The Israeli Baseball All-Stars: A Diamond in the Rough

Former U.S. All-Star catcher Brad Ausmus called up to bolster the national team in its bid to make the world championship,

NEW YORK - The Israeli Baseball All-Stars. Yes, there is such a thing and it is about to make history. This November the team will play in the world championship preliminaries in Jupiter, Fla., against Spain, France and South Africa. If the Israeli team wins this round - something not impossible - the team will contend in the World Baseball Classic, to be held in the United States in March, 2013.

Despite the unimpressive level of baseball in Israel, the national team has a chance to win the world title because it is being propped up by reinforcements from American Jewish all-star players. Peter Kurz, secretary-general of the Israel Association of Baseball, explains that in the World Baseball Classic regulations there is a "heritage provision" which allows anyone entitled to citizenship in a given country to also play for it. So, for example, Mike Piazza, a former Major League catcher whose parents are Italian, played on the Italian national team even though he had never visited Italy prior to donning the Italian uniform. Since then he has become a star in Italy.

This World Baseball Classic provision makes it possible for every Jew to play on the Israeli team, by virtue of the Law of Return. Taking advantage of this opportunity, Kurz has invited a number of outstanding American former major league baseball players to join the team. So far, three have accepted: Brad Ausmus, a former United States All-Star catcher who played for the Detroit Tigers, the Houston Astros and the Los Angeles Dodgers, outfielder Gabe Kapler who played for the Tampa Bay Rays and Sean Green who pitched for the Texas Rangers. Ausmus, who will also train the Israeli team, will arrive in Israel today.

His appointment as Israeli team coach will become official at a press conference to be held soon after his arrival. While here, Ausmus will also participate in a United Israel Appeal fundraiser, be guest of honor at a league game on Tuesday (at the Baptist Village, near Petah Tikva ) and take part in the in the All-Star team's training for the first time on Wednesday.

Ausmus, whose mother is Jewish, celebrated Jewish holidays with his grandparents and says he feels close to Israel. He hopes to persuade some of the greatest Jewish baseball players in America to join the Israeli team. "We will ask them all," says Ausmus. "In the meantime I've been getting positive responses. I believe we have the potential to field a good team."

Kapler has never concealed his strong emotional ties to his Jewish origins. The former Tampa Bay outfielder, who played in the World Series in 2004 and has since retired, has a tattoo of a Star of David and another of the words "Never Again." He also has a third tattoo, on his leg, which is supposed to be Hebrew for "Strong Mind," but the tattoo artist did not do a very good job and it is not clear what is written there.

In the past, when he was earning about $1 million per season, Kapler insisted that his pay be $1 million and another $18 - 18 being the Hebrew numerological equivalent of the word chai, life. "This is very exciting for me," he says. "Playing for the Israeli all-stars isn't just playing baseball. It's something I'm very proud of. For me it's a celebration of the culture I come from," says Kapler.

Days of wine and baseball

The meeting with Kurz takes place at the City Winery in New York. This is a performance space with several hundred seats where wine is produced. They bring the grapes from places like California and Oregon and a French vintner supervises the preparation of the wines. Some say the subway train that runs below the club and shakes its foundations improves the wine. Others say the music performed here by the likes of singers Elvis Costello, Susan Vega, Sean Colvin, and others including Israeli stars Idan Raichel and David Broza also improves the wine. The last party Lehman Brothers' held, before itt crashed, was here.

In the meantime this is the place Israeli baseball folk meet when they come to New York. That's because the venue's music programmer, Shlomo Lipitz, is also one of the stars of the Israeli Baseball All-Stars. He comes to Israel whenever there are games. The pitcher, who once played for Mesa College in San Diego, now plays in an amateurs' league in Central Park and a semi-professionals league in Brooklyn with Puerto Ricans. "The level here is higher than that of the Israeli All Stars," he says.

Kurz, the American-born secretary-general of the Israel Association of Baseball, lives in Givatayim and is vice president for marketing and exports of the Merhav group. He has tasked Ausmus, Green and Kapler with contacting and recruiting Jewish players. In the major leagues, the minor leagues and the colleges there are about 150 Jewish players.

Marty Appel, who was the public relations manager for the New York Yankees 20 years ago, will manage the public relations for the Israeli team. He says there are 20 Jewish Major League players.

"This isn't a lot," says Appel, "but you look have to look at it in perspective. In the 1980s the number of Jews in the majors was zero. So 10 is not at all bad. There are great Jewish names engraved in the history of baseball, such as Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax, who played in the 1950s and the 1960s. But that is history."

Jewish baseball stars

So who are the great Jewish players in American baseball today?

"The most successful is Ryan Braun, a player with the Milwaukee Brewers, who was chosen Most Valuable Player last year," says Appel, noting that Braun's father is Israeli. "Among the Jewish stars today there are also Kevin Youkilis of the Boston Red Sox, Ian Kinsler of ht Texas Rangers and Sam Gold of Tampa Bay," notes Appel.

Although Ausmus says he will contact all the stars, the chance of recruiting the great ones is small because most players - even those who feel some affection for Israel - would prefer to play on the stronger American team. The regulations of the international association stipulate that a player can play on only one team.

"The people who have said yes to us are Josh Satin of the New York Mets and Michael Schwimer of the Philadelphia Phillies, who aren't top-ranked," says Kurz. "The truth is that the tournament in November is a bit problematic with respect to the timing because the season ends in November and no one touches a ball until the end of December, beginning of January. However, in the minor leagues players do want to play and their level is nothing to sneeze at. These are excellent players."

Baseball in Israel, relates Kurz, began 25 years ago with just a few people. Today there are 70 teams of children, teens and adults, including four adult teams in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Ra'anana and Modi'in.

The biggest problem for local teams is the lack of proper baseball fields, says Kruz. The only illuminated field is at the Baptist Village near Petah Tikva. That could change now that the Ra'anana municipality has given the baseball association a $20 million plot of land. Kurz hopes to raise $3 million to develop it. "A proper baseball field could give Israeli baseball a leg up," he says.

"The great thing," says Kurz, "is that on average 600 people came to every game. In Russia, Spain and Korea only 50 people came to games. This means that Israeli baseball is on the map today."

Does Kurz feel uncomfortable that most of the players on the Israeli team won't be Israelis?

"I look at our goals," he says. "If we make it into the world championship and we can march with the Israeli flag at the opening of the games, that will be a wonderful thing. That would advance baseball in Israel. The visit by the players from the United States will also give it a push. And maybe there is a 10-year-old kid who will get inspiration from this and become a big star.

"It will also connect the American players to Israel. An no less important, success will increase the enthusiasm and the fundraising for the stadium in Ra'anana, which won't be only a field but rather a real center for the sport of baseball."

The Israeli team training in the Baptist Village baseball field near Petah Tikva.
Nir Keidar