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Swing big: MLB players rave about Israel

How 9 top athletes prepared for the World Baseball Classic: the Dead Sea, rugelach, and practice with their IBA wanna-bes

It’s just as well they’re professional athletes — otherwise the members of Team Israel Baseball, who will be playing in the upcoming World Baseball Classic in Korea, would not have had the stamina to get through the six jam-packed days of their recent visit to Israel. Their trip to Israel was a dream come true for our local baseball organization and for all the young players, who, till now, have only been able to imagine what it would be like to see them in action on a field in Israel.

Nine players from the major league organizations — Ike Davis, Ty Kelly, Ryan Lavarnway, Sam Fuld, Josh Zeid, Cody Decker, Jon Moscot, Corey Baker and Jeremy Bleich; and Gabe Kapler, Los Angeles Dodgers Director of Player Development, arrived on Wednesday with family and friends. The goal: Get a taste of Israel before representing the country at the World Baseball Classic (WBC) in March in Seoul. Six of them were part of the team that qualified Israel for the WBC by brushing aside strong Brazilian and British teams at a tournament in Brooklyn in September. They were joined by Fuld and Kelly, who will play in March. For seven of them, this was their first trip to Israel.

(The rules of the WBC state that any player who is eligible for citizenship of a country can play for that country’s team, which, according to Israel’s Law of Return, means any player with at least one Jewish grandparent can play for Team Israel.)

Lavarnway on a camel
Ryan Lavarnway, challenging a camel at the Dead Sea. (Margo Sugarman)

The group was followed by a camera crew that was filming their experiences for a documentary called “Heading Home”. veteran Jonathan Mayo, with his good friend and film maker Jeremy Newberger, conceived the idea nearly three years ago, and almost pulled it off last year, but didn’t quite have the funding in place. This year, they succeeded in making it to Israel to document the players’ voyage of discovery. Now they’re hoping to make it to the WBC to add the final scenes to the film.

Just listing what the players managed to achieve leaves me breathless. Off the plane and straight to Jaffa for a tour and a quick dance with the Breslov Hasidim who were on hand with their van and loud music to welcome the group of 30. Ignoring jetlag, they were up early the next morning for a morning in Tel Aviv — from Independence Hall to a graffiti tour of Neve Tzedek, then off to an airforce base, and on to a major event attended by hundreds of Israeli baseball players. This was the pinnacle of the dream for us at the Israel Association of Baseball. The kids were ecstatic to meet their heroes and get their autographs and a quick selfie. They didn’t leave the sides of these players who, by some miracle, were standing on the field in Petah Tikvah where they play little league ball.

It was a “pinch me” moment to see them take the field for a practice with members of our Israel Baseball Academy. These elite local baseball players had the opportunity of a lifetime to practice side-by-side with players who, until then, were the baseball idols they followed on TV and online. “I was so proud to stand alongside these players and practice with them,” says Assaf Lowengart, 19, who serves in the IDF as an active sportsman for baseball. “These players are where I want to be in the next few years. Being able to be on the same field with them was a great honor.” Adds Ori Wachspress, 18, “I couldn’t believe that I was standing in the outfield and catching fly balls hit by players like Ike Davis, Ryan Lavarnway and Cody Decker. It doesn’t get much better than that.”

With Academy Players
The visiting MLB players with members of the Israel Baseball Academy at the Baptist Village event on Thursday. (Margo Sugarman)

Tal Erel, 20, who’s also serving as a sportsman in the IDF, is the bullpen catcher for Team Israel WBC. “I feel at home with them and with the Academy players. We all have a great passion, and it’s baseball. This is our common ground.” Adds Alejandro Eskenazi, 26, who recently made aliyah from Cuba and coaches for the IAB, “I really felt great training with them. There was a good connection between all of us, and it was an amazing experience.”

After the excitement of event, the following days were no less packed with content — a ground breaking ceremony for a new field to be built in Bet Shemesh, Yad Vashem, Machaneh Yehudah, the Kotel for Shabbat, Jerusalem’s Old City sites, the Dead Sea, Masada, Bedouin hospitality, dune buggies in the sands of Ashdod, Sarona Market.

Team on Masada
On top of Masada. L-to-R: Fuld, Davis, Moscot, Kelly, Stephanie and Josh Zeid, Cody Decker and Jenn Sterger, Jamie and Ryan Lavarnway, Jeremy Bleich. (Margo Sugarman)

Yes, it was only six days. In between, they managed to taste Israel — hummus, pitot, shwarma, falafel, shakshuka and halvah of all conceivable tastes. Watching them get a taste of the out-of-the-oven rugelach from the iconic Marzipan bakery in the Machaneh Yehudah market was gold. They had to work hard, pushing through the crowded Friday afternoon shoppers vying for the sweet treats, and experiencing Israeli “lines” at their best. Still, it was a sweet taste of Jerusalem that they will never forget.

Zeid eating rugalach
Josh Zeid gets his first taste of fresh rugalach at the Machaneh Yehudah market in Jerusalem. (Margo Sugarman)

But the strongest taste that was left in their mouths was for the country itself. Like almost everyone who sees Israel for the first time, the players were astounded. Creatures of social media, their tweets spoke volumes about their instant attachment to this small state.

On arriving in Tel Aviv on Day 1, social media-active Decker tweeted very simply: “Tel Aviv. We’re home.” On Jerusalem, he tweeted: “As far as views go, this one is on my top 5 list ever…Jerusalem is beautiful”; on swimming in the Dead Sea: “Remember that one time I dunked my head in the Dead Sea and was blinded for several minutes? That was a good idea…”

Decker and Fans
Cody Decker signing autographs for young baseball fans at the Baptist Village. (Margo Sugarman)

The others didn’t keep their enthusiasm about Israel to themselves either. After being slathered with Dead Sea mud with Zeid, Moscot and Lavarnway, Baker tweeted: “Just a bunch of guys being dudes and exfoliating.” Fuld summed up his trip saying: “From the Mediterranean to the Dead (Sea), the Western Wall to graffiti wall, Masada to sabbaba, what a trip.” Zeid ended his trip with a strong recommendation: “One of the best weeks ever. Doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from, Israel is an incredible, must-see experience.”

The experience was incredible all round and changed lives. As they stand for Hatikvah for the first game of the WBC on March 6 in Seoul, with their Israel Baseball kippot on their heads, their hearts will certainly be in Israel and they will play with determination that only our little country can inspire.

About the Author
Margo Sugarman is the Secretary General of the Israel Association of Baseball, and professionally, a business communications consultant. She lives in Tel Mond, Israel, but was born and raised in Cape Town.
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