September 18, 2012
Wanted: Jewish Ballplayers
By BARRY BEARAK
JUPITER, Fla. — Though Israel’s national baseball team has many excellent pitchers, catchers, infielders and outfielders, the roster has a shortage of something that might be considered essential: Israelis.
Only 3 of the squad’s 28 players hail from Israel, the rest being Americans with professional baseball experience and Jewish roots, recruited to play for a homeland only a few have visited.
Eligibility requirements are rather elastic for the World Baseball Classic, the 28-nation tournament beginning here Wednesday. Players do not need to be citizens of a participating country; they merely need to be eligible to become one. For Israel, that includes anyone with a Jewish parent or grandparent. A non-Jew married to a Jew could also play.
“If we only could get a nice Jewish girl to marry Albert Pujols, he could be at first base for us,” Peter Kurz, the American-born secretary general of the Israel Association of Baseball, said in a bit of reverie.
Baseball is in its infancy in Israel. Perhaps 1,000 people — ages 7 to 60 — play the game, Kurz said. The country has a single baseball field. Most games are played on soccer fields or empty lots, with the ball often skipping through weeds and redirected by rocks.
But the country does indeed have a homegrown team. Last year, it even hosted a round of the European championships and won a few games. Shlomo Lipetz, 33, a thick-bearded right-hander, pitched in both ends of a doubleheader, throwing 214 pitches as Israel split the pair with Britain.
The World Baseball Classic, however, is a far bigger deal. When Israel received an invitation to play in a qualifying round, a decision needed to be made: should it field an inferior team that would take its lumps or look to the United States, where the grass is greener with baseball-playing Jews.
“I asked our guys, ‘If people who have never been to our country get to wear Israel across their chests, is this going to bother you?’ ” Kurz said. “Our guys all supported it. Oh, there were some who said we should be sure to have plenty of Israelis, and I said, ‘Listen, we want to win.’ ”
A higher purpose was invoked. Games in the Classic are going to be shown in Israel. How would it look if the team was a flop? For years, the Israel Association of Baseball has been trying to get more people to play the game. It now has a building fund. The association hopes to raise $4 million to construct a baseball complex in Ra’anana.
The coming Classic might then provide a breakthrough. “Many Jews in America point to Sandy Koufax as their Jewish role model,” reads a fund-raising brochure. “Now, Team Israel will make history in having the first-ever Jewish Major Leaguers representing Israel, creating new Jewish athlete role models for the Jewish youth worldwide.”
Three recently retired major leaguers of Jewish heritage were enlisted: Brad Ausmus (who has a Jewish mother), Shawn Green (who did not play on Yom Kippur) and Gabe Kapler (who has a Star of David tattooed on his left calf).
The three decided that Ausmus, 43, a former All-Star catcher, would manage the team. Green, 39, a power-hitting outfielder who retired after the 2007 season, would be a player-coach, as would Kapler, 37, also an outfielder, just a year out of baseball.
Green, who hit more major league home runs than any Jew since Hank Greenberg, has been attempting to resurrect his dynamic swing.
“I left the game of my own volition,” he said. “I think if I wanted to, I could still be playing. But we’ll just have to see how the timing is.”
The World Baseball Classic has been played twice before, in 2006 and 2009. Japan won both tournaments. This time, the heart of the competition will occur in March. Twelve nations have been given places in the final 16, including powerhouses like the United States, Japan, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. Sixteen other countries will vie for four other spots by playing in double-elimination qualifying rounds from Wednesday until Nov. 19 in Florida, Germany, Panama and Taiwan.
Originally, Israel’s games were slated for November, after the end of the American baseball season. That timing would have allowed the team to try to recruit the 10 or so major leaguers of Jewish heritage, including outfielder Ryan Braun, the reigning National League most valuable player; third baseman Kevin Youkilis of the Chicago White Sox; second baseman Ian Kinsler and pitcher Scott Feldman of the Texas Rangers; first baseman Ike Davis of the Mets; and pitcher Craig Breslow of the Boston Red Sox.
But with the games rescheduled for late September, only lesser-known minor leaguers were going to be free to participate. How could Team Israel find the ballplaying Jews among the more than 240 teams spread across more than a dozen leagues? Not every player of Jewish extraction was conveniently identifiable with a name like Kaplan or Perlman. Some were camouflaged, like Cody Decker, Joc Pederson and Charlie Cutler.
Fortunately, there are people who keep track of such information. Scott Barancik runs the Web site jewishbaseballnews.com. He not only maintains a list of Jewish ballplayers, he publishes a feature called “Not a Jew,” meant to eliminate confusion caused by the Jewish-sounding names of non-Jews, like David Eckstein or Madison Bumgarner.
This work often requires considerable research, and Barancik, a journalist, sometimes receives heated e-mails accusing him of being “an unfair arbiter of who is Jewish and who is not.” He said he largely relied on the definition of the Jewish Sports Review, a magazine that lists players with at least one Jewish parent so long as the athlete does not practice a different faith and is agreeable to being on the list.
Sheldon Wallman, an editor of the magazine, said his publication was the first to identify Ausmus as a Jew after receiving a tip from a reliable source. “His mother called me up,” Wallman said.
Ausmus, who was not raised Jewish, said the call more likely came from his grandmother. He became grateful for the published lists once it became his job to help assemble an Israeli team. There are about 65 minor leaguers with some Jewish roots. Ausmus works as a special assistant for the San Diego Padres and has access to scouting reports.
“It became obvious that we could put together a very good team,” he said, “and when we started to contact the players, the vast majority embraced the idea of playing for Israel with open arms.”
There were a few cumbersome hurdles. The World Baseball Classic, a creation of Major League Baseball, required documentation proving a player was Jewish. Of course, the question, “Who is a Jew?” has been a matter of contention in Israel since the nation’s birth. Orthodox rabbis insist that a Jew at birth must be the child of a Jewish mother.
The guardians of the baseball tournament’s rules are far less particular. Nevertheless, prospective players and their families were set off on a scramble for supporting evidence. Jews are a people, but the supplied evidence most often tended to be religious. Jake Lemmerman, a promising shortstop in the Los Angeles Dodgers system, produced certificates from his bar mitzvah and his confirmation a year later.
For some, a paper trail barely existed. Decker, an outfielder who never had a bar mitzvah, comes from a family that celebrates Jewish and Christian holidays alike; his grandfather once served pork chops on Rosh Hashana, he said. He submitted an aunt’s bat mitzvah certificate.
Outfielder Joc Pederson said his mother was Jewish, his father was not and he himself was “pretty much nothing.” His mother, Shelly Pederson, was delegated the job of sleuthing for documentation, which she found with the help of a dedicated archivist at her father’s synagogue.
Assembling Team Israel had other complications. Some of the best prospects — those in the higher-level minors — could have conceivably been late-summer call-ups to the big leagues. The Jewish infielder Josh Satin, 27, played one game for the Mets this year but ended his season at Class AAA Buffalo.
“I’m happy to be playing for Israel, but it’s kind of bizarre, too,” Satin said. “No one from my family has even been there.”
Team Israel, playing in a qualifying bracket with France, South Africa and Spain, would seem a very strong contender. Its game Wednesday is against the South Africans, another team with an even humbler baseball history.
“We’re the Lilliputians against the Gullivers, and we need to find the magic beans,” South Africa’s manager, Rick Magnante, said.
He was mixing his metaphors but nonetheless making a valid observation. “The Israelis have 100 Jewish-American ballplayers to choose from,” he said. “I ask you: where’s the level playing field?”
He was not accusing Israel of anything untoward; he was merely being envious. There are only a handful of South Africans who play professional baseball in the United States. “I sure wish I had more of them,” said Magnante, an American.
In the two previous World Baseball Classics, many nations lured players back to their roots — or their ancestors’ roots. Mike Piazza, who was born in Norristown, Pa., played for Italy; Alex Rodriguez, born in New York, agreed to play for the Dominican Republic in 2009, though he withdrew for health reasons; Andruw Jones, born in Curaçao, a Dutch possession, played for the Netherlands.
Spain, a favorite this week along with Israel, has harked back to its colonial past, using players from Venezuela, Mexico and Cuba.
“The rules allow a country to dip into a larger talent pool,” said Paul Archey, senior vice president for the M.L.B.’s international business operations. “The priority is to develop the game globally.”
Last week, two separate Jewish teams arrived here, the players ostensibly in competition to make the national squad. The first was Israeli. Some players were teenagers. Others were in their 20s and 30s. Some had been teammates for two decades. Dan Rothem, 35, had played in Israel’s first international Little League tournament in 1989. The team lost one game, 51-0, to a team of predominately American players playing for Saudi Arabia.
Rothem, Lipetz and a few others had nourished their boyhood love for baseball, worked at the game and gone on to play in college in the United States. But they never had the kind of ability that turned the heads of major league scouts. Recently, both pitched in a practice game against a local community college. The Israelis lost, 7-0, getting only one hit.
The next day, the American Jews arrived, and it was like a changing of the guard, pros supplanting amateurs. Kurz, the association’s secretary general, announced that Rothem, Lipetz, who now lives in New York, and a third pitcher, Alon Leichman, had made the 28-man roster. But their inclusion seemed almost honorary. The Israel Baseball Association had pinned its hopes on Jews from elsewhere.
In the hotel lobby that night, Kurz watched his American ballplayers as they mingled. They looked like superb athletes, lean, muscled and confident.
“This is a dream come true,” he said happily. “Look at them. They look like Jews, only bigger.”