Israel's Nate Freiman, right, is congratulated by third base coach Mark Loretta.
Israel's Nate Freiman, right, is congratulated by third base coach Mark Loretta after hitting a home run against South Africa. Photo by AP
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The organist played "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." And Hava Nagila. Some fans wore yarmulkes. For those who couldn't part with their baseball caps, embroidery with the Star of David was the preferred fashion statement. A hawker patrolled the stands selling kosher hot dogs.

A slice of Tel Aviv met the American pastime Wednesday night as Israel, powered by two home runs by Nate Freiman, defeated South Africa 7-3 before over 1,500 fans at Roger Dean Stadium in the opening game of a four-team World Baseball Classic qualifying tournament.

"It's the most people I've ever represented wearing a jersey and I'm willing to bet for most people on the team, it's the same way," Freiman said after a victory much tougher than the final score indicated. "You could see the energy in the crowd."

Spain was scheduled to play France last night in the modified round robin. The winner of Sunday's final will advance to the main draw of the World Baseball Classic, which will include games at Marlins Park in March.

Israel not only is the favorite in the stands, but possibly the favorite on the field, thanks to a roster chocked with minor-league talent. Brad Ausmus, a veteran of 18 major-league seasons, is Israel's manager, while Shawn Green, a two-time All-Star and 15-year veteran, came out of 4 1/2 years of retirement to serve as designated hitter and, judging by pre-game introductions, the team's most popular player.

As Green soaked up the affection, outfielder Adam Greenberg spotted a handful of autograph seekers hovering over the dugout and began signing balls. At the top of the dugout steps, catcher Nick Rickles found pitcher Josh Zeid and had him face the stands, where a woman was pointing a camera.

"Thanks, Mom," Rickles said.

Both Rickles and mother Linda know their way around this ballpark just fine, thank you, since Rickles attended Palm Beach Gardens High and played regularly at Roger Dean. Only three Israelis are on the roster, but Rickles is among the majority who became eligible to represent Israel because he's Jewish.

"I get to stay in my own home, playing on a stage like this, a national stage, early in my career, and it's great," Rickles said. "I'm really excited."

Excitement was in the air. Perhaps too much so. In the second inning, the plate umpire, paying homage to the NFL's replacement officials, called South Africa's Karl Weitz out on strikes ¬ after strike one. Weitz was granted a reprieve without his manager, Rick Magnante, even having to throw a red challenge flag.
Magnante is a California-based scout for the Oakland Athletics whose fame includes playing the Giants' third-base coach in the Robert De Niro flick The Fan. Magnante will have plenty of fans if he can sniff a victory in this tournament, since South Africa is 0-6 all-time in WBC competition.

South Africa's deficit got deeper in the first inning when Freiman, a first baseman, hit a two-out home run to left field. Playing for San Diego's AA affiliate in San Antonio, Freiman is a Texas League All-Star who hit .298 this season. It's no coincidence that Ausmus is a special assistant in the Padres' organization.

"I've seen him play for the last few years," Ausmus said. "I knew when I was putting the team together, once the qualifier was moved to September as opposed to November (making big leaguers ineligible), he was our three or four hole hitter."

Israel finally padded the lead in the sixth when Josh Satin scored from third base on a wild pitch by Jared Elario. Israel broke open the game in the eighth when catcher Charlie Cutler doubled down the right-field line, scoring Green, Satin and Jack Marder. Clearly, it was going to be a depressing night for the South African fan who brought a vuvuzela - remember those incessant horns from the 2010 World Cup?

After Freiman added a ninth-inning homer, Greenberg walked, then capitalized on an outfield error on Green's single to score from first base for a 7-0 lead. While playing for the Cubs in 2005, Greenberg was beamed by a Marlins pitcher in his only major-league plate appearance. He's attempting a comeback while playing for Israel.

"It was pretty cool, going out there, wearing 'Israel' across my chest," Greenberg said. "And I know everyone in the locker room felt the same. It was a special day, a special moment."

(Reprinted with permission from the Palm Beach Post.)