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Can the Israeli baseball team win an Olympic medal?
Can a baseball team made up mostly of professional, college and semiretired Americans bond as a lineup to win an Olympic medal? We’re about to find out.
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.
“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 one game, 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 meet-and-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-year-old 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.