By Cindy Mindell
For the first two weeks in March baseball fans around the world were mesmerized by an unlikely entrant in the World Baseball Classic (WBC), a showcase tournament that brings together elite teams from countries long steeped in the game. For the first time in the WBC’s 11-year history, Israel was in the line-up, the lowest-ranked contestant among the 16 teams.
In 2012, the inaugural Team Israel had narrowly missed advancing past the qualifiers. This year was very different. Dubbed by ESPN as “the Jamaican bobsled team of the WBC,” Israel had startled the baseball world by opening the tournament with four straight victories, including a 4-1 win over powerhouse Cuba in the first game of the second round. The Israelis squeaked past third-ranked South Korea, 2-1, in extra innings; outscored fourth-ranked Taiwan,
15-7; and defeated ninth-ranked the Netherlands, 4-2, to finish first in Pool A with a 3-0 record. But Israel lost 12-2 to the Netherlands on Mar. 15 and needed to beat Japan to move on.
The Israelis finally saw their Cinderella run end with a loss to that team in Tokyo on March 15. Japan broke a scoreless tie with five runs in the sixth inning on the way to an 8-3 victory before more than 40,000 fans packed into the Tokyo Dome. The tournament take-away is this: Israel may soon become a force to contend with on the international baseball stage.
Most of Israel’s team members are American Jews, among them several former major-leaguers and current minor-leaguers. With their “Mensch on a Bench” mascot waiting in the dugout, the Team Israel players would appear on the field at each game for the national anthem of Israel “Hatikvah” wearing matching blue kippot.
WBC rules state that players who are eligible for citizenship of a country may play on its team. Jews and their grandchildren, and the grandchildren’s spouses, have the right to become Israeli citizens. The roster included Isaac “Ike” Davis, a former New York Met now playing in the minor leagues with the LA Dodgers; Josh Zeid, a minor league player with the St. Louis Cardinals; Ryan Lavarnway, a minor league player with the Toronto Blue Jays; and team manager Jerry Weinstein, who is the new manager of the Hartford Yard Goats Minor League Baseball team.
The two-week-long experience was not only about sportsmanship, but also something of a PR opportunity. “We were accepted with open arms into the tournament,” says Zeid. “They were excited to see what Team Israel was all about and hopefully, we did a good job of showing the world, through the passion and pride that we played with, how great Israel is as a country.”
In both Korea and Japan, the team found a special welcome from fellow Jews. “I was surprised by the outpouring of support we had at every turn,” Zeid says. “We went to the Israeli embassy of Korea and enjoyed a nice Israeli dinner and we had unbelievable support at the games from tremendously enthusiastic Israeli and Jewish communities. The tournament was a blast and I’m so thankful I got to be a part of it.”
Team Israel is sponsored by the Israel Association of Baseball (IAB), a non-profit founded in 1986 by a group of ex-patriate baseball enthusiasts. With the goal to promote and teach the game of baseball in Israel, IAB engages some 1,200 Israelis of all religious and ethnic backgrounds who play on 80 teams in several leagues, ranging from Little League to adult, and who represent Israel in national teams abroad. IAB is a member of the Israel Olympic Committee, the Confederation of European Baseball and the International Baseball Federation, the Positive Coaching Alliance, Major League Baseball International, and Little League. Helmed by board members Peter Kurz, Margo Sugarman, and Jordy Alter, the IAB gets a lot of support from Jewish American major- and minor-leaguers, who regularly visit Israel to help promote and teach the game.
Josh Zeid first played for Team Israel during the 2012 WBC qualifiers. In January, he joined seven fellow Jewish American professional players in Israel on a tour to raise awareness and involvement around the upcoming WBC.
“I’m involved in the IAB because I believe in the journey that Peter Kurz, Jordy Alter, and Margo Sugarman are on in growing the game of baseball in Israel,” Zeid says. “When we visited Israel in January, we really got to appreciate the scale in which the game is growing and the importance of our actions.”
Team Israel’s WBC performance has proven to be a windfall for the IAB. If fundraising goals are met as expected, new baseball facilities will soon be constructed throughout the country, with the support of the Jewish National Fund’s Project Baseball.
The first regulation baseball field in Israel was built in 1979. As the sport has grown in popularity, the availability of fields has fallen short of demand with the IAB making do with empty building lots and rented soccer pitches.
JNF’s Project Baseball helps raise funds to build state-of-the-art baseball and softball fields throughout the country and to teach the games to Israeli youth through little leagues, summer camps, and clinics. In the Jerusalem suburb of Beit Shemesh, ground has already been broken on the first regulation baseball stadium in the country, aided by a crowdfunding campaign spearheaded by the Beit Shemesh Baseball Association.
In Ra’anana outside Tel Aviv, Heni and Mark Schwartz have been working to establish a baseball field in memory of their grandson, Ezra Schwartz z”l, murdered in a 2015 terrorist attack during his gap year in Israel. The 18-year-old baseball player from Sharon had approached the IAB in the hopes of joining a league or becoming involved in the organization in another way.
The idea for a memorial field was conceived a month after Schwartz’s tragic death, when his parents, Ruth and Ari, visited Israel. While there, they were invited by representatives of the IAB and JNF to take part in the project, planned for a plot of land committed by the Ra’anana municipality.
Since then, the extended Schwartz family – based in Israel, Massachusetts, and Connecticut – has been raising funds to make “A Field for Ezra” a reality. With 70 percent of the $350,000 goal met, the Schwartzes hope players take the Ezra Schwartz Memorial Baseball Field come Sept. 1.
The new field will replace a makeshift play area razed last summer to make way for a housing development, and will include four Astroturf diamonds – one that can be used as a soccer pitch – as well as lighting for night practice and games, and spectator stands.
Zeid plans to keep working with the IAB to help root America’s pastime firmly in the Jewish homeland. “I hope to continue playing with Team Israel but I believe my involvement possibilities with the team are endless,” he says. “I’m looking forward to years of friendships and connections with the IAB and I can’t wait for Team Israel to be full of native-born Israelis and not American Jews.”
For more information on the Ezra Schwartz Memorial Baseball Field project: crowdrise.com/raanana-baseball-field.
JTA provided the WBC game statistics for this article.
CAP: Most of Team Israel’s team-members are American Jews, among them several former major leaguers and current minor-leaguers.
In Beit Shemesh, American-Israeli baseball fans will get their field of dreams
By Yocheved T. Kolchin/JNS.org
On an unseasonably warm Friday in early January, the tune of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” drew more than a hundred baseball fans to an empty lot in the center of Beit Shemesh, a small town nestled in the hills outside Jerusalem. In a country where Little League Baseball is unheard of and Cracker Jack snacks are nonexistent, this was no typical weekend. It marked the groundbreaking for the new Beit Shemesh Baseball Complex, which will be Israel’s fourth major baseball field.
Many in the crowd were recent immigrants to Israel.
The groundbreaking ceremony featured a mix of Israeli and American culture. It started with the singing of the national anthem—but this time it was “Hatikvah,” the Israeli national anthem, instead of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Many of the speakers addressed the audience in English, and those who spoke in Hebrew had a translator on hand. Children sported baseball caps and t-shirts featuring American teams as well as local Israeli teams.
Beit Shemesh Mayor Moshe Abutbol spoke about the importance of how baseball instills values of teamwork, sportsmanship and unity in youths. “Until now, this was a game I didn’t really understand,” he admitted, “but baseball teaches us that we need to work together. It’s a game for all ages, and it brings the whole family together.”
Peter Kurz, manager of Jewish National Fund’s (JNF) Project Baseball initiative and president of the Israel Association of Baseball (IAB), also emphasized baseball’s ability to unite old and new immigrants as well as secular and observant Israeli Jews. “I really want to thank JNF, who has supported us by collecting donations to build this field and other fields around Israel,” Kurz told the audience.
Project Baseball focuses on building state-of-the-art baseball and softball fields across Israel, and also supports teaching baseball to Israeli youths through little leagues, summer camps and clinics. The Beit Shemesh complex will encompass 5 acres of land and include a full-size baseball field and two smaller fields for youth games, enabling 60-70 children to play at the same time. The complex, expected to be completed this fall, will also feature dugouts, batting cages and a bike path.
Eric Michaelson, JNF’s chief Israel officer, said Project Baseball helps the children of recent immigrants acclimate to life in Israel. “This initiative gives children who have made aliyah a taste of home and an opportunity to get close to their Israeli peers,” he said.
Ten current and former American-Jewish Major League Baseball players who represented Team Israel at the World Baseball Classic were on hand at the groundbreaking. When Team Israel player Ty Kelly was introduced, the audience broke out in cheers of “Let’s Go Mets!”
After the groundbreaking, children surrounded the players to get their autographs. Noam, 11, is an Orioles fan from Baltimore who made aliyah last August and was excited to meet the Team Israel members even though no Orioles players were present. Mitch, a father whose children were busy collecting autographs said, “It’s a tremendous honor to have a baseball field in our city. It’s great for my kids to have an outlet and meet other kids.”
According to the IAB’s Peter Kurz, the dream of building a baseball field in Beit Shemesh began 11 years ago, but only gained traction in the last year and a half amid the efforts of JNF to raise funds for the field and awareness for the sport in Israel. He described Beit Shemesh as the perfect place to build a baseball field because it is home to many American immigrants who love the sport.