013 WBC. The first of those four rounds is in September in Jupiter, where Israel will meet France, Spain and South Africa.
The qualifying round games will feature a six-game modified double-elimination format. The winner of each round joins 12 other countries from the 2009 WBC in the 2013 classic.
Team Israel, which is still being built, may have an advantage in that the rules permit countries to recruit players who, while not citizens, are eligible for citizenship.
“Anyone who is Jewish can be on Team Israel,” Katz said. “So in theory, at least, we’re talking Kevin Youkilis, Ryan Braun, Ian Kinsler.”
And, oh yes, John Grabow — the last Jew to wear a Pittsburgh Pirates uniform.
“He hasn’t been playing this year,” Katz said of Grabow, a relief pitcher, “so whether he’s in shape or not depends on him.”
Since the qualifying tournaments will be held in September, major leaguers will not be able to participate, but teams that qualify can add and drop players for their 40-man rosters.
And minor leaguers can play, provided their big league clubs don’t call them up in September.
Team Israel has already lined up some marquee players. Retired major leaguers Gabe Kapler and Shawn Green have agreed to be player/coaches, while Brad Ausmus is the manager.
The roster also includes six or seven Israelis.
“On paper, we like our chances,” Katz said, “but it essentially comes down to one game and even the ’27 Yankees lost some games, so anything can happen.
“This is a huge opportunity to build the awareness of Israel baseball,” he added. “Our tagline is, ‘where traditions meet,’ so we’re trying to get the game of Greenberg, Green, Koufax and Kinsler played in the land of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and David.”
The WBC is only one of several efforts designed to put baseball roots down in the Jewish state.
Back home, the IAB is spearheading an effort to build a $5 million ballpark in Raanana, where the city has provided a plot of land. The Israel Sports Authority will come up with $1.5 million, but the IAB must raise the rest.
“When we get the money, we’ll break the ground,” Katz said, but he’s hopeful the ballpark will be ready by September 2013.
Meanwhile, the IAB is sponsoring leagues for kids around the country, including for the past two years in Pittsburgh’s Partnership 2Gether city of Karmiel where some 100 kids, ages 10 to 15, play in “little league” level ball.
“We do everything,” Katz said of the IAB. “In Israel, sport is very centralized.”
Among its tasks, the IAB recruits for the WBC team, sponsors leagues and builds ball fields. It is recognized by the International Baseball Association.
After he made aliya in 1978, Katz, who works for an agricultural research fund in Israel, got involved in Israeli baseball when his son took up the game.
“They asked me to coach a team and run a few tournaments; each time I was too stupid to say no,” Katz recalled. “Eventually, they asked me to run the organization.
“We’re a relatively small group,” he continued. We have a board of 17 people who run the organization and we have about 50 volunteers.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)