may / june 2007:
If You Build It...
To say Eric Holtz is a baseball fanatic is like saying Michaelangelo could paint. That's why the 41-year-old father of three id leaving his successful clothing manufacturing business in upstate New York this summer to join the first-ever Israeli baseball league and live out his lifelong dream on a baseball diamond in the Holy Land.
Text and Photos by John Torres
The 41-year-old Westchester County man takes the last drag on his Marlboro, beeps the alarm on his Ford F-150 pickup, grabs a brand new baseball from the front seat and goes off to visit his father's grave at King David Memorial Park in Putnam Valley.
A few moments later, Eric Holtz looks around to make sure no one is watching. He digs just deep enough to add yet another baseball to the gravesite of the man who taught him all about the greatest game ever invented, the man who admired Lou Gehrig and passed his love of the Yankees on to his son, the man whose kidneys would fail and who would die before that boy turned 12 years old.
It is likely that bond, that heartache, is what is driving Holtz to leave his successful design/manufacture clothing company, not to mention his wife and three children to live out his dream and play professional baseball for nine weeks this summer in the inaugural season of the Israeli Baseball League.
“One memory of my dad that really stands out is when he decided to lay down on his stomach with a helmet on when I was batting in order to hold my ankles,” Holtz says shaking his head. “I used to move my back foot when swinging. Looking back, he was nuts. But I can not tell you how many times I have done that for my kids since I have been coaching.”
The first-ever professional baseball league in Israel will boast teams like the Tel Aviv Lightning, the Netanya Tigers and the Bet Shemesh Blue Sox. While league officials say the initial goal is to have fun and provide a new outlet for the Israeli family looking for something different, the ultimate ambition is to include Israel in the next World Baseball Classic — the international round-robin tournament that was wildly successful in 2006.
“We’re patterning the league after American minor league baseball,” says Martin Berger, director of player personnel. “It’ll be family-friendly, lots of different foods, activities for kids and oh yes, by the way, a baseball game is going on. We want players who have personality.”
That might explain why Leon Feingold — more well known for being ranked 12th in the world in the competitive eating circuit than his fastball — has been signed to play. But it still doesn’t answer why a fledgling league would want to pull Holtz — a 41-year-old rookie with no professional experience and who quips he’ll only go out to dinner if Feingold is buying — away from the states to play shortstop, left field, and maybe even pitch a few innings.
It has more to do with just his swing or his cut fastball. It’s about attitude.
“I’m excited for people like Eric who can live out their dreams,” says former Yankees slugger Ron Blomberg, who will be managing Holtz’s team overseas. “He’s a super athlete and he’s true-blue. He’s been very successful in business and now he can be successful doing this. He’s a dynamite guy and I’m happy to have him on my team.”
That’s not just your typical public relations spin either. Blomberg and Holtz became good friends about five years ago when Holtz decided to spend a week in Tampa pretending to be a Yankee at Fantasy Camp.
It was there that Holtz and dozens of other out-of-shape wannabes played ballgames alongside the likes of Tommy John, Ken Griffey, Blomberg, and Al Downing. But something about Holtz stood out. While most of the other campers were content posing for photographs, having merchandise signed and treating the games like pickup softball, Holtz was hitting homeruns over the fence and striking out dozens of campers.
“I thought my days of playing baseball had long been over,” he says. “But I was surprised at how quickly it all came back to me and how natural it felt.”
He took it seriously. Back home in Westchester he started playing in men’s baseball leagues. He went on clinics and tournaments out of state. And every year at Yankee camp he dominated more and more.
Back home, the reality still has not sunk in with Holtz or his family. Sure, his youngest, 8-year-old Brett, is excited to wave goodbye to daddy at JFK and maybe get to even see his photo in the newspapers or on some website.
“I think it’s going to be really good for him and really cool,” says the youngster while holding his own version of Smackdown with action figures of the Undertaker, Kane, and even Hulk Hogan. “He’ll probably become famous and I want him to be famous. Maybe he’ll be the first Jewish person to be famous.” Obviously, Abraham, Moses and even Sandy Koufax don’t count.
Trying out for the Israeli Baseball League was never supposed to be a serious thing. It was just another day of being able to play baseball in upstate New York. “This kind of thing started out as a goof so I never had to take it seriously,” Holtz laughs a few moments before sinking his teeth into an Italian sandwich he picked up to watch the Super Bowl. “It stayed a goof until about a month or so ago (December) when I received the evaluation letter from Dan Duquette’s staff.”
Duquette, a longtime Major League Baseball executive — twice named MLB’s Executive of the Year and currently Israeli Baseball League’s Director of Operations — said Holtz was good enough to play. He wanted to know if Holtz was serious.
Then it hit him. Did he really want to leave the comforts of home, family and business to live in a dorm in the Middle East and play a game? “Obviously there are concerns, real concerns: leaving my family and the business and being in a part of the world where there is constant unrest,” he sighs but can’t quite hide the smile, the glint that says nothing will be able to keep him from the diamond. “My wife is a wonderful woman who will support any decision I make. She knows that baseball has been and will always continue to be one of my strongest passions in life.”
In private, Traci Holtz’s blue eyes are not quite as gleaming as her husband’s. They hold the strain and the worry of what the summer may bring. Long known in the family as the practical one, she is the ying to his yang, the voice of reason when he wants to give in to his impulsive nature.
And while the public school social worker says she would never stop him, Traci admits that she still has not come to terms with his decision. After all, she adds, he’s not traveling to Cleveland or Boston to play. “Living with a man like Eric is very unique,” she says, measuring her words carefully. “When it became more of a realistic possibility I chickened out and said I’m not going to be part of this decision. I’d hate to be in his shoes. How do you weigh your dream versus the reality of your life?”
She hates not being able to discount fear as part of the decision-making process but can’t help it. On one hand she’s sick with worry that something would happen to her or the children if they visited. On the other, she wonders what message that sends to her kids. “I don’t want to feel like I live in a world where I’m stopped by what’s going on or limited by what’s going on,” she says, adding that she watched the movie Munich the night before. “That stinks. What am I trying to give to my kids?”
And if you think his wife has reservations, then speak to his mother who lives in nearby Hartsdale. She calls it “nuts.”
Holtz’s year can almost be defined by two seasons: Chinese New Year and baseball season. He knows to expect a slowdown in production during the Chinese holiday season as many of his clothing makers are Chinese.
His clients — who purchase mainly women’s clothing and sportswear — also know what to expect once the snow thaws and it’s warm enough to sling a baseball around.
You see, he doesn’t just play baseball. Holtz also coaches his 14-year-old third baseman of a son, Jordan. He coaches Brett, who has crazy baseball potential and he coaches his daughter, 9-year-old Sydni who is a fast-pitch softball playing phenom.
When he’s not on the field with his own kids, he’s down the road in Purchase, wearing a red and white Manhattanville College uniform where he has spent the last several years as the volunteer men’s hitting coach. This year he is the assistant softball coach.
“My customers all know I’m a lunatic when it comes to baseball,” he gasps in between swings at the college’s indoor batting cage. “I’ve been coaching here at the college for years and most of my customers know that it’s a waste of time to look for me after 2 or 3 o’clock between March and June. They know that I’m on the sidelines somewhere.”
He’s gotten into the routine over the years to go down into his basement office by 6 a.m. and start shooting off e-mails to buyers, suppliers and putting out fires. Since the majority of his work for Sydni B. Jordan Inc. is done via e-mail and telephone, Holtz is convinced he can keep the business going with little interruption. After all, his clients should know what to expect.
His 41-year-old body should know what to expect as well. Though he’ll be the first to admit that he pushes it as if he was 14 again and playing in Co-Op City Little League in the Bronx. He has a trainer, a physical therapist, and religiously goes to the gym to improve his core strength and flexibility.
He might soon need a miracle worker more than a trainer. He’s already had six knee surgeries — no ACL left — two herniated disks and right shoulder surgery. “I’ve watched him play but he limps a lot after the games,” remarks his youngest son. “He puts ice on his leg and arms and takes pills to make him stronger, like steroids but they’re not steroids.” Those would be his old reliable savior, Holtz laughs: Motrin.
In February, as a warm-up to Israel, Holtz helped out a semi-pro team in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico by pitching nine innings and striking out former major leaguer Rey Sanchez twice. Of course, he was unable to lift his arm for the next few days. “The throbbing woke me up out of my sleep,” he says from his timeshare on the island. “But if I had to do it all again I wouldn’t change a thing. I struck out Rey Sanchez.”
Now he has a little time to recuperate before the season in Israel begins and a few months to convince his wife to take the children there to visit for a few weeks.
“I’m looking forward to the excitement of being a pioneer of something that is totally new, something foreign to the people there,” he says. “Playing baseball is just doing something that I’ve done for the last 34 of my 41 years on this earth.”
He admits to expecting maybe more than just a few butterflies when he takes the field and he already knows who he will think of first when he runs off. “You think of all the people you want to call after something great happens,” he says quietly. “And I can’t call him. But I think about my dad all the time. All my memories of him have to do with baseball.”
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