Nate Fish and Peter Kurz were riding in an elevator four years ago in Jupiter, Florida. It was a couple of days before Israel would play in a qualifying tournament to participate in the quadrennial World Baseball Classic (WBC) tournament, the World Cup of baseball.
Kurz, president of the Israel Association of Baseball (IAB), the governing body, looked at Fish, a coach for the 2012 team, and asked, “You want to move to Israel to be the executive director of baseball in Israel?” Without a moment’s hesitation, Fish said no.
“I just had never considered moving to Israel, not in my mind at all as a possibility,” says Fish. “But it sort of marinated for six months. It seemed like something too adventurous and challenging to pass up.”
Challenging indeed: how do you grow baseball in a soccer- and basketball-obsessed country, where most people have no clue who’s on first? Fish, a dedicated, enthusiastic, 36-year-old baseball fanatic, has now been in the country for three years, traveling from school to school lugging bats, balls and bases to show Israeli kids America’s national pastime. He taught the children how to play baseball, and the adults how to run a baseball program.
“The basic thing we’re always trying to do is to get more people to play baseball in Israel,” says Fish. “That’s the most fundamental thing we accomplished and something you can point to, because it’s numbers. Three years ago there were about 500 playing, today it’s 700-750. So that’s good growth that you can point to and say, ‘This worked.’” How much more can it work? “All it takes to grow the program is more money,” Kurz says. “We’ve grown since Fish first came three years ago. It was good growth, then the last couple of years it’s been more stagnant. If Fish had more money, he could bring the sport to every region of Israel.”
Which is why everyone is working hard to ensure that Team Israel wins next week’s WBC qualifying round against Brazil, Great Britain and Pakistan. A victory in the final game of the tournament on Sunday, September 25, would go a long way toward building up baseball in Israel – the IAB would receive $400,000 from Major League Baseball (MLB), the sponsor of the WBC, just for making it to the main tournament in Seoul, South Korea, in March.
“Four years ago our major goal was PR,” Kurz says. “Now it’s to win. I want that $400,000 – at least! If we advance, we get even more.” The Dominican Republic, for example, received $2.7 million for its baseball federation for winning the last WBC.
The additional prize money, Kurz says, would go toward building new playing fields in the large Anglo-Jewish communities around the country.
“We have 150 kids playing in Beit Shemesh right now,” says Kurz. “If we have a field in the middle of Beit Shemesh, we’ll have 300, I have no doubt about that.”
Kurz’s IAB is the nonprofit organization that promotes and develops baseball in Israel, comprising five organized leagues from age six to adult. Teams can be found in cities with large Anglo communities, including Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Ra’anana, Beit Shemesh, Modi’in, Beersheba, and Hashmonaim, and in some smaller towns such as Tel Mond, where the majority of players are Israeli-born.
There are also national teams for a variety of age groups: 12-, 14-, 16-, and 18-year-old teams, as well as the adult national team and the WBC team, all of which have competed in international tournaments. Four or five national age-group teams have competed in European tournaments each of the last three years, and did well.
But the overall number of kids participating is not high, and that can get frustrating. More than once Fish has advertised that he’s coming to town to put on a clinic, and ended up waiting alone on a soccer field when no one showed up.
What Fish needs to give the program a boost is a couple of headlines in the Israeli media, extolling the quality of a sport that he says most Israelis laugh off. Those headlines would help spread the gospel of baseball in the Holy Land.
BUT WAIT, you ask: How can there be a team representing Israel in baseball’s World Cup, with only 750 total players in the country? And how good can that team be? The answer to the first question: because every Jew in the world who wants to play for Israel can.
The team playing in the first game of the tournament on Thursday, September 22, at MCU Park in Brooklyn includes two Israeli citizens, Dean Kremer and Shlomo Lipetz. They are joined by 26 other Jews from the United States, all of whom could make aliya by virtue of the Law of Return.
That’s the rule of the WBC: Anyone who is eligible to become a citizen of a country – which in Israel is determined by whether someone has at least one Jewish grandparent – can play for that country’s team. That rule allows dozens of players from across MLB to join their country of heritage, and allows Israel to draw on the sizable pool of talent of Jewish baseball players.
Which brings us to the second question: How good would such a team be? Answer: very.
Some of the best major and minor league players in the world will be on Team Israel. One could argue, in fact, that the sheer talent on Israel’s WBC team is greater than the raw talent ever shown by its national soccer or basketball squads.
Moreover, if Team Israel makes it to Seoul – where it would join the top 12 countries in the world, along with the three other qualifiers who made it from a pool of 16 – that level of talent could go even higher, with a roster likely to include the greatest-ever collection of Jewish ballplayers on one team in the history of the game.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
The 2016 team that will play in Coney Island – two blocks west of Nathan’s hot dogs on Surf Avenue – has nine players with MLB experience: Craig Breslow, Ike Davis, Cody Decker, Nate Freiman, Ty Kelly, Ryan Lavarnway, Jason Marquis, Josh Satin and Josh Zeid. Another 10 have played in Triple AAA, one level below the Major Leagues.
Altogether, there are 20 players – mostly young minor leaguers working their way up – who are currently under professional contract. That total of 20 is one less than the number of professionals on all the other three teams playing in Brooklyn combined.
That is a lot of talent.
The 2016 team ranges in age from 20-year-old Los Angeles Dodgers prospect Kremer – the first Israeli citizen to sign with a Major League Baseball organization – to 39-year-old Marquis, third on the all-time Jewish list in wins and strikeouts, and fourth in innings pitched. He last played in the majors in 2015, the last of a 15-year MLB career.
This is his swan song.
ISRAEL IS the favorite going into the tournament, though it was favored four years ago as well, when Spain ended up beating Israel in 10 innings in the final.
But they’ll have an added advantage this time: New York City’s large Jewish community will no doubt make the players feel like they’re playing a home game.
Seven members of this year’s team played on that 2012 squad, the blueand- white’s first in the WBC: Decker, Freiman, Lipetz, Satin, Zeid, Charlie Cutler and Nick Rickles, all of them feeling that they left behind unfinished business, and are returning to complete the job.
The team will be managed by 72-yearold Jerry Weinstein, manager of the Wareham Gatemen of the Cape Cod League in Massachusetts.
Most of the players on this year’s team have never been to Israel, but they will wear a Magen David flag on their uniform with pride. Jews and baseball have always gone together. The explanation for that is a case study in the acculturation of the immigrant Jew who restarted life in America. To become a “real” American, the immigrant knew he had to learn baseball.
Suffice it to say, American Jews have always loved baseball, and that continues today. Passionate fans are able to follow every professional Jewish ballplayer via two superb Internet sites – www.jewishbaseballnews.com and jewishbaseballmuseum.com. The former, run by Scott Barancik, provides daily box scores and running season statistics on the 12 members of the tribe who are playing in the major leagues this season. It also provides news updates and features and keeps tabs on the roster of Jewish minor leaguers.
The latter website, under the editorship of longtime Chicago Tribune sportswriter Ed Sherman, is Chicagoan Jeff Aeder’s dazzling virtual museum, which looks at the broad sweep of baseball history. It features all of the nearly 200 Jews who have played Major League Baseball and includes trivia, stats and an online museum featuring Aeder’s vast collection of artifacts, from Sandy Koufax’s 1963 jersey to bats used by Hank Greenberg and Al Rosen.
There’s also a time line of Jewish baseball stories that dates to the 1860s, telling the narrative via videos, interviews and archive footage. It highlights all current players, minor leaguers, and historical figures who have had a profound impact on the game (what kind of Jewish baseball museum would it be if it didn’t include Hammerin’ Hank and Sandy?).
In Israel, of course, there’s the IAB website, which keeps you informed on how baseball is doing in Israel (www.baseball.org.il/en).
FISH – EVERYBODY calls him Fish – is one of the coaches next week, as he was in 2012. He probably knows more than anyone about the intersection of baseball, Israel and Jews, as someone who’s had a front-row seat to all of it for a decade.
The New Hampshire native is what’s known as a baseball lifer, having played in tournaments since moving to Cleveland when he was 12. (He even made it to the Mickey Mantle World Series, the championship for under-16-year-olds). After four years playing for Shaker Heights High, class of ’98, Fish played college ball for the University of Cincinnati, where the only other Jew on the team was his good friend Kevin Youkilis, the future major leaguer.
Fish played for the US in the 2005 Maccabiah Games, and won a gold medal. Two years later, when he was 27, he played in the one-season Israel Baseball League, hitting .350 and winning a gold glove. After coaching Team Israel in 2012, Fish served three years as the inaugural executive director of the IAB. On the side, Fish runs a tongue-in-cheek website promoting himself as the King of Jewish Baseball, complete with cape, crown and a bat for a royal stick.
But Fish is looking for a new challenge, and he plans to go back to the US after this tournament to explore other baseball opportunities. It will take more than one coach to fill his shoes.
“Fish did everything possible,” says Kurz. “Certainly the level of professionalism is much higher than it was three years ago. There won’t be one person replacing him, we’ll probably have two or three people replace him.”
Fish will remain connected to the IAB, becoming its roving ambassador in the US, and continuing to play – as long as he can – for Israel’s National Team.
For now, he’s just trying to help Team Israel get to the WBC, knowing how much it will help advertise the sport.
The modified double elimination tournament will be streamed live (www.
worldbaseballclassic.com), and the final game on Sunday, September 25, will be shown on the MLB network.
If Israel makes it to the finals tournament in March, they will play the Netherlands, South Korea and Taiwan.
The pool of Jewish players eligible to play – because it takes place during Spring Training and not the regular season – would expand to include all Jewish major leaguers, including the likes of Ryan Braun, Alex Bregman, Scott Feldman, Ian Kinsler, Joc Pederson, Kevin Pillar and Danny Valencia.
“If we get all the big leaguers, there’s no reason why we couldn’t compete with the other teams in that bracket,” says Fish.
And if they do get all the big leaguers, that would undoubtedly be the greatest assembly of Jewish players since Sandy Koufax made a minyan of baseball greatness all by himself.