Can Is­rael’s base­ball team win an Olympic medal?

Can a base­ball team made up mostly of pro­fes­sional, col­lege and semire­tired Amer­i­cans – who sud­denly be­come Is­raeli ci­ti­zens and tap into their in­ner Jew – bond as a lineup to win an Olympic medal? We’re about to find out

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - • By ELLI WOHLGELERN­TER

Base­ball catcher Ryan Lavarn­way re­mem­bers be­ing in his ho­tel room in Seoul, South Korea, get­ting his body worked on by Yoni Rosen­blatt, the strength and con­di­tion­ing coach for Team Is­rael. It was the eve of the open­ing game of the 2017 World Base­ball Clas­sic, the qua­dren­nial com­pe­ti­tion known as the sport’s “World Cup.” The in­ter­na­tional base­ball com­mu­nity was shocked when Is­rael qual­i­fied: no one saw it com­ing, and no one gave the team a chance to win a game against the other 15 coun­tries play­ing in the WBC.

Lavarn­way, a Ma­jor League vet­eran, was just along for the chance to play in an in­ter­na­tional base­ball tour­na­ment, at first.

“I didn’t un­der­stand the sig­nif­i­cance of the World Base­ball Clas­sic un­til we were in Korea,” he says. “Yoni is a very re­li­gious man, an Ortho­dox Jew, very smart man. And he’s the one who kind of put it in per­spec­tive for me: ‘The fact that our flag is fly­ing is enough. If we don’t win even onegame, it doesn’t mat­ter. The fact is that peo­ple have to rec­og­nize that not only do we ex­ist, but we earned our way here and we can be equals on the play­ing field.’ For me, that put it in per­spec­tive, and I got chills.”

Now, two years later, Team Is­rael has ac­com­plished some­thing even more un­be­liev­able: it has qual­i­fied to play in the 2020 Olympics Games, the big­gest sport­ing stage of them all.

The idea is crazy, no mat­ter how tal­ented Is­rael’s na­tional base­ball team re­ally is – and it re­ally is.

To have a sports team rep­re­sent Is­rael at the Olympics for the first time in 44 years – in base­ball? A sport that hardly ex­ists in the coun­try, rep­re­sented by 20 Amer­i­cans who be­came Is­raeli ci­ti­zens only over the last 18 months? Young Amer­i­can Jews with lim­ited com­mu­nal af­fil­i­a­tion and in­volve­ment, but who have sud­denly got­ten in touch with their in­ner Jew since join­ing the Is­raeli Na­tional Team? Who are these guys?

Af­ter 12 years away, base­ball re­turns as an Olympic sport come July 29 in Ja­pan. The com­pe­ti­tion at these qua­dren­nial Games will con­sist of six teams: Is­rael, Ja­pan, Mex­ico and South Korea have al­ready qual­i­fied. Two more coun­tries will make the cut af­ter a March and April tour­na­ment.

Come Satur­day, Au­gust 8, four of the six teams will play for a medal. So this Is­raeli team – the most suc­cess­ful and po­ten­tially great­est Jewish base­ball team ever as­sem­bled – has a good chance to win a medal. And, base­ball be­ing base­ball, who knows? (Maybe even Gold .... )

BUT THIS isn’t sim­ply a base­ball story. This is equally a tale of Jewish Amer­i­cans who be­came pass­port-car­ry­ing Is­raelis, and sud­denly find them­selves un­der the in­ter­na­tional spot­light for the next six months as they pre­pare to rep Is­rael and Is­raelis at the 29th Olympic Games.

The makeup of this team is a re­flec­tion of the cross sec­tion of Amer­i­can Jewry: some have a back­ground of two Jewish par­ents, ex­ten­sive par­tic­i­pa­tion in Jewish hol­i­days, and in­volve­ment in the Jewish com­mu­nity. Oth­ers have one Jewish par­ent and a barely ten­u­ous con­nec­tion to their Ju­daism.

For Lavarn­way, reli­gion played no part in his child­hood.

“We cel­e­brated Christ­mas for Santa Claus, we cel­e­brated Hanukkah for the meno­rah and the presents,” he told The Jerusalem Post in Novem­ber, while in Is­rael ob­tain­ing his cit­i­zen­ship. “There was no reli­gion. I never went to tem­ple or church with my fam­ily once in my en­tire life, out­side of bar mitz­vahs and wed­dings.”

His dad is Catholic “and dis­en­chanted with the reli­gion en­tirely,” and his mother is Jewish “and loves Christ­mas. Her par­ents had a Hanukkah bush – a white tree with or­na­ments – grow­ing up her whole life. And it was not [cel­e­brated] for the rea­son [of the hol­i­day] – we cel­e­brated it be­cause it was a cel­e­bra­tion.”

A grad­u­ate of Yale (’09), Lavarn­way never much talked about his Jewish­ness over his ca­reer. But it has be­come a mean­ing­ful part of his life since first play­ing for the Na­tional Team at the 2016 WBC qual­i­fier.

“Since reli­gion was not a part of my fam­ily, I never an­nounced one way or the other,” says Lavarn­way, who was raised in Wood­land Hills, Cal­i­for­nia. “Grow­ing up, I was half – I dipped a toe in this pool, I dipped a toe in this pool. I didn’t fully em­brace any­thing.”

Then he de­clared that he would play for Is­rael – and was shocked by the re­ac­tion, sud­denly re­al­iz­ing what he was, how oth­ers per­ceived him, and how he felt as a Jew: proud.

“Just an­nounc­ing I was Jewish, I felt push­back... I felt an­ti­semitism for the first time in my life, di­rected per­son­ally at me. Not any­thing spe­cific, not any­thing ter­ri­ble. But not hav­ing ever felt it be­fore – now I’m an adult, now I’m a very con­fi­dent per­son – my first re­ac­tion was, ‘F*** you, how dare you dis­like me. I’m the same per­son I was be­fore I an­nounced this. How dare you.’ That made me feel more Jewish.”

Ty Kelly, whose mother is Jewish, was bap­tized and raised by his Catholic fa­ther, with whom he iden­ti­fied re­li­giously his whole life. He, too, found him­self em­brac­ing his her­itage – the half he didn’t know – when he joined the WBC squad.

“Two years ago, when I was in­vited to the team, I re­ally hadn’t thought about be­ing Jewish in a long time,” says the 31-year-old Kelly, sit­ting at a restaurant in the City of David in Jerusalem in late Au­gust, three days af­ter be­com­ing an Is­raeli. “It gets tossed around with my Jewish friends once in a while, just talk­ing about vis­it­ing Is­rael, but it wasn’t a huge part of my life. This has kind of re­opened a closed door from child­hood, and ob­vi­ously far­ther back. So it’s ex­cit­ing to be a part of that.”

Be­com­ing Is­raeli has also given his 82-year-old

Jewish grand­mother, Gail, liv­ing in Boca Ra­ton, Florida, great naches.

“I mean, she loves be­ing Jewish,” Kelly laughs. “She talks about her Jewish up­bring­ing all the time, so this is re­ally ex­cit­ing for her.”

Danny Va­len­cia, the top­most vet­eran of Team Is­rael with nine years in the Ma­jor Leagues, grew up in a Re­form home with his Jewish mother and Cuban-born fa­ther who con­verted.

“Was I a prac­tic­ing Jew?” says the 35-year-old na­tive of Mi­ami. “I went with my mom and my fam­ily to do High Hol­i­days. We’d go to Tem­ple; I had a bar mitz­vah. We were Re­form, but very con­scious of the hol­i­days, cel­e­brated Hanukkah, Passover. We tried to ob­serve the hol­i­days as much as pos­si­ble. My mom was the driv­ing force in that, and we kinda fol­lowed.”

Ev­ery player has a per­sonal rea­son for want­ing to be on the team: a love of base­ball, a grand­par­ent who sur­vived the Holo­caust, iden­ti­fy­ing with their Jewish­ness, an op­por­tu­nity to get back into the game, and a chance to rep­re­sent a coun­try on the big­gest in­ter­na­tional sport­ing stage.

How­ever much each player on the team iden­ti­fies as a Jew, how­ever Jewish they each are – full Jews, half-Jews, quar­ter-Jews – they have all bought in, em­brac­ing their Jewish iden­tity openly and ea­gerly as mem­bers of a team rep­re­sent­ing Is­rael.

El­i­gi­bil­ity to play for any coun­try is based on cit­i­zen­ship re­quire­ments. For Is­rael that means the Law of Re­turn: hav­ing at least one Jewish grand­par­ent or be­ing mar­ried to a Jew.

Each player had to sub­mit some kind of proof: a rab­bini­cal mar­riage record, a bar mitz­vah or brit cer­tifi­cate, a let­ter from their rabbi, or a grand­fa­ther’s army doc­u­ment from World War II. Even a pic­ture of a tomb­stone worked. To play in the Olympics, ev­ery player has to be­come a cit­i­zen of the coun­try for whom they are play­ing. For the Clas­sic, it only re­quires el­i­gi­bil­ity to be­come a cit­i­zen.

FROM THE be­gin­ning of their as­so­ci­a­tion with Team Is­rael, the play­ers came to un­der­stand how deeply it touches Jews in the United States: that they were rep­re­sent­ing not only the coun­try of Is­rael but also the Jewish com­mu­nity in Amer­ica, and base­ball-lov­ing Jewish and non-Jewish Amer­i­cans who root for Is­rael.

“I had seen the World Base­ball Clas­sic team and how suc­cess­ful they were and the mark that they left on Amer­i­can Jews,” says Ben Wanger, an­other Yale grad­u­ate (’19) and the sec­ond-youngest player on this Olympic team. “So just see­ing that was pretty awe­some. Pretty much ev­ery Jew in Amer­ica wher­ever I went knew about it and knew what was go­ing on, and had a great sense of pride when Is­rael ac­tu­ally made it and was suc­cess­ful dur­ing the tour­na­ment.”

At ev­ery stop along the way over the past three years, these Amer­i­can Jewish jocks ex­pe­ri­enced bound­less love from the Jewish com­mu­nity, which only helped strengthen their own iden­ti­ties. Fans ac­knowl­edged them as Jewish, would share that they, too, were Jewish, and play­ers sud­denly found them­selves sign­ing au­to­graphs on kip­pot.

“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, a re­porter for MLB.com for 20 years. “And un­der­stand­ing that the Jewish com­mu­nity in the United States loves them un­con­di­tion­ally.”

Nick Rick­les – the mi­nor league vet­eran of the team – goes back to the be­gin­ning of WBC com­pe­ti­tion, hav­ing played on all three teams that com­peted in 2012, 2016, and 2017. He dis­cov­ered how much im­pact the team has on Amer­i­can Jewry af­ter the 2012 team got beat.

“It didn’t sink in un­til we lost,” says the catcher, who also grew up in south­ern Florida. “You don’t re­al­ize how many peo­ple have your back; how many peo­ple want you to suc­ceed. It means a lot to me to play for a coun­try and the peo­ple that are be­hind us.”

For the last eight years, the Amer­i­cans not only em­braced their iden­tity as Jewish play­ers, they em­braced each other. Re­peat­edly, vet­er­ans speak of how amazed they are at the team ca­ma­raderie that so quickly came to­gether, time af­ter time.

Rick­les saw it when the team got to­gether for its first prac­tice in Hudson Falls, New York, be­fore the Brook­lyn qual­i­fier in 2016.

“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 29-year-old Rick­les. “The next day, it was like we’d played to­gether for six months – every­body was on the same page im­me­di­ately. That was very im­pres­sive to me.”

To a man, they have all been touched by be­com­ing Is­raeli, be­cause of how it has am­pli­fied an aware­ness of their own Jewish iden­tity. In­deed, it was the Jewish el­e­ment in their in­di­vid­ual back­grounds, how­ever slight for most, that helped forge Team Is­rael’s broth­er­hood, be­yond just be­ing base­ball team­mates over the last eight years.

“Some­times it’s hard to un­der­stand that as a player, it’s not re­ally about your­self, it’s about the team,”

Rick­les says. “But that was some­thing that was un­der­stood al­most im­me­di­ately, and no­body had an is­sue get­ting on the same page. It’s all about win­ning. It doesn’t mat­ter where you were drafted, how much money you signed for, how long you’ve been here – it’s one com­mon goal and every­body’s bought into it, and I think that’s why we’re so suc­cess­ful.”

THIS OLYMPIC base­ball team is a col­lec­tion of vet­er­ans and rook­ies, pro­fes­sion­als, semipro­fes­sion­als, re­cent col­lege grad­u­ates, and a few past-their-prime for­mer Ma­jor Lea­guers – all among the hand­ful of the very best in the world – tak­ing a ride along an im­pos­si­ble and en­tic­ing ex­pe­di­tion of base­ball, em­brac­ing Jewish iden­tity and beat­ing the odds.

The play­ers range in age from 21 to 40, and it seems the stars have aligned the team’s zo­diac: not only do two play­ers share the same birthday, but an­other pair also shares the same birthday, as part of a quar­tet of birth­days over three con­sec­u­tive days. And two oth­ers are born a day apart. Maybe that’s why they’re so close.

“It’s crazy that over the last six-seven years, every­body has kind of stayed in touch,” says Rick­les. “It’s like a fam­ily. There are teams I played on in the mi­nor leagues seven years ago, guys who we just lost touch at the end of the sea­son. But here – I keep us­ing the word fam­ily, it re­ally is what it is. We have kept in touch, happy birth­days, all kinds of stuff.”

Can the to­tal be greater than the sum of its parts? Ab­so­lutely. And the parts are good.

Seven play­ers have reached the ma­jors. Two have ex­ten­sive ex­pe­ri­ence: Va­len­cia (seven teams over nine years, No. 11 on the all-time Jewish home run list, 10th for ca­reer RBIs) and Lavarn­way (six teams over eight years); two have a cou­ple of years’ ser­vice time: Kelly (Mets and Phillies, 2016-18) and Josh Zeid (48 games for Hous­ton 2013-14).

Three other play­ers have had the prover­bial cup of cof­fee: Jon Moscot (eight games pitched for the Reds in 2015-2016), Jeremy Ble­ich (four bat­ters faced in one-third of an in­ning in two games for Oak­land in 2018), and Zach Weiss (four bat­ters faced in one ap­pear­ance for the Reds in 2018).

There is also the vet­eran Rick­les (seven years in the mi­nors, four at Triple A), who an­nounced in Oc­to­ber that he’s re­tir­ing af­ter the Olympics. Oth­ers have played Triple A, Dou­ble A, Sin­gle A, in­de­pen­dent or­ga­nized ball, or on col­lege teams.

Four on the ten­ta­tive 31-man ros­ter (22 named plus nine al­ter­nates, for 24 fi­nal spots) are na­tive-born Is­raelis: Tal Erel, As­saf Lowen­gart, Alon Le­ich­man, and the 40-year-old grand vet­eran and le­gend of Is­raeli base­ball, Shlomo Lipetz.

The pre­pon­der­ance of US play­ers on the Is­raeli team has led oth­ers to at­tack its le­git­i­macy: Team Is­rael? Ha! It’s a team of ringers made up of Amer­i­cans – and very good Amer­i­cans – el­i­gi­ble to play on the team only based on an in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion tech­ni­cal­ity. True enough. But that doesn’t make it any less le­git­i­mate.

“The Olympic Team Is­rael will be made up of 24 Is­raeli ci­ti­zens,” says Peter Kurz, gen­eral man­ager of Team Is­rael. “We make no dis­tinc­tion – and nei­ther does the Is­raeli Olympic Com­mit­tee – be­tween Sabras (na­tive-born Is­raelis) and olim hadashim (new im­mi­grants). They – we – are all Is­raelis, as this coun­try is one big melt­ing pot.”

NINETEEN OF the play­ers ar­rive Satur­day for an eight-day “Base­ball Birthright” trip, when they will get to see a lit­tle bit more of the coun­try they will be rep­re­sent­ing, and have the coun­try see them. Their mis­sion: to spread the gospel of base­ball to Is­raelis, most of whom don’t know what base­ball is, let alone that a team will rep­re­sent the coun­try in Ja­pan. It’s about preach­ing broth­er­hood, pride and a lit­tle bit of balls and strikes.

There’s a fund-rais­ing din­ner on Mon­day night, an ap­pear­ance at Bap­tist Vil­lage in Pe­tah Tikva on Wed­nes­day, and next Fri­day they’ll be in Beit Shemesh, where the city will hold a ground­break­ing cer­e­mony of the JNF-spon­sored na­tional base­ball com­plex of Is­rael.

Bap­tist Vil­lage and Beit Shemesh will in­clude mee­tand-greet events with Is­raeli youth who play in the leagues run by the Is­rael As­so­ci­a­tion of Base­ball and its new pres­i­dent, Jordy Al­ter. The kids will get to watch the stars take bat­ting prac­tice, be­fore ask­ing for au­to­graphs and self­ies.

The play­ers are into it. They want Is­raelis to know how much it has changed ev­ery one of them to play for Team Is­rael, how proud they are to rep­re­sent Is­raelis at the Olympic Games, and the bond they feel with the coun­try scripted across their chests.

“It just has so much more mean­ing,” says 32-yearold Zeid, com­par­ing his play­ing for Team Is­rael now that he’s a cit­i­zen, af­ter hav­ing played on the 2012, 2016 and 2017 Clas­sic teams. He and Rick­les are the only US play­ers who were on all three.

“Now, it’s not that I’m like a cousin to the coun­try,” Zeid says. “Now it’s fam­ily – I’m a son of the coun­try! We’re all fam­ily now. I’ve al­ways had [the] pas­sion, but now this sense of be­long­ing, ac­tual be­long­ing... we’re no longer just Amer­i­can Jews play­ing for a coun­try. We’re Amer­i­can Is­raelis – and we’re one with the coun­try.”

Zeid grew up in a Con­ser­va­tive home in Wood­bridge, Con­necti­cut, go­ing to Con­gre­ga­tion B’nai Ja­cob “many many Fri­day nights” un­til he started play­ing base­ball full-time.

“And now it’s all come full cir­cle: I was Jewish first, then I was a base­ball player, and now I’m a base­ball player whose Ju­daism has cre­ated so many dif­fer­ent path­ways. And it’s been fan­tas­tic.”

Says Lavarn­way: “It started as a base­ball thing, and it’s turned into a spir­i­tual thing.”

Putting aside how these men de­fine their Ju­daism, Jewish­ness and Is­raeli iden­tity, for the next seven months it is all about get­ting down to busi­ness: they are sim­ply ballplay­ers, driven to pre­pare to take on five other coun­tries in this sum­mer’s Olympic Games.

Each player will get in shape on his own, some within the struc­ture of the mi­nor leagues, oth­ers work­ing out by them­selves, lift­ing weights, hit­ting against pitch­ing ma­chines, and pitch­ing and catch­ing with for­mer play­ing bud­dies.

The team will warm up for the Olympics by prac­tic­ing to­gether in the United States for two weeks at the be­gin­ning of July. Then it’s off to Yoko­hama and Fukushima, where the Olympic base­ball games will take place.

NO ONE ever thinks of Jews as great base­ball play­ers. The rea­son we know the names of Hank Green­berg and Sandy Ko­ufax – the only two Jewish play­ers in the Hall of Fame in Coop­er­stown – is be­cause that’s what it is: just two names.

Now here comes a chance – a strong pos­si­bil­ity – to add more names of great Jewish play­ers, from a team that could win a medal at the 2020 Olympics.

And maybe even Gold.

The au­thor is writ­ing a book about Jews, base­ball and the Is­raeli Olympic team.

(Photos: Margo Su­gar­man)

TEAM IS­RAEL poses for a cel­e­bra­tory selfie on Septem­ber 22 in Parma, Italy, min­utes af­ter de­feat­ing South Africa to qual­ify for the Olympics.

IS­RAELI PLAY­ERS (left to right) Jonathan de Marte, Joey Wagman, Jeremy Ble­ich and Danny Va­len­cia. For the last eight years, the Amer­i­cans not only em­braced their iden­tity as Jewish play­ers, they em­braced each other.

(Cour­tesy)

NICK RICK­LES (from left): ‘You don’t re­al­ize how many peo­ple have your back, how many peo­ple want you to suc­ceed’; Ben Wanger flashes his new pass­port af­ter be­com­ing an Is­raeli cit­i­zen; Ryan Lavarn­way was voted MVP in Pool A of the World Base­ball Clas­sic in 2017.

DANNY VA­LEN­CIA (#19) high-fives Nick Rick­les af­ter hit­ting a three-run home run in the eighth in­ning vs. South Africa, which sealed the win.

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