In the foyer of my home hangs a large piece of art featuring the most successful Jewish baseball players of all time. Most die-hard Jewish baseball fans would struggle to name every player in the rendering and there aren’t even enough uniformed players in the group to field a full roster. However, for seven days in March, young Jewish baseball fans like my 13-year-old son could name the entire starting lineup of Team Israel. This underdog group of a few former major leaguers and career minor leaguers took the baseball world by storm going undefeated in the first round of the World Baseball Classic.
This team made up of all Jewish players (at least one grandparent would suffice) and a few actual Israelis was unique. Some referred to them as the United States JV squad, but as Team Israel player Nate Freiman wrote in a Player’s Tribune article, “The Mensches of March,” these guys wouldn’t even make that team if it existed. Freiman beautifully summed up what this experience meant for him, his teammates and Jewish baseball fans around the globe. “So there we were, flying high and talking nonstop about whether they’ll make a movie about us someday.” Someone even suggested calling the movie “Jewsiers,” a play on the popular mid-1980s film “Hoosiers” about Indiana high school basketball. The team that had to get batting practice from local coin-operated batting cages before the World Baseball Classic began somehow became a miracle team during those seven days of March.
From the team’s iconic large stuffed “Mensch on a Bench” doll to their decision to exchange their baseball caps for team yarmulkes during the playing of Israel’s national anthem before games, Team Israel became a source of pride for the Jewish community in the days surrounding the holiday of Purim, remembered as a miraculous triumph over a wicked persecutor who sought to exterminate the Jewish people. (Freiman compared the team’s success with the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, albeit a seven day miracle instead of eight.) I was curious about how this team of MLB has-beens and never-will-bes embraced their Jewish heritage and represented Israel, a country many of them had never visited. I also wanted to know if the team experienced any anti-Semitism or criticism for representing Israel, the little nation that so many love to vilify. I had the opportunity to talk to Peter Kurz, the President of the Israel Association of Baseball, and ask him about the making of this Jewish baseball team that was compared to the Jamaican Olympic bobsled team.
First of all tell me a little bit about your role with Team Israel and how you got involved with the team?
Peter Kurz: For the past 4 years I’ve been the President of the Israel Association of Baseball and before that I was the Secretary General of the IAB for 8 years. So obviously when I came down to get a general manager for team Israel 5 years ago for the qualifiers, the president at the time said you’re the only one left standing so you might as well be it. So I started right away and I’ve been in that position ever since and I’m very happy with it.
Tell me about the miracle of this amazing team. I don’t know if you’d call it a miracle or not, but it was the trending topic of the WBC for the past couple of weeks?
PK: I don’t think it was a miracle. We built a very good team that, together with Brad Ausmus, the manager at the time, went out and played well for the qualifiers 5 years ago. Unfortunately, we lost in the last game in the last inning against Spain — it was the bottom of the 9th inning and we left men on 2nd and 3rd. It was a tie game and Joc Pederson was up and he smashed the ball to right field and everyone jumped up thinking he won the game. Unfortunately, the right fielder caught the ball and the rest was history. A year or so ago, I turned to Jerry Weinstein and I asked him to be the manager. He was actually a candidate 5 years ago to be the manager, but he had just received a job with the Colorado Rockies so he had to decline. I knew Jerry 12 years ago when he came to Israel with the USA team for Maccabiah.
So anyway, I spoke to Jerry Weinstein and we started working on putting the team together. We had about 100 players to chose from in the minor leagues and we slowly built a team up of guys. First of all there was a nucleus of about 10 guys from the team 5 years ago who wanted to come back including Josh Zeid, who was the losing pitcher against Spain 5 years ago. We weren’t surprised by the team because we knew the team was good. We actually put veteran players on the team who we knew the younger guys looked up to. We had guys with Major League experience like Ike Davis, Ryan Lavarnway, Jason Marquis and Sam Fuld. Some of these guys were all stars like Jason Marquis and some had World Series experience like Ryan Lavarnway. My personal goal before the games was to reach the second round. I didn’t think we would reach it going undefeated (3-0) as we did. And the most fantastic thing was the fourth game win against Cuba. As a guy who grew up in America, Cuban baseball is really something and to defeat them was incredible. We came down to the last two games, but the magic left us. However, I think we still did very well, we are very happy with the progress we made and we’re happy we are going to be the second seed in the tournament four years from now.
And who on the team currently do you think are your top prospects to get into The Show?
PK: You have got the guys who are signed up for Triple A like Ike Davis and Ryan Lavarnway. Those guys I imagine will be in the Major Leagues soon. There’s Cody Decker. I know Jason Marquis is looking to go back. Then there are the other guys like Brad Goldberg, who was our closer in Brooklyn and did very well in Japan. He’s a top Triple A guy top Triple A guy. Corey Baker is a top Triple A guy with St. Louis. There are guys out there that are definitely going to make it.
Were you upset at all that some other major league baseball players like Ian Kinsler didn’t come out for the team?
PK: Not really. With Kinsler, I knew because the Tigers’ manager Brad Ausmus told me it was going to happen about a year ago because Jim Leyland, Team USA manager approached him and Kinsler said yes. But when we finished Brooklyn I had in my mind a dream outfield with Joc Pederson, Kevin Pillar and Ryan Braun. None of them showed up because they all had their different reasons not to (Braun had a new baby and Pillar had thumb surgery). I think some of them might regret it now since we did go so far. Maybe with more Big Leaguers we could have won those two games at the end, I don’t know. By the way, the guys really wanted to play against Team USA so they could go up against Kinsler and [Alex] Bregman — the two guys who could have played for our team.
Did the team rally around the idea of playing for Israel, an underdog team in the WBC?
PK: Absolutely. These guys really bought into the picture of doing this for Israel and to build up baseball in Israel. They asked questions about baseball in Israel. We had ten guys that came to Israel in January to visit and the other players are always asking these guys what it was like there. These guys really wanted to play for Team Israel and they totally understood what that meant. It was very exciting.
Tell me a little bit about what has sort of become a controversy. Some have questioned the WBC rule that players who are Jewish according to the Law of Return can play for Israel even if they aren’t Israeli. What would have happened if you had to make the WBC team with only Israeli citizens?
PK: Well, first of all I thought that controversy was only happening in Israel; I didn’t know it was also happening in America. In Israel there are a few commentators saying it’s not a true Israeli team because it’s made of 3 Israelis and 25 Jewish Americans. What I tell them is that it’s the total opposite. You have to bring these Jewish Americans into your hearts and say thank you to them because they’re playing for your country. And these guys are leaving their Spring Training operations and traveling half way around the world to play for Team Israel. The people here in Israel should be thanking them and thankful for them. Israel sees itself as the assembly point and the country for all the Jewish people and that’s very important for us. That’s what I say to the Israelis. What I say to Americans is simply that those are the rules. You can have any players play for a country that they can become citizens of and according to the Law of Return of Israel, anyone can become a citizen if they have a Jewish grandparent or if they’re married to someone with at least a Jewish grandparent (and by the way we didn’t have anyone like that on Team Israel since every player had at least one Jewish grandparent). So we just played by the rules.
The biggest surprise was seeing this team of secular Jews really embrace religion, with the team wearing yarmulkes and the megillah being read in the dugout before a game. Thoughts on that?
PK: Well, first of all I don’t want to burst your bubble, but they didn’t embrace religion; they embraced their heritage. Every Israel national team that goes overseas for tournaments, they do not take off their hats for Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem. We had a little twist in Brooklyn where one our people went out and bought those yarmulkes. Some of the guys raised an eyebrow, but they all did it. The reception was incredible by the crowd. I said afterward that they didn’t have to keep doing it, but they said they had to since they were winning. And the megillah reading was done by two religious guys on the staff. They did it during batting practice with my permission and some of the players went over and asked about it. Then the Chabad of Tokyo brought some mishloach manot (Purim baskets of goodies) for the guys.
Did you guys experience any anti-Zionism, anti-Semitism or negative political comments as you traveled the world?
PK: Not in the least bit. You know, I think that’s one of the nice things about being in the Far East is that it’s the opposite. They don’t have much anti-Semitism because they don’t have much history of Jews living among them. So unlike Europeans or North Americans, there’s no anti-Semitism. The opposite is true. They all think the Jewish people have some sort of secret to their success. They have great respect for us. In Tokyo I sat in the stands wearing my Team Israel shirt and hat and people were coming up to me and shaking my hand. They were totally respectful.
Was anti-Semitism ever a concern among any of the players?
PK: I don’t think so. There were certainly security issues. Any Israeli team traveling overseas has extra security precautions. Some of the players on the team definitely experienced anti-Semitism when they played in the States and they talked about that with the foreign press.
What’s next for Team Israel and how can people support the team specifically and baseball in Israel generally?
PK: We’re going to leverage Team Israel’s success to really grow baseball in Israel. I hope in the future we’ll have more Israelis on the team. Two guys on the team, Ike Davis and Sam Fuld, said they want to come to Israel after they retire and coach teams here. That’s the whole point of the WBC — to get these guys who have the heritage to contribute to baseball there. To help in our endeavor, people can go to our website at www.baseball.org.il to learn more about what we’re doing to grow baseball in Israel and they can also donate through the Jewish National Fund Project Baseball on the JNF website because we’re hoping to build two fields — one in Beit Shemesh and one in Raanana. It’s going to be easier now with all the publicity, but we still need help to achieve those goals.