Baseball / Profile / Serving Wine With a Curveball

Israel's European dreams rest on pitcher Shlomo Lipetz, a sabra living in the Big Apple.

NEW YORK - Another busy evening has come to an end at the City Winery in New York's Soho neighborhood. The successful entertainment joint in the Village, where wine enthusiasts can experience making or drinking quality local wine, has also become a Big Apple hot spot for live music. Elvis Costello, Pete Seeger, Suzanne Vega and Nick Lowe have all appeared between sips.

The place is particularly busy this summer. Yet, Shlomo Lipetz, the winery's music programmer, left for Israel - neither for business nor for pleasure.

Lipetz - Natan Dvir - 26072011
Natan Dvir

Lipetz, who since the age of 10 has been representing Israel at the Little League World Series preliminaries, was called upon again for this week's European qualification tournament at the Baptist Village. His boss, Michael Dorf, is a big fan of Israel who organized the country's 60th anniversary celebrations at Radio City Hall.

"I'm crazy about baseball," Lipetz said before leaving for Israel. "Michael knew from the start that I have a double life - work and baseball - and he accepts that."

Lipetz, 32, who is the second native-born Israeli after Dan Rothem to play baseball at a college in the United States, lives in New York. When he isn't working at the winery, he plays in the Central Park League and the semi-professional league in Brooklyn. "The players there are Dominicans, Puerto Ricans and no few who were released by the pro leagues," he says. "It's a league with a lot of trash talk, but the quality is terrific."

Lipetz says he tries to elevate Israeli baseball to a similar level, adding that he hopes this week's tournament will get Israelis excited. "We have the right combination of a great coach, veteran players and young guys, including the kind who played and are playing in the United States," he says. "When you add to that the fact that we'll have the support of the home crowd for the first time in a major tournament, I think our chances to advance to the championship are better than ever."

Peter Kurz, the secretary general of the Israel Baseball Association, says Lipetz is the team's most important player. "He's a veteran. He has a lot of experience and wisdom, and it's important for a young squad like ours," Kurz says. "He is our best pitcher. He has a rubber arm. He can pitch one day and play again two days later. He also has a very positive presence on the field and on the bench. He creates a very positive atmosphere. He told me that he's coming here to win, and I hope that it will reflect on the players."

The importance of Lipetz to the team, which can advance to its first European Championship, is magnified by the fact that Alon Leichman, the 22-year-old rising star for the Cypress College Chargers in California, had Tommy John surgery this spring and won't be available. This week's games were to be the torch-passing ceremony between the veteran Lipetz and the young Leichman, but that moment will have to wait.

The road to America for Lipetz passed through his native Tel Aviv's Yarkon Park. One day, he started playing baseball there and got turned on. By 10, he was playing at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany for Israel. "We lost 51-0 to Saudi Arabia," he recalls. "Their players weren't Arabs but the sons of American soldiers serving there."

The Israel Defense Forces recognized him as an outstanding athlete, and Lipetz dreamed of playing baseball where it came from - the United States. Two weeks after his discharge, rather than go to South America or India, he headed for San Diego Mesa College. He later played for UC San Diego.

"When I arrived, they didn't know who I was and what I was," he says. "They tried me out for the baseball team and I made it. Luckily, the team wasn't the best during the first year, but in later years it improved a lot. I was one of the pitchers, and in my fourth and last year, I was the closer. My fastball improved from 66 mph to 88. I dreamed after college of playing in the Major League, but I finished my studies at age 25, while the rest were 21. It was really problematic."

Lipetz played in the lower leagues, taught at a Jewish school, parked cars, and studied political science, but he didn't find himself until he discovered an ad by Michael Dorf on Craig'slist. Dorf was looking for a specialist for a small recording company.

"I worked for him one year for free, and then he told me about City Winery and offered me to be involved," Lipetz says. "I learned the profession through him, and I used his connections to get into the business."

Under Lipetz, the number of performances at the winery grew from 70 in his first year to 250 in his second, and to over 300 this year. A number of Israelis have performed there as well, including Asaf Avidan, Idan Raichel, Rami Kleinstein, Ahinoam Nini and David Broza.

"I am happy to give a stage to Israeli artists, but the truth is it's not easy selling tickets to these shows," he says. "Americans buy tickets in advance, while Israelis buy them at the last moment. It's hard to run a business that way."

For all his involvement in music, baseball remains important in Lipetz's life. With his fastball now clocked at 86 mph, he will try to take his team to Europe. "Speed is important, but what makes me special is the angle of my pitch, which makes it hard for the batter to hit it," he says. "It's the goal of any pitcher - to deceive the batter."