Israel's baseball team swings for gold at Tokyo Olympics

Publication Date01 Aug 2021
AuthorELLI WOHLGELERNTER
It began at the World Baseball Classic qualifier in Jupiter, Florida, in 2012, which they lost in extra innings; continued through the 2016 WBC qualifier in Brooklyn, which Israel won; the WBC tournament in South Korea and Japan in 2017, when Israel came in ranked last – by far – among the 16 best teams in the world but surprised the baseball community by finishing sixth; and culminated in July and September of 2019, when the team won 17 out of 21 games in four tournaments in four countries to qualify for the Olympics.

Team Israel comprises 20 American veterans and rookies, professionals, semiprofessionals, college players, retirees, past-their-prime former Major Leaguers, and four native-born Israelis: Assaf Lowengart and Tal Erel, who play college ball in the US, Alon Leichman, pitching coach for Double A Seattle, and 42-year-old Shlomo Lipetz, the 32-year grand veteran and legend of Israeli baseball.

For a dozen of the players, these Olympics are likely the last professional games they will ever play – a final romantic fling with the sport they've been playing seriously since they were five years old – before retiring for good.

Four of the 24 players on this roster have been a part of all the competitions since 2012: Josh Zeid, Nick Rickles, Lipetz and Leichman. Seven were on the Brooklyn team in 2016, 12 on one of the 2017 teams, and 16 on the 2019 teams.

Like every Olympic athlete, the players had to overcome the corona year. Some got in shape within the formal structure of baseball. Others worked out by themselves – lifting weights, hitting against pitching machines at personal batting cages, and pitching and catching with current and former playing buddies. They stuck to corona protocols and navigated the pro/con divide: two of the players won't get vaccinated.

Sometimes the players had to improvise: stuck at home during lockdown with no gym, Zach Penprase did his weight exercises by throwing his two-year-old daughter in the air. When she reached 25 pounds (11 kg.), he switched to throwing her 10-month-old sister.

As professionals, baseball players are used to shuffling from one franchise to another, making friends and then moving on. They have done it throughout their careers. But Team Israel is a permanent home. No one is traded or released: if you can still compete, you will keep playing, and if you retire, you will remain part of the family. In the world of professional baseball, that's a very small family. They understand why this is pretty special.

Watch the dugout during the games. This is a team that leans in against the fence every inning, every game, fully invested in the cause: representing Israel, representing Jews, representing themselves, and promoting the game in Israel.

Each of the 20 Jewish Americans had to demonstrate his commitment by becoming a passport-carrying Israeli citizen, as per Olympic rules, which require all participants to be citizens of the countries for which they are playing.

Throughout their careers, the common denominator with teammates was level of play. Here the common denominator is being Jewish and being Israeli, the team making for a mixed bag of baseball experience – and Jewish experience.

The American-born players on the team reflect American Jewry: some players have two Jewish parents, extensive participation in Jewish holidays, regular synagogue attendance, and are involved in the Jewish community. Others have one Jewish parent and a tenuous connection to their Judaism and Jewish roots. But however much each player identifies as a Jew, however Jewish they each are – full Jews, half-Jews, barely Jews – all have bought in, getting in touch with their inner Jew and embracing that identity openly and eagerly as members of a team representing the nation-state of the Jewish people.

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 nine years. For the Americans, becoming Israeli amplified their Jewish identity.

The four Israel-born players reflect a different perspective on Judaism, but since joining this team, each player has gotten more in touch with his Jewish connection – even those who don't believe in God.

It is in that spirit that the 11 players below speak not about baseball, but instead reflect on what God and being Jewish and representing Israel means to them.

Finally, the question on every fan's mind is: can this team medal? The odds are against it. Indeed, when one betting line for the baseball competition came out two weeks before the Olympic Games began, Israel wasn't included. That's understandable – on paper. The tournament's five other teams are world-ranked first (Japan), third (Korea), fourth (USA), fifth (Mexico), and seventh (Dominican Republic). Israel is ranked 24th, and on one betting site is given a 3.2% probability of winning the Gold Medal.

Before leaving for Tokyo, the team played a whirlwind series of US exhibition games: nine games in 10 days in eight cities in four states. It was strictly exhibition, the games sometimes featuring 10-man lineups, batters hitting out of turn, free substitution, and innings suddenly called because the score got out of hand and it was getting late.

Israel "won" seven and lost two, but it was about getting reacquainted with turning the double play – and even getting acquainted: batterymates and fellow Yale alumni Ben Wanger (class of 2019) and Ryan Lavarnway (class of 2009) met for the very first time only four days before flying to Tokyo.

Players who participated on the barnstorming tour but did not make the cut to go to Japan, either due to injury or lack of space: Dean Pelman, Eric Brodkowitz, Gabe Cramer, Jake Rosenberg, Jared Lakind, Jeremy Wolf, Matt Soren and Simon Rosenbaum, a collective Ralph Cox, the famous last player cut from the 1980 US Men's Olympic Hockey Team..

The final roster – which ranges in age from 23 to 42 – includes eight players who have spent varying degrees of playing time in the major leagues, from 14 years to one pitcher who faced four batters in one appearance. That's an awful lot of experience, and talent. These are all top-level competitors.

All bets aside, remember who this team is and what it has done: across nine years of top-level competition, Israel went 9-3 overall in the WBC and 17-4 in the Olympic-qualifying summer. A 26-7 record in worldwide clashes entering the Olympics can only breed confidence: Team Israel has been there, they've done that. They will not be overwhelmed by the spectacle.

Godspeed, gentlemen.

THE FOUR NATIVE-BORN ISRAELIS

ALON LEICHMAN [May 29, 1989. Pitcher. Bats R/Throws R] Kibbutz Gezer. Parents Jewish. Served in the Israel Defense Forces 2007-10. Cypress College, UC San Diego. Pitching coach for Double A Seattle. One of four players who participated on the 2012, 2016 and 2017 WBC teams, and the 2019 Olympic-qualifying teams.

Leichman was born and has lived on Kibbutz Gezer his entire life. He is the youngest child of two American Zionist idealists who moved to the kibbutz in the 1970s. His famous ice cream confectioner father, David, built a regulation-sized baseball field in the southwest corner of the kibbutz in 1983, the first such field in the country.

No surprise, then, that Leichman began playing on Gezer Field from the age of four and was representing Israel in international tournaments by age 10 – and paying for it by working extra hours picking olives or milking cows on the kibbutz.

Leichman was the second-youngest player in the one-season Israel Baseball League in 2007, with the champion Beit Shemesh Blue Sox. In his first appearance at Cypress College, Leichman was tossing 2 1/3 shutout innings in relief with three strikeouts when his elbow blew out. Two Tommy John surgeries ended his professional-track career, but Leichman has continued to represent Israel in international tournaments in 15 countries over the past 20 years.

A black belt in jiujitsu, Leichman wears uniform No. 29 in a wink to his family – it's his laundry tag number at the kibbutz. His baseball hero growing up was Shlomo Lipetz.

What's your relationship with God?

I don't believe in God. I grew up in a very secular environment. My mom is actually a Reform rabbi, but that was not something that I related to at all. That was her job on the kibbutz; that's what she did. It was never something that was forced on me or anything like that, but she would say she's Reform, and I would say I'm just a secular Jew/Israeli.

I did go to the kibbutz synagogue, because my mom was the rabbi and she asked me sometimes to go, and I would go for 15 minutes, but not because I wanted to go.

I do feel Jewish, because I'm Israeli; I was born into this culture. I'm proud of being Jewish. I just don't believe in the religious part of it. That's also a big reason why I want to just be in Israel, eventually be in Israel, so my kids don't need to try to be Jewish. They're just here. They don't need to believe in anything; they can do whatever they want; it's just all around them.

What's the difference between this being Team Israel and so-called Team Jew?

I think there's a misconception by the American Jews who made aliyah who think this is the Jewish team.

It's not. We can have Arabs on this team, we can have Muslims and Christians on this team. Again, it's not their fault, but when they call it the Jew Crew, I don't like that. It's not Team Jews. They're on the team because they're Jewish, yes, and they have the right to get Israeli citizenship. But this is not Team Jewish; it's not Team Jews; it's Team Israel. And if we had an Arab Muslim from Ramle who maybe grew up 10 minutes from Gezer and liked baseball and was good enough, he would be on this team.

You look at Team Israel in soccer – Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze. That's Team Israel. This Team Israel is Jews; there are only Jews on this team, but they don't have to be Jewish.

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