JEWS GOING TO BAT FOR ISRAEL

They call it Team Israel, but really, it’s Team Jew. And there’s never been anything like it.

Next month in South Korea, 16 countries will play in the quadrennial baseball tournament known as the World Baseball Classic (WBC), a “World Cup” for baseball. One of them is Israel, which advanced to the tournament by winning its qualifier in Brooklyn in September.

 

Almost all the players on this team are Jewish Americans, representing a mix of the American-Jewish community. Some have an integrated Jewish background – two Jewish parents, extensive participation in Jewish holidays, and involvement in the Jewish community – while others have a Jewish parent but grew up with the other parent after divorce, or have only one Jewish grandparent, and barely know they are Jewish. Yet somehow, they all bought in on being a Jew representing Israel.

“I always found it amazing that so many of these guys who had virtually no [Jewish] identity growing up, never celebrated Jewish holidays, embraced being known as a Jewish baseball player,” says Jonathan Mayo, 46, a reporter for MLB.com since 1999; “and understanding that the Jewish community in the United States loves them unconditionally.”

The guys not only embraced their identity as Jewish players, they embraced each other. The weekend before the Brooklyn qualifier, the team gathered for the first time in Wappingers Falls, New York. It was a threeday mini-camp to get them ready to play Great Britain and Brazil. Repeatedly, veterans spoke of their amazement at the team comradery that so quickly came together.

“I don’t know what the reason was behind it, but everybody got super comfortable with everybody on the first day of the workouts,” says Nick Rickles, 27, a catcher with the Washington Nationals organization. “The next day, it was like we’d played together six months – everybody was on the same page immediately. That was very impressive to me. I can feel something special that I don’t know that I felt with a team before, especially this soon.”

Rickles is one of a handful of returning veterans who played in the WBC in 2012, the first qualifying round in which Israel competed. “It’s been four years since we’ve seen each other, but coming back, we hadn’t missed a beat in four years,” he says. “That was also very impressive to me.”

Nate Freiman, 30, a free agent first baseman, is another of the five or six players who will be playing on the third Team Israel roster next month ‒ 2012 and September being the first two. He was the star at the first qualifier in Jupiter, Florida, when he hit four home runs, knocked in seven and slugged 1.417.

He had one simple message for the players:

“I said this is going to be a new experience for almost all of you, playing on the international stage. And the type of baseball, and the type of feeling surrounding this tournament, is something that is difficult to replicate in minor league baseball. But buy into this, bring everything you have to this, and this will be an experience you won’t ever forget.”

TEAM ISRAEL is like no team the players have ever played on. As professionals, they are used to shuffling from one franchise to another, making friends and then moving on, as they have all done in their careers. Here, it is a permanent team. No one’s traded or released: if you can still play, you’ll keep playing, and if you retire, you remain part of the family. In the world of professional baseball, that’s a very small family.

“I grew up as a Jewish kid in Santa Monica playing baseball with other Jewish kids,” says Cody Decker, a 30-year-old catcher with the Milwaukee Brewers organization. “But the higher you get in the ranks, there’s less and less Jewish baseball players to the point where other than on this team, I’ve been teammates with only two Jewish players in professional baseball over the last eight seasons.”

The result, he says, is something unique, “this thing we have in common and no one else gets to experience that. That’s why this is pretty special.”

Is it a good baseball team? Yes. Can the total be greater than the sum of its parts? Absolutely. And the parts are pretty impressive.

Israel’s 28-man roster was put together by the team’s 73-year-old manager, Jerry Weinstein, a toothpick-chewing baseball lifer with 40 years of experience coaching professional and college baseball. A studious and well-prepared leader, he was just named manager of the Colorado Rockies’ Hartford Yard Goats in the Double AA Eastern League.

The team Weinstein put together resulted in a group of 28 extremely talented professional baseball players, among the minuscule number of the very best in the world.

A dozen of them have Major League experience (final rosters were not available at press time). These include Craig Breslow, Ike Davis, Decker, Freiman, Ty Kelly, Ryan Lavarnway, Jason Marquis, Josh Satin and Josh Zeid. Other possibilities include Ian Kinsler, Kevin Pillar and Danny Valencia. Another dozen or so players have played in Triple AAA, one level below the Major League. This is an able and capable team.

The level of Major League experience varies. Marquis, 39, who retired in 2015 after 15 years in the big leagues, can still pitch, as demonstrated by his outstanding performance in September – starting two of the three games, pitching seven innings, giving up one run, two hits, walking one and striking out six.

Marquis is the most accomplished major leaguer on this team – third on the all-time Jewish list in wins and strikeouts, and fourth in innings pitched. He’s likely to start the first game, and, if he can duplicate what he did in Brooklyn, the third as well.

Another atypical characteristic of Weinstein’s roster is how smart a team it is.

“The level of conversation is at a much higher level, one not usually associated with a baseball clubhouse,” says Dan Rootenberg, 44, the team’s strength and conditioning coach and physical therapist, who played for the Netanya Tigers in 2007 in the one-season Israel Baseball League (IBL). “You’ve got guys who have deferred medical school, who’ve been to Yale, Duke, Stanford, you name it. There is this extremely high level of intelligence and depth of conversation that’s not typical.”

Nate Fish, 37, Team Israel’s first-base coach who played in the IBL for the Tel Aviv Lightning, says, “Every team has that one smart guy everyone considers weird, but also kind of looks up to because they suspect he is smart. We were that guy, all of us… It’s not only the best Jewish baseball team ever; it’s the most educated baseball team ever.”

To be eligible to play in the WBC, Major League Baseball (MLB) instituted rules different from all other international sporting events such as the World Cup, Maccabiah and Olympics. Those require participants to be passport-holding citizens of the country for which they play. However, to help spread baseball around the world, eligibility requirements in the WBC were changed ‒ players do not need to hold passports of the country they are representing, but only be eligible to hold passports of the country they are representing.

The Israeli parameter for citizenship is called Hok Hashvut, The Law of Return: any Jew anywhere in the world has the fundamental right to move to Israel and become an Israeli citizen. That’s how Team Israel’s players are American Jews who are playing in an international competition on behalf of the State of Israel. And that’s a first.

Identifying who is a Jew starts with lists of Jewish players compiled by Shel Wallman and Ephraim Moxson at Jewish Sports Review, and Scott Barancik of Jewishbaseballnews.com.

Finding proof that the players are in fact Jewish then falls on Peter Kurz, 59, president of the Israel Association of Baseball (IAB), the governing body of baseball in Israel and the sponsor of Team Israel.

“Some parents are both Jewish, so the player has a bar mitzva certificate, a bris certificate, a ketuba from the parents,” says Kurz. “MLB accepts that. Then I have to prove that the player is related to the parents, so I have to bring his birth certificate in addition to the ketuba. What if the parents are not Jewish? Or only one parent is Jewish? Then I have to go back – did his father have a bar mitzva? He didn’t have a bar mitzva? What about his grandfather? Maybe his grandfather had something.”

Every ketuba Kurz received was in English, except for one in Hebrew. Not to worry, MLB has someone in the office who can read the Hebrew. If there are no documents, Kurz gets a letter from their rabbi. One player had an army certificate of his grandfather from World War II that said he was Jewish. MLB accepted that, too.

THE TEAM bonding continued into the qualifying tournament in Brooklyn. Pitcher Alon Leichman, 27, one of three Israelis on the 2012 team who now serves as the bullpen coach, printed out Hebrew phrases to learn, posting them in everyone’s lockers. The team also practiced in the clubhouse singing “Hatikva,” Israel’s national anthem, “so everyone could at least pretend they knew the words,” says Fish.

As is customary, the national anthem of each country is played before every game in the tournament. At the opening strains of “Hatikva,” all the players pulled out a blue kippa with the IAB insignia and put it on their heads ‒ some for the first time in their lives. “We had to remember to keep our hats on, not off, when ‘Hatikva’ was played,” laughs Fish, the self-proclaimed @ kingofjbaseball.

The players also identified with the team mascot: The Mensch on the Bench, a stuffed toy rabbi and Jewish knockoff of Elf on the Shelf, the Christmas doll toy. It was brought by Decker, the team’s practical joker, its merry prankster.

Decker is the Jewish “Crash” Davis, with 173 home runs over eight seasons in the minor leagues, and only 12 plate appearances in the majors, with no hits and one RBI on a sac fly. (The answer to the trivia question is Melvin Upton Jr.)

Decker borrowed a real tallit from a reporter, wrapped it around the little Mensch, and gave the tiny Hasid a prominent seat on the dugout bench and its own locker in the clubhouse. “That brought a whole ’nother level of cohesion to this group,” says Rootenberg. “And it’s been in our clubhouse this whole time bringing us luck. It’s special.” The photograph that accompanied a New York Times feature on the team was of the toy.

Identification as a player for Israel was not only exhibited at the tournament itself; some of the players carry it with pride affiliated with an organization receive travel bags for carrying equipment with the team’s logo on the side. Those who have played for multiple organizations – and almost all of these players have – collect many travel bags over the years.

Which one they use is their choice.

“One of the things that we’re very proud of is showing off that we were part of the team,” says Rickles. “So, we get these travel bags – I’m with the Nationals, I was previously with the Oakland A’s – but instead of using those bags, I would use my Team Israel bag. So not only does that show that I’m proud to be part of the team, it brings awareness to other guys – ‘What is that? What did you guys do? When do you guys play again?’ Seeing the bag and being able to talk about it makes other people aware and want to be part of the team.”

Each of the players has a personal reason for wanting to represent Israel: their religion, a love of competition, a grandparent who survived the Holocaust, their careers, a chance to play for a country on the biggest international stage baseball has to offer, for the friendship and comradery.

“Baseball has been my career,” says Adam Gladstone, 44, head of baseball operations for the team. “If I have the ability to give back to Israel and to my religion through baseball, it’s probably the best way for me to do that; my way of giving back to the religion, the community and my heritage.”

Freiman calls it “an extreme honor” to play for Team Israel, a sentiment voiced by many of the players. “I’ve been fortunate to represent towns and schools and cities, and I’m always proud and honored to represent my team,” he says. “But this is different. In international baseball, you’re representing an entire country, an entire people, an entire heritage and culture. And we are here to make them proud.”

Being on Team Israel also helps the players get in touch with their own Jewishness.

For 28-year-old infielder Kelly, whose mother is Jewish but who was raised Catholic, his father’s religion, this team is the most connected he’s ever been. “I identify with it much more now,” he says of his Judaism.

As for the team, Kelly says, “I don’t want to say I feel like an outsider, but I feel like I have to be more appreciative because it’s not something that I’ve been practicing my whole life, and that it’s just a natural thing that I’m playing for Team Israel. It’s been sort of an afterthought.”

Whatever their individual motives, the common theme for all is helping to grow the sport in Israel, putting Israel on the baseball map, and knowing that they are playing for something way beyond themselves.

“The team comradery is us understanding what we’re representing and what we’re here to do,” says R.C. Orlan, 26, a pitcher with the Nationals franchise. “There’s a certain purpose other than just winning ‒ it’s always been about going as far as you can and winning, but we’re trying to represent something bigger than that.”

They are not in competition for stats, fighting the guy sitting next to them on the bench to get to the Major Leagues or to stay there, perusing whose numbers are better. These teammates are competing for one goal: Help Israel. Help Israeli baseball.

“None of this is for us,” says Decker. “That’s why this tournament is so great for us, especially for this team. We know we’re playing for something a lot bigger. This is not about our stats, this is not about our careers – it doesn’t necessarily do much for our careers. This is for Israel. This is something that’s bigger.”

THE PLAYERS also have come to understand how deeply it touches Jews in the US, and how they’re playing both for Israel and for baseball-loving Jewish Americans who root for Israel. But they only discovered just how much impact they had after playing in Jupiter, where they were defeated 9-7 in 10 innings by Spain.

“It didn’t sink in until we lost,” says Rickles. “You don’t realize how many people have your back, how many people want you to succeed. Coming into this year, four years later, it means a lot to me to play for a country and the people that are behind us.”

Freiman calls that loss “a crushing disappointment, one of the biggest disappointments of my baseball career. In the intervening four years, we’ve seen how much this has meant to people all across the country, and abroad.”

Decker says he and Freiman, who have played together on a couple of teams since 2012, including last summer, “brought it up once a week how crushing a night that was. It was crushing. We thought we had it. That line drive to right – we were jumping out of the dugout, running onto the field. And the guy made a good catch. I’ll remember that Joc [Pederson] hit to right forever.”

Wherever he’s gone the last four years, Decker says, people referenced Team Israel over and over.

“A shocking amount of people,” he says. “When mail came to the clubhouse with requests to sign cards, I’d say 50 percent of them mention Team Israel. Honest to God truth. It’s an outrageous amount of people. When I sign [autographs] on the field, there’s always one guy saying, ‘Remember when you played on Team Israel?’”

Freiman says he had the same experience.

“All over the country ‒ California, Texas, Iowa, Florida, New York – everywhere in the country [Jews] follow this.”

STILL, FOR all their feelings about connecting to their fellow Jew, their own Jewishness and to each other, there was one piece missing: Israel. With only a couple of the players having been there, the teammates had little idea what it was about. They were representing the country in the abstract.

So to create a bond with the country on their uniforms, a group of 10 players – past, present and future – flew to Israel in January (on a plane borrowed from casino magnate Sheldon Adelson) to see and learn about the country and the baseball scene there.

Jeff Aeder, 55, who started the jewishbaseballmuseum.com website, co-sponsored and organized the journey, bringing the group to Israel for a six-day trip much like the Birthright experience.

“There’s nothing more exciting to me than bringing people who have never been here before, who don’t have the same background, and the same inherent love of this country,” says Aeder, a Chicago businessman and owner of Milt’s BBQ for the Perplexed, a profit-free kosher restaurant. “My job was to expose them to enough different aspects of it so that they get a feel for the country, so that when they go back they’re absolutely amazed by the vitality of the country, the spirit of the people, by the hope, the optimism, and also understanding the risks and concerns ‒ the press doesn’t portray Israel the way we see it. For them to do this, and to turn them on to what we know as the beauty of Israel is just phenomenal, just great.”

The entire trip was caught on camera by filmmaker Jeremy Newberger, who together with MLB.com’s Mayo is producing a documentary called “Heading Home,” which chronicles the players getting a taste of Israel and then playing in the 2017 Classic.

The group was filmed eating shawarma and falafel in the Mahane Yehuda market; visiting Yad Vashem; listening to a recording of David Ben-Gurion’s declaration of independence in Tel Aviv; attending a groundbreaking ceremony for a new baseball field to be built in Beit Shemesh; visiting the Western Wall on Friday night; swimming in the Dead Sea; climbing Masada; taking in an air force base; and dedicating a medical motorcycle for the volunteer emergency medical service, Hatzalah.

“The purpose of the film is to document this trip beyond the goodwill tour,” says Mayo, “to show these players exploring what it means to be a Jewish ballplayer, and this momentous occasion of having an Israeli national team competing in a major international competition for the first time.”

A highlight for all was a meet-and-greet event at the Baptist Village field in Petah Tikva. Dozens of Israeli kids who play in one of the IAB’s five age-group leagues watched the stars take a little batting practice, before getting autographs and selfies.

For the IAB, it was about connecting the Israeli kids to baseball, which is not easy in a country where passion for sports centers on soccer and basketball. But what better way to get them jazzed than to meet professional baseball players?

“Stars make leagues, in every sport,” says Fish, who just completed three years as the inaugural executive director of the IAB, the organization’s first paid professional. “Without stars, no one cares about baseball. Especially little kids. Little kids don’t care about the nuances of baseball as much as they think Ken Griffey is a really cool dude. So a team like that gives Israel a team to look up to ‒ that’s the spark that little kids need to play baseball.”

As much as the players may have sparked interest in the kids, it was Israel that sparkled for the players. They tweeted throughout the trip and after returning to the States.

“From the Mediterranean to the Dead, the Western Wall to graffiti wall, Masada to sabbaba, what a trip,” tweeted Sam Fuld, a 35-year-old free agent outfielder.

Jon Moscot, 25, a pitcher with the Reds, who was forced out of this tournament because of Tommy John surgery but is already committed for 2021, tweeted: “The trip to Israel is nothing short of spectacular.”

“After being home for two days and letting our incredible trip sink in, my overwhelming feeling is one of gratitude,” tweeted A’s franchise catcher Ryan Lavarnway, 29, one of two Yale graduates on the team. “I learned so much about history and religion and the State of Israel. Everybody was so kind and we felt totally at home. Thank you so much!”

Zeid, a 29-year-old free agent pitcher and another veteran from 2012, ended his visit with a strong recommendation: “One of the best weeks ever. Doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from, Israel is an incredible, must-see experience.”

When the players put on their uniforms in Seoul with the Star of David patch on their right arm, not all of the best Jewish professionals in the US will be playing for Team Israel. Some couldn’t join due to injury, or because they had to be in spring training with their organization, or because of family commitments. One, 22-year-old top rookie Alex Bregman, is playing for team USA.

“Everybody who has bought into this ‒ from a player’s standpoint, from a coaching standpoint, from a front-office IAB standpoint ‒ everybody is proud to put that jersey on, for whatever reason it is,” says Gladstone. “This is their way of giving back. If they didn’t want to do it, they wouldn’t be here, they would have declined. There were some guys we would have liked to have on the club, offered the opportunity to see if they had interest, and they didn’t relate to it. So, if they didn’t relate to it ‒ great. We found the 28 best guys that can represent us.”

THEN THERE’S the bonus: not only do these players get to play in the biggest international baseball tournament, play to represent world Jewry, and play for the State of Israel – they also get paid. For winning in Brooklyn, the players and the IAB split $400,000. Each game they win next month earns another round of money. When the Dominican Republic took home the trophy in 2013, the players and the country’s baseball federation split $3.5 million.

Las Vegas has the Dominicans favored next month at 5-2 odds, with Japan and the US at 3-1. The four lowest odds are Australia, China, Colombia and Israel, at 100-1.

The world rankings are worse. China and Colombia are 18th and 19th, respectively, the lowest among the 16 teams playing next month ‒ except Israel, that is, which is ranked 41st. In the opening round, Israel will play No. 3-ranked South Korea, No. 4 Chinese Taipei and No. 9 Netherlands.

But rankings and odds can be misleading. For one, these numbers were on the board before the rosters came out. Moreover, with two teams less talented than this one – and this is the best Jewish baseball team ever ‒ Israel played six games against four countries in the 2012 and 2016 qualifiers and won five of them.

For the IAB, the World Baseball Classic is about the excitement of being represented on the world baseball stage; Jewish pride watching this warm and embracing family of American Jewish jocks play baseball with the best in the world; and of course, the bottom line: the chance to really grow the sport in Israel.

There are already IAB teams in cities with large Anglo communities, including Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Ra’anana, Beit Shemesh, Modi’in, Beersheba and Hashmonaim, as well as in smaller towns such as Tel Mond, where the majority of players are Israeli- born. A lot of the games they play, however, are on makeshift diamonds carved out of soccer field corners.

“Our primary need for Israel baseball is field development,” says Jordy Alter, 53, vice president of the IAB. “Without proper facilities for kids to play, it is impossible to expand from our current number of players. Advancing in this competition will help provide us with funding we would use for field development and to improve current facilities. We would also benefit from hiring a professional coach to help our kids and train our many volunteers.”

FOR ALL the Jewish focus on Team Israel, in the end it comes down to balls and strikes, yada yada yada. It’s about baseball.

“On a given night, anything can happen in baseball,” manager Weinstein said at the Winter Meetings, echoing one of the sport’s time-honored axioms. “You get the right guys pitching and executing their pitches, you never can tell what’s going to happen.”

The WBC has been played three times, with Japan winning in 2006 and 2009, and the Dominicans in 2013. Next month’s classic begins with Israel playing the opener against Korea on March 6 at noon Israel time/5:00 a.m. Eastern. Israel plays Chinese Taipei 17½ hours later, and The Netherlands 48 hours after that. Two of the four teams in this Group A advance to the next round to play against the top two teams from Group B. The top two teams from that round in Tokyo will advance to the semifinals and finals, booked for Dodger Stadium, March 20 to 22.

Could Israel be one of them?

“It’s a talented enough team, I think, to get to Japan,” says Mayo, the top evaluator of minor leaguers at MLB.com. “And then? Who knows. They’ll have to play Japan and Cuba in all likelihood. Cuba is not what it used to be… Could it happen? I think it could happen…yeah…yeah.”

Everyone’s dreaming big. Asked what it would mean for Israel to win it all in Los Angeles, Mayo paused.

“Mashiach [the Messiah] would come?”

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