The greatest Jewish baseball team ever assembled will take on the world this week in Coney Island. A fantasy of Jewish kids for generations, the team featuring All-Stars and World Series champions, possibly more than 20 former major leaguers and top minor leaguers, will be representing Israel in the quadrennial World Baseball Classic, a project of Major League Baseball.
Israel is a distinct underdog in the Classic, against teams from the United States, Cuba, Japan and the Dominican Republic. Nevertheless, if experience counts for anything, Israel is favored to win the qualifying round (Sept. 22-25), to be played in the Brooklyn Cyclones’ stadium, with Israel having more than double the number of players with American professional experience on their roster than any of the other teams in their opening bracket: Great Britain, Brazil and Pakistan.
Pakistan’s team will be the only one of four teams without anyone with American professional experience.
The placement of Israel and Pakistan, a largely Muslim country, in the same bracket, two teams with large local fan bases, was deliberate, with the WBC office explaining via a statement that the composition of the pool was determined “after venues were selected, with consideration given to… existing rivalries and each national team’s geographic location.” The WBC gave Israel a Shabbat-friendly schedule, with Friday’s game at noon and Saturday’s game at 8 p.m.
Wearing a stylized Star of David on their caps, the Israeli flag on their sleeves, and “Israel” across their chests, the Israel team is comprised of two Israelis and 26 American Jews, as roster eligibility extends to anyone eligible for Israel’s Law of Return. Similar laws in other countries allowed Mike Piazza to play for Italy and Alex Rodriguez to play for the Dominican Republic in previous editions of the Classic, though both Piazza and Rodriguez are American-born.
Several prominent Jewish major leaguers, such as Ryan Braun, Ian Kinsler, Joc Pederson, Kevin Pillar and Alex Bregman, are unable to play for Israel with their major league teams still playing, but the next round of the WBC will take place in March, during spring training, when Israel’s roster could get some first-class reinforcements.
Brad Ausmus, who managed Israel (2 wins, 1 loss) to the brink of the success in 2013, with Israel eliminated in extra innings against Spain, is now managing the Detroit Tigers and is unable to participate, as well. Israel’s new manager is Jerry Weinstein, formerly a major league coach with the Colorado Rockies and now in their player development program. Weinstein, 72, managed the U.S. team in the Maccabi games and in the 1992 and 1996 Olympics. His bench coach will be Jerry Narron, a Christian Zionist, whose daughter lives in Israel. Narron, once a Yankees catcher, managed the Texas Rangers and Cincinnati Reds.
Among the prominent names on Israel’s roster will be 2009 All-Star pitcher Jason Marquis; first baseman Ike Davis, who slugged 32 homers for the 2012 Mets, and played this summer for the Yankees; former Mets infielder Josh Satin; and an all-Yale battery of Craig Breslow, pitcher for the 2013 World Series champion Red Sox, reuniting with his catcher on that team, Ryan Lavernway (now in Toronto’s minors). Breslow, called “the smartest man in baseball” by Sports Illustrated, has deferred admission to medical school as long as some team wants him to pitch. He pitched this summer for the Marlins.
Satin broke into professional ball playing for the Brooklyn Cyclones. Withered by a concussion, these games for Israel may be the last of his career, but doing it in the Cyclones’ park and for Israel will complete his circle.
Also on board is Israel’s sensation from the previous classic, Nate Freiman, a 6-foot-8 slugger, owner of Duke University’s home run records, who hit two homers in two back-to-back games for Israel in 2013 before going on to play in the majors with the Athletics. Freiman’s mother Marjorie, a Jewish educator from Wellesley, told reporters at the time, “For me to see him wear a shirt that said Israel was like…” she choked up, pausing, “like nothing else.”
Freiman is back to riding the buses through the minors, but swung a big bat on the Boston farm. His 90 RBI led the Portland (Maine) Sea Dogs, the Eastern League affiliate of the Red Sox.
Shlomo Lipetz, 37, one of two native Israelis on the team, pitched for Israel in 2013 and he’ll be on the roster again. In the interim, he’s been working as the musical programmer at Manhattan’s City Winery.
After serving in the Israel Defense Forces, the 6-foot-4 righty pitched for San Diego Mesa College, returning to Israel to pitch for the Netanya Tigers in the 2007 Israel Baseball League, where Lipetz pitched to a league-leading 0.98 ERA, with 30 strikeouts, walking only three. He also pitched for Israel in the 2008 and 2011 European Championship Qualifiers.
Lipetz told us, “Without a question,” being on the Israel team in the World Baseball Classic, competing with and against the world’s best, was “the favorite experience I’ve ever had, living the dream.” This year’s team reported to its first practice last weekend at the Hudson Valley Renegades (home of Tampa Bay’s farm team) in Wappingers Falls, N.Y., returning to Manhattan on Sept. 19 for a team dinner at City Winery.
In 2013, “We had a great time in the locker room,” said Lipetz, “telling stories about Israel and baseball, teaching a few words in Hebrew, getting some nationalism into us. We [transliterated] Hatikvah into English and sang it in the locker room, so when the guys would hear Hatikvah before the game, hopefully it wouldn’t be the first time.” There was Zionist spirit on the team, “absolutely. It helped us mesh together,” said the pitcher, “forming that extra layer of connection, rather than just be [journeymen] players wearing another uniform.” Think about it, he said of this year’s Israel team. “This is the greatest Jewish baseball team ever assembled.”
He gets a kick out of seeing “someone like Joc Pederson,” an outfielder on the 2013 Israel team, “who everyone knew was going to be a big thing, now playing centerfield for the Dodgers. I’m looking forward to seeing the next big league guys who will come out of this.”
Along with Lipetz, the other Israeli on the team, Dean Kremer, a pitcher, became the first Israeli to sign with a major league team, the Dodgers, this past June.
For the past 25 years, Israeli baseball has been headquartered at the Israel Association of Baseball, a group charged with developing the sport. Nate Fish, a reserve shortstop on Israel’s 2013 team, has been executive director of the IAB for three years, and will be coaching first base for this year’s team.
Fish, 37, tells us, “On paper, at least, we have a really strong team.” Possibly more important, these WBC teams are giving Israel baseball a strong legacy, Fish said. “We had a really good vibe in the clubhouse. We realized that we were trying to do something — together. It’s a trip playing on a team with all Jewish guys. Other than me, and a couple of us from Israel, most of the guys never had that experience. And our team doctor, Glenn Copeland,” of the 1992 and 1993 champion Blue Jays, “gave us a very moving speech about what it means to be playing for Israel.”
Before their first game in 2013, Dr. Copeland told the team that he’d been in baseball 32 years, but never knew a night so emotional. “You are playing as Jews … wearing the Mugen Duvid [Yiddish pronunciation] on your head.” He knew, he said, these players could be doing anything else but “you chose to be here, you chose to put on the Israeli uniform. … I’ve never seen better guys. … Relish the moment … take the time to realize what you’ve done.”
The players in Israeli uniforms burst into applause.
Tickets for the World Baseball Classic Qualifier, Sept. 22-25, are $15 per game, while a ticket strip is $60 (one ticket to each of the six games, including all four teams). Tickets are available through (718) 507-TIXX; at www.mets.com; the MCU Park box office or the Citi Field Box Office. Group pricing is available starting at $10 for students and seniors by calling (718) 37-BKLYN.