Russell Westbrook has 57 points in highest-scoring triple-double in NBA history

http://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/19035506/russell-westbrook-57-points-highest-scoring-triple-double-nba-history

 

Less than a week after recording the first “perfect” triple-double, Russell Westbrook put another mark in the NBA history books Wednesday with the most points in a triple-double.

Westbrook scored 57 points and added 13 rebounds and 11 assists in the Oklahoma City Thunder‘s 114-106 overtime win over the Orlando Magic, topping James Harden and Wilt Chamberlain, who each scored 53 points in a triple-double.

“That is definitely a blessing,” Westbrook told reporters of his historic night in Orlando, Florida. “I definitely don’t take this game for granted, and I try to come out each night and try to compete at a high level. That is definitely something that is a blessing and definitely something that I can be proud of.”

It is Westbrook’s second 50-point triple-double this season, joining Harden for the most in the league this season. Before this season, a 50-point triple-double hadn’t been done since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1975.

Westbrook had 36 points, 9 rebounds and 7 assists after halftime, including 19 points in the fourth quarter. The Thunder overcame a 21-point third-quarter deficit for their largest comeback in franchise history, with Westbrook forcing overtime with a wild, fading 31-foot 3 with seven seconds left.

“No, I didn’t know [it was going in],” Westbrook said. “I couldn’t see right away because two people jumped.”

In the extra frame, Westbrook scored or assisted on all 12 of the Thunder’s points.

“There’s nothing else you can do,” Magic center Nikola Vucevic said. “He had like 50, 15 and 15. He’s a hell of a player and he’s been doing it for 70 games now, carrying that team every night. I think the numbers he’s putting up are amazing. You just tip your hat when he does stuff like that, and even in overtime, he made a lot of big shots, and before, in the fourth quarter, he made a couple of big 3s. He’s a big-time player.”

Westbrook started the game sluggishly, turning the ball over seven times in the first eight minutes. He didn’t record another turnover the rest of the game.

“Yeah, just got to take care of the ball,” Westbrook said. “I was being too reckless and loose. Coach got on me at halftime for being reckless and loose with the basketball, and I was definitely more attentive to that.”

Two nights ago in Dallas, Westbrook led a furious 14-0 run in the final 3:30 against the Mavericks, scoring 12 himself, including the game-winning jumper with five seconds left. He has built a stable full of clutch moments this season, leading the league in most clutch-time (last five minutes of a game and within five points) stats.

“Words can’t really describe it,” teammate Victor Oladipo told reporters of watching Westbrook. “It’s just an honor to play alongside him as he kinda etches his name in history.”

Westbrook needed overtime for his historic stat line but still played only 42 minutes. Thunder coach Billy Donovan has remained committed all season to managing Westbrook’s workload, keeping him under 40 minutes for every non-overtime game this season. Westbrook has played 40-plus minutes only five times this season, and Wednesday was the first time it had happened since Nov. 30. For comparison, Harden has played 15 games with 40 or more minutes, and LeBron James has played 20.

“For me, every night I don’t ever think about ever getting tired,” Westbrook said. “I just go out and keep going … keep going. I am very, very thankful and blessed to have that energy and constantly keep moving and playing. I don’t take it for granted.”

It’s Westbrook’s 38th triple-double of the season, putting him three away from tying Oscar Robertson for the most ever in a single season. The Thunder have eight games remaining. According to ESPN’s Kevin Pelton, Westbrook now has a 99.9 percent chance to finish the season averaging a triple-double, the first player to do so since Robertson in 1962.

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2017 NFL Draft: Quarterbacks

The 2017 NFL Draft is coming up in about 5 weeks and I have been working diligently to scout this year’s upcoming quarterback’s class. This is a very interesting group of quarterbacks especially when compared to the last few years; while it may not be as strong as group as last year’s class, there are definitely a few quarterbacks that have franchise quarterback traits. Usually I profile 5 quarterbacks that I rank as my top 5 in the class and I will still do that for this year’s group, but I will also throw out my under the radar quarterback, a guy who if he lands in the right system and in the right situation that I could see them at the very least being a spot starter and as a high end backup and another quarterback that shouldn’t even be touched due to what I call high level bust traits. One very interesting situation in this draft class and all of my draft classes is that the quarterback must be at least 6 foot 2 inches in height and it is one of the traits that I will never compromise upon. For the simple reason that only 2 quarterbacks under that height threshold have ever been drafted in the first round in the past 15 years and one of the quarterbacks drafted, Johnny Manziel, ended up being an alcoholic and a drug addict, despite my warnings over 3 years ago not to draft him for what I suspected to be substance abuse issues. Anyways, here are my rankings, enjoy!

  1. Mitchell Trubisky https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J4q7edDLXQE It should have come as no surprise to anyone that I have been pumping up the overall game and resume of Mitch since the end of December of 2016 and while it may seem like a stretch to take him with the number 1 overall pick, I view him as worthy of a top ten pick. Sadly most teams in the top ten have already went ahead and chosen to go with a veteran option at the position with the signing of Mike Glennon to the Bears, Brian Hoyer to the 49ers, and Tyrod Taylor going back to Buffalo. I am very hesistant to believe that the Jets will draft yet another QB but this is the pathetic Jets we are talking about and there is no way the Browns will pick a QB number 1 overall but I see a situation where they could easily trade up from the 12th pick to the top 10 and grab Trubisky if he starts to slide towards the bottom of the first 10 picks. Now I was very skeptical due to the short body of work of Trubisky just like I was very skeptical of Carson Wentz but going through the tape, the talent is there for him to develop as a franchise quarterback. Through the limited body of work, I saw a quarterback that was accurate throwing on the run, able to work through progressions, show off excellent arm strength and plus scrambling ability, display the proper footwork even while working from a spread system, and displayed the poise under pressure with excellent decision making and good pocket mobility to extend plays. If there is one flaw in his game it is due to poor mechanics when making downfield throws that he makes the mistake of putting too much air on the ball and thus, gives the DB a chance to make a play on the ball, but overall I am confident in him, just like I was confident in Carson Wentz last year to be able to make the transition to being a franchise quarterback despite the limited body of work. The player that I would compare him to would be a less talented throwing version of Matthew Stafford due to similar body sizes and playing styles. Top Ten Grade
  2. Deshaun Watson https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Frm1oeO2yu0 If there was to ever be a prospect as highly scrutinized it has to be Watson, a man that I am not particularly fond of but I see a lot of similarities in Watson and Dak Prescott in that Prescott was able to be a distributor, being able to get the ball into the hands of his playmakers. I remain very critical of Watson’s decision making but I like his pocket awareness and poise under pressure. Such traits were evident when evaluation his game tape against great SEC defenses like Alabama and how he was able to rally his team under duress. His game is also a little similar to Vince Young in his ability to galvanize the troops (before Young became a black nigger he was a highly respected team leader in the University of Texas) and lead his men through the darkest times in the football game. Nothing seems to get to him with respect to the big stages but when evaluating these quarterbacks, I look at accuracy, pocket awareness, arm strength, leadership ability, and overall potential as I fully believe no matter how strong your arm is, if you can’t get the ball on time and if you can’t operate under a muddled pocket, you will never succeed in the NFL. We don’t need another white idiot like Blaine Gabbert becoming a top ten pick and proving that I was right to never even draft him in the first 4 rounds of the draft. Watson does possess good short to intermediate accuray and a strong arm. His athleticism is above average and will allow for him to be a plus scrambling threat in the pros. I do not like his deep ball accuracy as he misses too many throws down the field despite having some excellent receiving options and he has to continue to learn to play from the pocket but he has all the tools to develop into a franchise quarterback in my eyes; he just needs to work on his decision making and accuracy that has led to him having over 30 interceptions in the past 2 years. I see him as a fit with the Texans and the Chiefs as those teams would give him the time to develop and they also have systems and talent around the QB that would allow him to simply get the ball out to his weapons and play the role of ball distributor. First Round Grade, Top 25 pick

  3. Deshone Kizer https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GXj76WC6nF4 There was a time in my evaluation where I was prepared to name Kizer my number 1 QB due to concerns that Trubisky was a little person and would measure under the 6 foot 2 inch threshold that I have for all of my quarterbacks. Thank the gods that Trubisky did not let me down in those regards, but it shows my affinity that I have for big, strong, mobile quarterbacks that I even made Cam Newton my number 1 QB over Ryan Mallett due to my conerns that Mallett was a drug addict and of course a mal content with a terrible attitude and work ethic, concerns that have yet to be dispelled by Mallett and his supporters. Kizer has excellent, elite size for the position with an absolute cannon for an arm. He is a plus athlete for the position and in the YouTube link I have provided you will see many 20 plus yard runs by Kizer. So if he is loved by me so much, why do I rank him as the 3rd best quarterback, well it is very simple; his pocket mechanics breaks down as the game progresses which leads to poor accuracy on throws that he should be able to make. It also leads to poor sacks and poor decision making, which is why he was benched multiple times late into the 4th quarter. You really have to go back to the 2015 tape to see his overall potential but still this is a guy with all the traits needed to develop into an excellent quarterback but I will admit he is like a wildcard. I just have a major love for big armed, tall, and mobile quarterbacks. It did not help matters that his footwork was not up to par with other quarterbacks when throwing at the combine last month. He will need at least 2 years to sit, learn and watch but I fully believe that he will end up being an excellent quarterback since all of the tools are there. I also do question his leadership and intangibles as to whether he truly cares about the game due to how many times he was benched. I see him being a good fit in the Arizona Cardinals system to develop as an option behind Carson Palmer for a year and then let him take over. His powerful arm is a good asset to have in the Cardinals vertically based offense. Late First Round Grade

  4. Patrick Mahomes II https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X8tf0eXBURo At one point I had Mahomes as my 2nd rated quarterback in a scenario if Trubisky measured out to be a little person but the cards fell where they did for a reason. I am a fan of his game as he is super fun to watch, literally airing out bombs all day long with the ability to throw the ball as far as the eye can see but with the ability to drop the ball into the bucket against tight coverage. Everyone knocks the system he came out of, the Air Raid system of Texas Tech, and his game lacks any kind of discipline needed to play in a traditional pro style system as a pocket passer. Yet all of the physical and leadership skills are there for him to thrive as an NFL quarterback. I prefer to think of him as a mold of clay that can be molded but it will take at least 2 years for a return on investment. I see the 49ers as a fit for him due to their long rebuilding process and he can be afforded the luxury of sitting behind a bridge quarterback like Brian Hoyer until he is ready to lead the offense. I compared his game to Jay Cutler due to the lack of discipline he has to operate the offense and his propensity to take un-needed risks with the football but there are times when his off the script game style can be a thing of beauty. Early Second Round Grade

  5. Davis Webb https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o3y6rILNmDo Here is my surprising prospect that I have revealed to be worth my developmental grade as a QB that has all the physical skills to develop into a spot starter or at the very worse, a high end backup. When researching Davis Webb’s game, he shows many similarities to Nick Foles as a tall and strong armed quarterback with an above average arm and average mobility that would need to be developed within a system but has the traits to emerge as a useful backup and a guy who can compete for a starting QB job within three seasons. Webb needs to work on many things including his mechanics, footwork, and speeding up his internal clock during his drop backs but I see a prospect who can thrive in a vertical offense or an offense that is run based. He can be very frustratingly inconsistent at times and can even look like Sean Mannion rather than Nick Foles. He will get a little overdrafted and might even sneak into the second round (don’t buy the lies that he will be a first round pick) but I would feel confident with selecting him as a 4th round prospect and even in the 3rd round. He would be a great fit in the Houston Texans as a QB to develop but we all know that they need someone who can come in and compete right away. Who know, if and when they get Tony Romo, Webb would be another Texas arm that they can develop for a few years until he is ready to take over the job on a full time basis. Third to Fourth Round Grade

  6. Quarterbacks to avoid: Brad Kaaya, I am sorry to bust the bubble of many Miami college fans but I have only a 6th round grade on your boy Kaaya due to both arm strength limitations and poor pocket awareness. During my study of the tape, he seems to get very squirmish in the pocket with bodies around him and doesn’t seem to handle pressure up the gut due to poor foot speed to escape and slide his feet inside the pocket. Sure he has excellent size for the position and is a very accurate thrower when he has a clean pocket but that is rarely the case in the NFL. He was able to show off his natural accurate arm during the combine but on throws greater than 25 yards, the ball tended to float and hang in the air; a sign of a weak armed passer. Hell I ever have Nathan Peterman as a higher rated passer despite his also weak arm, though he is very comparable to Andy Dalton from a physical skillset. I have compared Kaaya to a poor man’s Matt Cassel and everyone knows how much I hate to even see the face of the white idiot Cassel but Cassel isn’t even a good backup quarterback in the NFL. Who knows, maybe Kaaya can land in a west coast system that will do a much better job at hiding his lack of throwing ability but he isn’t the highly sought after prospect many idiots were referring to back in the 2016 NCAA offseason.

COLIN KAEPERNICK (NIGGER) SENTENCED TO NFL LIMBO FOR THE CRIME OF SPEAKING HIS MIND

FILE - In this Dec. 11, 2016, file photo, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick stands in the bench area during the second half of the team's NFL football game against the New York Jets in Santa Clara, Calif. Kaepernick is a free agent after opting out of his 49ers contract Friday, March 3, 2017. The six-year veteran quarterback who drew particular attention and headlines last season by not standing for the national anthem, met with new general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan before making the move. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Mike FreemanNFL National Lead Writer

It’s more than a week into free agency and Colin Kaepernick is still unemployed. Remember, this is a quarterback who played in the Super Bowl only four years ago, yet now it appears he can’t get a look from teams. So I set out to discover, once and for all, what teams think of the 29-year-old former Niner.

“He can still play at a high level,” one AFC general manager said. “The problem is three things are happening with him.

“First, some teams genuinely believe that he can’t play. They think he’s shot. I’d put that number around 20 percent.

“Second, some teams fear the backlash from fans after getting him. They think there might be protests or [President Donald] Trump will tweet about the team. I’d say that number is around 10 percent. Then there’s another 10 percent that has a mix of those feelings.

“Third, the rest genuinely hate him and can’t stand what he did [kneeling for the national anthem]. They want nothing to do with him. They won’t move on. They think showing no interest is a form of punishment. I think some teams also want to use Kaepernick as a cautionary tale to stop other players in the future from doing what he did.”

When I spoke to a handful of executives at the combine a few weeks ago, one even called him “an embarrassment to football.”

For the moment, the interest in Kaepernick is slim, and that’s putting it kindly.

It’s possible teams are waiting for the right time to make their play for him. That’s sometimes how it works in free agency. Weeks or months will go by with little interest in a player and then, boom, it all heats up at once.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

But what’s happening with Kaepernick is highly unusual. So far, it seems he hasn’t visited a single team. I can’t find a quarterback-needy team that’s interested. Again, things can change quickly, but the silence is deafening.

From a football perspective, teams worry about Kaepernick’s throwing accuracy. He still has some difficulty hitting tight windows and sometimes runs even when receivers are open. In 2016, Kaepernick connected on 59.2 percent of his passes, which ranked 26th in the league.

There’s also the perception—a wrong one—that he has difficulty learning new schemes.

And if those weren’t enough, concerns linger that he is moody and not a good teammate. That belief also may not be accurate. From speaking to 49ers players about Kaepernick, it’s clear most of the San Francisco locker room liked him.

Kaepernick can take hope in how putrid the quarterback market is. When Jay Cutler is at the top of the heap, that says it all.

There are still teams desperate for a competent QB, so much so that one eventually will find the risk in signing Kaepernick is worth any potential backlash. That’s my guess.

Still, it’s hard to emphasize how unusual Kaepernick’s current situation is. If a Super Bowl quarterback can walk and chew bubble gum simultaneously, he gets opportunities. Those opportunities usually arrive until that player is totally and completely done. That’s not the case with Kaepernick.

Four years ago, he ran for a playoff-record 181 yards and two scores at Green Bay as the 49ers beat the Packers in a divisional playoff game, 45-31. The Niners would then go to Atlanta and upset the Falcons in the NFC title game before losing Super Bowl XLVII to the Ravens when a last-gasp drive fell five yards short. Throughout those playoffs, Kaepernick was more than capable, completing 61.3 percent of his passes, throwing only two interceptions and producing a combined quarterback rating of 100.9.

Evan Vucci/Associated Press

Guys like that get multiple shots.

Further adding to the intrigue is that teams understand Kaepernick hasn’t been playing with a great deal of talent around him recently. The 49ers, frankly, have been a dumpster fire the past few years, and it showed with some of the players with which the team surrounded their QB.

Despite all of that, his phone is not ringing off the hook. Or at all, for that matter.

Kaepernick’s new agents appear to have foreseen all of this, which is why it wasn’t surprising when sources told ESPN’s Adam Schefter that Kaepernick would start standing for the anthem.

Now, he sits. Waiting and waiting. A still-talented player whose political statement may have cost him his NFL career.

Five (out of original 11) NFL players (Niggers) touch down in Israel for post-Super Bowl tour

http://www.timesofisrael.com/five-remaining-nfl-players-touch-down-in-israel-for-post-super-bowl-tour/

 

Five National Football League players began a post-Super Bowl visit to Israel on Tuesday, following a storm of criticism by some of the other invited athletes who pulled out after expressing their displeasure with the stated goals of the visit sponsored by the Israeli government.

The five football players — down from 11 — currently in Israel are Calais Campbell of the Arizona Cardinals, the Oakland Raiders’ Dan Williams, Cameron Jordan of the New Orleans Saints, Delanie Walker of the Tennessee Titans, and Philadelphia Eagles player Mychal Kendricks.

All five were present at Haifa’s Rambam Hospital on Tuesday, one of the planned stops on the seven-day trip.

The trip’s organizers, including Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs, Ministry of Tourism and America’s Voices in Israel (a branch of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, a non-partisan group), did not confirm or deny which players were in Israel.

The planned trip also includes visits to major sites in Tel Aviv, the Dead Sea and Haifa, as well as Christian sites in the Galilee. The players will also head to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem and meet with representatives of the Black Hebrews in Dimona.

Steve Leibowitz, president and founder of the American Football League in Israel, said the group would probably have a “meet-and-greet” at Jerusalem’s Kraft Stadium — the outdoor football field created by New England Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft — on Saturday night, February 18.

Team owner of the New England Patriots Robert Kraft holds the Vince Lombardi Trophy during Super Bowl 51 at NRG Stadium on February 5, 2017 in Houston, Texas. Tom Pennington/Getty Images/AFP)

Team owner of the New England Patriots Robert Kraft holds the Vince Lombardi Trophy during Super Bowl 51 at NRG Stadium on February 5, 2017 in Houston, Texas. Tom Pennington/Getty Images/AFP)

The original 11-member crew of athletes included players Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett from the Seattle Seahawks, Bennett’s younger brother and New England Patriots player Martellus Bennett, Miami Dolphins’ Kenny Stills, San Francisco 49ers player Carlos Hyde and Denver Broncos player Justin Forsett. ESPN football commentator and former NFL linebacker Kirk Morrison was also set to join.

The visiting players have been mostly silent on social media since their arrival in Israel Monday night, with the exception of Philadelphia Eagles’ Mychal Kendricks, who posted an Instagram video on Tuesday in a Tel Aviv eatery, singing along to Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s get it on” and asking an Israeli waitress to say hello to the camera “in your language.”

https://www.instagram.com/p/BQefbZdAQaN/embed/

The withdrawals from the trip, which garnered international headlines, were led by Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett, who pulled out saying he felt he was being “used” by the Israeli government after reading comments about the trip made by Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan and Tourism Minister Yariv Levin in a press release published by the Tourism Ministry on February 5, Super Bowl Sunday, and reported by The Times of Israel.

The Brothers Bennett, NFL players Michael Bennett (left) and Martellus Bennett, captured during an ESPN interview, were supposed to visit Israel on a seven-day trip; Michael Bennett has now become an outspoken opponent of the purpose of the trip (YouTube screen grab)

The Brothers Bennett, NFL players Michael Bennett (left) and Martellus Bennett, captured during an ESPN interview, were supposed to visit Israel on a seven-day trip; Michael Bennett has now become an outspoken opponent of the purpose of the trip (YouTube screen grab)

Both ministers suggested the trip’s purpose was to “show a balanced picture of Israel” in the fight against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, as Erdan was quoted as saying, so that the athletes could become “ambassadors of good will for Israel,” said Levin.

Registering his refusal to participate, Bennett first tweeted a picture of Martin Luther King Jr., saying “Im not going to Israel.” He then followed it with a long letter late Friday in which he talked about his discomfort with being considered an ambassador for Israel, and proposing that when he does visit Israel, he will go to the West Bank and Gaza as well.

Bennett’s public exit was followed by that of Miami Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills and then reportedly by his younger brother, Martellus Bennett, of the New England Patriots. Denver Broncos running back Justin Forsett said he would nix the trip as well, and then later indicated that he and his wife had decided against it some weeks ago, because of the upcoming birth of his child.

There were also pressures on the football players from the BDS Movement, with an open letter published in The Nation and signed pro-Palestinian groups, activists and high-profile supporters including Harry Belafonte, Danny Glover and Alice Walker, who urged the players not to go.

Jerry Sandusky’s son Jeffrey charged with child sexual abuse

One of Jerry Sandusky’s sons was charged Monday with sex crimes involving two girls, more than five years after the former Penn State assistant coach was himself first arrested on child molestation charges.

Jeffrey S. Sandusky, 41, was charged by state police and arraigned by a district judge in Bellefonte on 14 counts. He was jailed on $200,000 bail.

Sandusky was a stalwart supporter of his father and accompanied his mother, Dottie, to many of his court proceedings. On Monday, Dottie accompanied Jeffrey Sandusky to his.

Police accused him of soliciting nude photos from a then-16-year-old girl last year and seeking oral sex in 2013 from her then-15-year-old sister.

His defense lawyer, Lance Marshall, declined to comment on the allegations.

“All children have a right to be safe,” said Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller. “We will prosecute this case as aggressively as we do all child abuse cases.”

Miller said Sandusky talked to investigators. “He made statements,” Miller said. “I wouldn’t classify them necessarily as directly inculpatory, but I don’t think they helped him much.”

Sandusky was charged with solicitation of statutory sexual assault, solicitation of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, six counts of unlawful contact with a minor and two counts each of solicitation to photograph or depict sexual acts, sexual abuse of children and corruption of minors.

A state trooper said in the arrest affidavit that on Nov. 21, the alleged victims’ father turned over to investigators text messages from Sandusky in which he asked one of the girls for nude photographs.

The affidavit said Sandusky told the alleged victim in texts in March that “it’s not weird because he studied medicine” and instructed her “to not show these texts to anyone.”

The girl’s mother told investigators that when she confronted Sandusky, he told her “he knows it was wrong and inappropriate,” police said.

“The victims’ mother advised that Jeffrey Sandusky had advised her that he was trying to help her daughter by getting naked pictures of her off the internet and needed naked pictures of her to do it and to ‘role play,” the affidavit said.

The girl, called “Victim 1” in the affidavit, told police the texts made her uncomfortable and that “he kept pressuring me and asked me multiple times not to show the texts to anyone,” police said.

Prosecutors allege Jeffrey Sandusky sought oral sex from a second girl, “Victim 2,” in 2013. She was 15 years old at the time.

“Victim 2” told investigators that Jeffrey Sandusky told her in March: “I can’t even say anything except I’m sorry.”

Jerry Sandusky, who adopted Jeffrey Sandusky and five other children, is serving a lengthy prison sentence for sexual abuse of 10 boys.

Jeffrey Sandusky has not made any public allegations of abuse by Jerry Sandusky, but one of his siblings, Matt Sandusky, alleged during their father’s 2012 criminal trial that he had been abused by him. Matt Sandusky was not called as a witness, and Jerry Sandusky has never been charged with those allegations.

The state Corrections Department said that because of the charges, Jeffrey Sandusky was suspended without pay Monday from employment as a corrections officer at Rockview State Prison, near State College. He had been hired in August 2015.

GROUP OF NFL PLAYERS (NIGGERS) STILL EN ROUTE TO ISRAEL DESPITE SOME WITHDRAWALS

The Israel tour arranged for a group of NFL players will go ahead as planned starting from Monday despite the publicized pull-outs of several of its original participants.

Three of the NFL players who were scheduled to arrive in Israel on Monday as part of a campaign to showcase the country’s “true face” to the world pulled out of the trip, explaining that they do not want to be “used” by the Israeli government.

 

Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett led the boycott, being joined by brother Martellus, who won the Super Bowl with New England last week, and Miami Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills.

Nevertheless, the Ministry of Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy, which arranged the trip in cooperation with the Tourism Ministry, is going ahead with the tour, which includes visits to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the Dead Sea and Christian sites.

Bennett’s decision came on the heels of an open letter by renowned musicians, artists and social justice advocates released Thursday asking the NFL players “to consider withdrawing from the delegation given Israel’s track record of human rights abuses.”

Bennett wrote the following via Twitter and Instagram on Friday night: “I was excited to see this remarkable and historic part of the world with my own eyes. I was not aware until reading this article about the trip in the Times of Israel that my itinerary was being constructed by the Israeli government for the purposes of making me, in the words of a government official, an ‘influencer and opinion-former’ who would then be ‘an ambassador of good will.’ I will not be used in such a manner. When I do go to Israel – and I do plan to go – it will be to see not only Israel but also the West Bank and Gaza so I can see how the Palestinians, who have called this land home for thousands of years, live their lives.”

Bennett further cited boxing legend Muhammad Ali and that Ali “stood strongly with the Palestinian people” and wrote “I cannot do that by going on this kind of trip to Israel” and that he was making the decision “to be in accord with my own values and my own conscience.”

The letter to NFL players Thursday urged them “to consider the political ramifications of attending the trip, drawing connections between the struggles faced by Black and Brown communities in the US, and Palestinian, Eritrean and Sudanese communities in Israel and the Palestinian territories.”

The letter was signed by entertainer and activists Harry Belafonte, activist Angela Davis, actor Danny Glover and former sprinter John Carlos, among others, and co-signed by organizations that included the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights.

Other players listed as part of the delegation are Tennessee Titans tight end Delanie Walker, Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Michael Kendricks, New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan, Arizona Cardinals defensive lineman Calais Campbell, San Francisco 49ers running back Carlos Hyde, Oakland Raiders defensive tackle Dan Williams, Denver Broncos running back Justin Forsett and former linebacker Kirk Morrison.

The trip is also scheduled to include a meet-and-greet event on February 18th in Jerusalem (NOT an exhibition game, as had initially been reported) featuring the NFL delegation and players from the American Football in Israel federation and the Kraft Family Israel Football League.

Italian judge: Soccer chants about Jews not hate speech

ROME (JTA) – An Italian judge ruled that soccer fans chanting a slogan featuring the word “Jews” was not hate speech, sparking an angry response from the Jewish community.

In a letter to Italy’s justice minister, Andrea Orlando, the president of the Rome Jewish community, Ruth Dureghello called the ruling earlier this month “undoubtedly an alarming precedent for justice” in Italy that “in essence legitimizes the use of the adjective Jew in a derogatory and racist form and in any case a tool of derision during sporting events.”

Orlando was quoted by the news media as saying he would look into the matter.

The president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, Noemi Di Segni, issued a separate protest to soccer authorities.

The case dates back to March 2013, when two fans of the Lazio soccer team were caught on camera during a match between Lazio and Catania chanting “giallorosso ebreo,” Italian for “yellow-red Jew” — apparently directed against the Catania team. The chant refers to Lazio’s archrival, Roma, whose team colors are yellow and red.

In his ruling, Judge Ezio Damizia acquitted the pair of incitement and racial hatred, saying the term “giallorosso ebreo” was aimed simply at “ridiculing the opposing team” and fell within the scope of the long “sporting rivalry” between Lazio and Roma.

Militant Lazio fans are notorious for anti-Semitic and racist behavior. Just weeks before the March 2013 chanting incident, European soccer authorities sanctioned Lazio for earlier anti-Semitic behavior by fans with a suspended one-game stadium ban.

Kushner family (Kikes) in talks to buy Miami Marlins

(JTA) — The family of presidential adviser Jared Kushner is in talks to purchase the Miami Marlins baseball team, The New York Times reported.

The Kushners, a New York area real estate family, regard the team’s $1.6 billion price tag as too high, the Times reported Thursday.

The negotiations, which have been ongoing for several months, are being led by Joshua Kushner, a venture capitalist and Jared’s younger brother, and Joseph Meyer, his brother-in-law and key lieutenant for the family’s investments.

The talks include a complicated financial arrangement that would include bringing in partners later, unnamed sources told the Times.

Jared Kushner is a senior adviser to President Donald Trump and the husband of his eldest daughter, Ivanka. The couple married in 2009 following her conversion to Judaism.

Neither Jared Kushner nor his father, Charles, the family patriarch who spent over a year in prison for illegal campaign donations, tax evasion and witness tampering, is participating in the effort, the sources added.

Any deal would have to be approved by Major League Baseball, which would closely scrutinize the buyer’s financing and probably seek to ensure that Charles Kushner had no role in operations, according to the Times report.

Jared Kushner, who has pledged to refrain from any involvement in transactions tied to his family to avoid the possibility of conflict of interests, had previously bid for the Los Angeles Dodgers with his brother. They eventually withdrew from the bidding in 2012. The winning group paid over $2 billion.

Representatives for the Kushners, the Marlins and the LionTree investment bank declined to comment when approached by the Times.

The Marlins are currently owned by Jeffrey Loria, a Jewish businessman from New York. He paid $158 million for the team in 2002 after selling the Montreal Expos back to Major League Baseball.

The Marlins won the World Series in 2003, defeating the New York Yankees, but since then have not returned to the playoffs.

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?”

2 NFL stars pull out of Israel government publicity trip

Two top US National Football League players have pulled out of publicity trip to Israel, saying that they do not want to be “used” by the Israeli government.

Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett was the first to pull out of the trip planned for 12 football stars to tour Israel, including stops at Rambam hospital, Yad Vashem, and Jordan River’s Yardenit baptismal site.

Bennett first tweeted a picture of Martin Luther King Jr., saying “Im not going to Israel.” He then followed it with a long letter late Friday explaining his motivation.

“I was excited to see this remarkable and historic part of the world with my own eyes. I was not aware until reading this article about the trip in The Times of Israel that my itinerary was being constructed by the Israeli government for the purposes of making me, in the words of a government official, an ‘influencer and opinion-former’ who would then be ‘an ambassador of good will.’”

“I will not be used in such a manner,” Bennett said. “When I go to Israel — and I do plan to go — it will be to see not only Israel but also the West Bank and Gaza so I can see how the Palestinians, who have called this land home for thousands of years, live their lives.”

After he published the letter, Miami Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills retweeted Bennett, saying “Couldn’t have said it any better. I’m in!”

Bennett noted in his letter that one of his heroes was Muhammad Ali, who ” always stood strongly with the Palestinian people,” and said that he wants to be a “voice for the voiceless.”

“I cannot do that by going on this kind of a trip to Israel,” he said.

The original delegation of 12 — Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett, Martellus Bennett, Delanie Walker, Michael Kendricks, Cameron Jordan, Kenny Stills, Calais Campbell, Carlos Hyde, Dan Williams, Justin Forsett, and ESPN commentator and former linebacker Kirk Morrison — were to visit Rambam hospital in Haifa, the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem and the Black Hebrew community in the southern city of Dimona, according to a statement announcing the trip from Israel’s tourism and public diplomacy ministries.

During the visit, the players will hold an exhibition game together with players from the Israeli Football Association on February 18 in Jerusalem.

Players will also visit Christian sites in Israel, including the Jordan River site of Yardenit, where some of the players will be baptized.

Martellus Bennett #88 of the New England Patriots works out during a practice session ahead of Super Bowl LI on February 1, 2017 in Houston, Texas. (Bob Levey/Getty Images/AFP)

Martellus Bennett #88 of the New England Patriots works out during a practice session ahead of Super Bowl LI on February 1, 2017 in Houston, Texas. (Bob Levey/Getty Images/AFP)

Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy Minister Gilad Erdan expressed hope the visit would offer the players “a balanced picture of Israel, the opposite from the false incitement campaign that is being waged against Israel around the world.”

“The ministry which I lead is spearheading an intensive fight against the delegitimization and BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanction] campaigns against Israel, and part of this struggle includes hosting influencers and opinion-formers of international standing in different fields, including sport,” Erdan said.

Tourism Minister Yariv Levin echoed the sentiment.

“Football stars are a source of inspiration for all American citizens. I am sure that, after the experiences that the players will enjoy in Israel and after they have seen the unique tourist sites and the special atmosphere here, they will become ambassadors of good will for Israel,” he said.

It was not immediately clear who was funding the trip. A February 5 press release by Israel’s Tourism Ministry said the visit “was initiated in cooperation with America’s Voices in Israel.”