The Jerusalem Post
Semitic strikes: A wonderful time to be a Jewish fan of baseball
The combination of Jews and baseball has always been a passion among many sports aficionados around the globe.
With the Israel national baseball team heading to the Olympic Games, along with having two Orthodox Jews being selected in this month’s Major League Baseball Draft, baseball has never been better for the Chosen Nation.
To help break down these two incredible stories, The Jerusalem Post spoke with Jonathan Mayo of MLB.com. Mayo has a rich history with both the Israel National Team after coming up with the idea for the “Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel” documentary about the blue-and-white’s qualification for the 2017 World Baseball Classic, along with being an MLB draft expert.
Mayo originally wanted to create a movie that reflected both his affection for baseball and his Jewish background by creating a documentary about Jewish major leaguers traveling to discover their roots. However, the film ended up as a documentary that was about the team’s “Cinderella Story” run in the World Baseball Classic.
He believes that qualifying for the Olympics perhaps even trumped that.
“I think the Olympic qualifying was even bigger than the World Baseball Classic,” Mayo began. “At the WBC, the international press thought that Israel was the US JV team, which was not true, and people in the US thought the players were has-beens and wannabes. The truth was somewhere in between.
The Heading Home movie was supposed to focus on the trip to Israel and the climactic scene would be playing in the first game in Korea. But then the team started winning and it became more of a baseball underdog kind of thing.”
The Olympic qualifying tournament which took place during the summer and fall of 2019 saw a bit of a different squad that had been together at the WBC, but nonetheless the success was even greater.
“The Olympic qualifying was kind of insane as to where they were playing and the guys who were on that team because it wasn’t the same guys who were on that WBC team, like Josh Zeid and Ryan Lavarnway, along with some of the other key players,” noted Mayo. I knew they would be able to compete, but I had no idea. I wish we could have filmed it for a sequel. I am excited to see them play in Tokyo. The most fun was getting up at 4 a.m. to watch those games and it was a very exciting time for me to feel such a personal investment and yell at my laptop along with commenting with other people. It was fun to be a fan.”
Some of the players have cited that one advantage that the baseball team
has is that they are family with one another. Mayo thinks that this is one factor, but adds yet another.
“I think that they are glad that they are being counted out and they are used to that. It’s a tough field against teams with players who have played at a high level. You’re not talking about guys who are current major leaguers or are on 40-man [MLB] rosters, but it was hard enough for them to qualify against teams from Europe and this field is kind of stacked.
“I would not discount them and they are guys with a lot of experience who know each other, which is a big thing,
The WBC team was kind of thrown together and were together for only three days. The core group that went to Israel helped form a cohesive bond and the shared heritage played a part as they had never been in a clubhouse where everyone was Jewish. Usually, it was one, maybe two if you were lucky.”
In order for Israel to have a chance, the most important factor may be the production that the team will get out of its pitchers, Mayo explained.
“I think they will be competitive and it will come down to how much pitching they will have as we saw in the WBC when it ran out. After Josh Zeid pitched so well, they just ran out of arms. In a tournament like this, this is what it will probably be going to come down to.”
At the end of the day, however, Israel doesn’t have the talent as the other teams may have, but it has heart and soul in spades.
“Julio Rodriguez is playing for the Dominican Republic and he is one of the best prospects in baseball. He is better than anyone on Team Israel, period. That doesn’t mean that Israel can’t compete against the Dominican Republic, but this is another David versus Goliath setting. However, we should know not to count them out. Can they win a bronze? There will be pressure on Japan as they are the host country and the USA doesn’t have the same prospects as they had in the qualifying tournament.”
Switching gears to Jacob Steinmetz and Elie Kligman, the two Orthodox Jews who were taken in this year’s MLB Draft, Mayo broke down the former as to why he ended up going 77th overall to the Arizona Diamondbacks.
“When Jacob went down to Florida last year, that is when his stock was raised. People in New York knew about him and knew that he had some ingredients, but no one really knew about him. When he went to a baseball academy in Florida, I started hearing from scouts that he was someone that I had to pay attention to and be in the rankings. He had a rough outing or two, but continued his progression.
“At 6-foot-6, he is the epitome of a projectable high school right-hander. He was up to 94-95 MPH at times and what really set him apart was his curveball which had a plus rating from scouts. He checked off all of those boxes. We knew he would go on day two. When you get drafted in the top 10 rounds you sign. A team isn’t going to take you if there is a fear that he won’t sign.
Mayo is super excited to see how they will progress and looks at how the world has changed as being an advantage for the two.
“The fact that two Orthodox Jews got drafted is phenomenal. I hope it works out for both of them and while it’s hard to get to the majors even after being drafted, let’s see them try. It’s fantastic. All of it is sort of normalizing in a lot of ways without giving up anything. That is what is really remarkable about it.
“So much of American Jewish history is about assimilation, but what stands out about this story at this moment in time is that these two young men are firm in who they are, what they will and won’t do and instead of being coerced into changing who they are. We’ve reached this moment where the Arizona Diamondbacks say we will figure this out and make it work. Their teams will figure it out in order to give them the best chance for success without asking them to give up any of their core beliefs that are clearly so important to them.”