BROO KLYN – When Team Israel lines up along first-base side at the start of each World Baseball Classic Qualifier game, fans tend to notice the long hair of the player with the No. 15 jersey.
While pitcher Shlomo Lipetz (No. 12) has long black hair, it is the long blonde hair which gets the most attention.
On closer inspection, No. 15 is actually a woman! Coach Justine Siegal is one of two women helping lead Team Israel to victory in the WBC Qualifier tournament in Brooklyn which saw Israel play Great Britain in Sunday night’s final for a spot in the main draw of the World Baseball Classic next year in South Korea.
Siegal, invited by Manager Jerry Weinstein to serve as mental coach for Team Israel, has a very impressive sports resume as a player, coach, academic and champion for female participation in baseball.
Siegal has a PhD in sports psychology, and she is the founder of Baseball for All,an organization which provides opportunities for girls to participate in baseball In 2009, Siegal also became the first woman to be hired as a coach at any professional level when she served as firstbase coach for the independent baseball team, the Brockton Rox. Siegal is the first woman to throw batting practice for a Major League Baseball team, a feat she accomplished first in 2015 with the Oakland Athletics, and with several teams since including the Tampa Bay Rays, St.
Louis Cardinals, Houston Astros, and New York Mets.
The road to baseball coaching was not always smooth. Siegal grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland playing baseball, attending Cleveland Indians baseball games with her season ticket-holding grandfather and discussing baseball around the dinner table. Siegal loved the sport and imagined she’d be involved in baseball forever.
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At age 13, around the time she celebrated her bat mitzva in Israel, Siegal encountered her first obstacle. A coach told her she couldn’t play baseball, as girls play softball.
“That’s when I decided that I’d play baseball forever,” wrote Siegal in an essay on The Player’s Tribune website “When I was 16,” wrote Siegal, “I told one of my baseball coaches that I wanted to be a college coach. He laughed at me and said, ‘A man would never listen to a woman on the baseball field.’ That one was pretty devastating. But then I thought, who is he? Who is he to say what men would do? Who is he to say that I couldn’t pursue this dream? And that’s when I decided I needed to get that PhD because I wasn’t going to get the same playing opportunities as men. But I could at least out-degree most of them.”
Siegal noted that “I got my PhD to make me a better coach.”
Manager Jerry Weinstein took notice and invited her to help Team Israel.
“I am a safe resource for all to come to,” Siegal observed to The Jerusalem Post, before returning to her additional duties on the field pitching batting practice and helping coach Weinstein hit fungos to outfielders. “It is so special to come together for these ten days here with players who all have a common bond.”
Siegal is among the members of Team Israel who strongly identifies as a Jew, and who has visited the Holy Land.
“I am Jewish, I had my bat mitzva in Israel, my daughter had her bat mitzva in Israel, and four generations of my family has visited Israel,” she said. “I am so proud when I wear ‘Israel’ on my chest.”
Siegal is proud of her accomplishments in baseball but acknowledges that her goals is to not be the only woman in baseball.
Margo Sugarman is another important female member of Team Israel, who can also be seen on the field during pre-game warm ups.
Sugarman, Secretary-General of the Israel Association of Baseball (IAB), moves quickly on the field with her camera in tow photographing players and meeting with members of the media and MLB personnel. The South African-born, 27 year resident of Israel has her own unique “woman in baseball” story.
“I got involved when my son started playing baseball at age eight,” said Sugarman to the Post.
Sugarman expected to be “just a baseball mom,” but she was soon recruited to be a coach. “Luckily, the coach coached me to be a coach. Next thing I knew, I was doing an umpire course!” Before she knew it, Sugarman was managing Israeli teams as they played in Italy and other European countries.
She served as a board member for The Israel Association of Baseball and was recently elected the organization’s secretary- general.
Sugarman is proud of Team Israel and of the growth of baseball in Israel.
“Nearly 1,000 people play baseball in Israel,” she said. “We have many leagues, send about five teams a year to play overseas, and we offer Baseball Le’Kulam (Baseball for All), a program that aims to bring Jewish Israeli and Arab Israeli children together to play baseball and learn about one another.”
This week, Sugarman is focusing her attention on Team Israel. And, naturally, she feels a sense of pride.
“They only came together last Saturday,” she said. “They are all happy they are playing for Israel, they talk like a team and relate to each other as a team. It is such an incredible atmosphere!” And, while Sugarman is excited about the team’s prospects to advance to the 2017 World Baseball Classic, she has more modest goals. “I hope they will increase awareness of baseball in Israel – and have fun!” Peter Kurz, CEO of the Israel Association of Baseball, is proud of Siegal and Sugarman.
“Justine and Margo have been very important elements for this WBC team,” he said. “Justine, as the mental coach of the team, has helped keep the guys on an even keel, and Margo, as the head of PR and communications, has helped keep us in the news on a continuous basis in all different types of media. Both women are ground-breakers and they have both contributed significantly to our success.”
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