JUPITER, Fla. — Former major league All-Star Shawn Green calls Team Israel, “the greatest collection of Jewish players ever assembled.”
Green is the biggest star on the Israeli squad for the upcoming World Baseball Classic Qualifier, which is made up of predominantly Jewish-American minor leaguers. There are just three Israeli national team members on the squad — all pitchers — and they are in baseball heaven.
“Oh my God, it is so humbling,” says Team Israel pitcher Dan Rothem of Tel Aviv after tossing a scoreless inning in a tuneup game against Palm Beach College before the start of the four-team tournament Wednesday night.
In the first game, Israel will face South Africa at Roger Dean Stadium in the initial qualifier for the expanded 28-team WBC tournament in March. The double-elimination tournament also features France and Spain. It is Israel’s first invitation to the WBC.
Rothem, 35, who pitched for the Israel national team last year, says he was more nervous when he saw that former Red Sox Mark Loretta, now hitting coach with Team Israel, had come out to warm him up.
“I got on the mound and there’s Mark Loretta squatting at home plate and no mask, no cup for sure, and he’s waving the glove at me. And I come set and I think to myself, ‘I’m going to throw a pitch to Mark Loretta and I better not bounce one because he’s not wearing anything.’ A childhood hero and he had no protection.”
Team Israel manager and former All-Star catcher Brad Ausmus walks by Rothem, grins, and says, “Nice job,” and Rothem is thrilled. “I still feel nervous,” he said. “I’m not a professional. This is so awesome.”
Learning gameLike most children in Israel, Rothem grew up without much baseball. Soccer and basketball are the preferred sports in the country. But he fell in love with the game and played on a fledgling Little League team in 1989. They didn’t have uniforms, just sweatpants and T-shirts. They had no batting gloves and had to borrow equipment.
“We were at the Little League regional qualifier in Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany in 1989,” says Rothem. “We had to play Saudi Arabia — they were all American kids. They ended up beating us, 51-0, and it was in all the Israeli newspapers.
“The next day the Saudi authorities denied the existence of the game, but I have pictures,” he adds with a laugh.
He says he’s a secular Jew, like most of his teammates.
“We don’t have Moses up in the locker room,” he says. “We don’t have locker rooms. Man, we just play. We have one decent field in Israel, everything else is pretty much crap.”
The legendary Shlomo Lipetz, who pitched for the Israel national team last year, remembers scoring the only run in a 12-1 loss a year later in Germany at the same tournament.
“After the game we celebrated by running around waving the Israeli flag,” he says.
Lipetz, 33, got hooked on baseball when relatives took him to see the 1986 Mets on a trip to Queens.
He went back to school and asked his friends, “Did you ever hear of a game called baseball?”
Eventually he scratched together a team that played with baseballs that had ripped seams.
He eventually walked on to a junior college team in California and played semipro ball.
“They used to call me Iceman . . . every part of my body hurt,” he says.
But he lifted weights and learned to throw in the upper 80s and to change speeds and angles.
Lipetz still commutes from his job as musical director of the City Winery in New York to Israel to play with the national team. He says that when he hears the Jewish national anthem played in America he will be ready.
“It’s not pressure, it’s pride, and the competitive juices will be flowing,” he says. “The Hatikvah, it always gives you a little chill. I’m not a very religious person, but standing on the line, getting to give a high-five to Shawn Green, wow.”
Major additions?Team Israel is considered the favorite over Spain in the WBC Qualifier.
If Israel advances, the team hopes to entice more Jewish major leaguers for the tournament in March. Kevin Youkilis already has agreed to play for Team Israel in the spring. Ian Kinsler, Ike Davis, and Ryan Braun are being queried, and several current Red Sox players have expressed interest.
The only current players on the Team Israel roster who have big league experience are second baseman Josh Satin, who played briefly for the Mets, and Adam Greenberg, who was hit in the head by the first pitch in his only major league plate appearance for the Cubs in 2005. Greenberg, who did not play last year, replaces former Red Sox Gabe Kapler, out with a groin injury. Kapler will join Loretta in assisting Ausmus.
Ausmus says he tried to pick as many Israeli players as possible.
“It is a little strange that you’re representing Israel and the majority of the kids are American,” he says. “But this is the framework of the WBC and it applies across the board to all countries. The hope is that 25 years from now it’s Israelis representing their country.”
Peter Kurz, secretary general of the Israel Association of Baseball who grew up playing stickball on the streets of New York, says there are only 1,000 baseball players in Israel, a country of 8 million. He’s trying to raise money for a new ballpark.
“We have one good field in the Baptist Village, which is ironic, because in the Jewish country, Jewish baseball players have to go to the Baptist Village to play,” he says.
Israeli law grants citizenship to anyone with Jewish grandparents. Proof was necessary and in some cases difficult to come up with.
“We had to do a lot of creative work,” says Kurz. “Shawn Green sent me his ketubah [Jewish marriage] certificate. Now everybody is kosher.”
Ausmus, who has a Jewish mother and a Protestant father, took a long time to embrace Judaism.
“My response was at first one of reluctance,” says Ausmus. “I didn’t really practice the Jewish religion. But once I started playing, the fans got real excited about having someone of Jewish heritage, and I’m glad to embrace that.”
He went to Israel for the first time last May. He visited the Wailing Wall, went surfing in the Mediterranean, floated in the Dead Sea, and met Israeli president Shimon Peres.
“The first thing he told me was a story about how he went to New York decades ago and on his first trip he went to Yankee Stadium and saw Joe DiMaggio,” Ausmus says.
Asked if he is looking forward to a David and Goliath pairing against the USA, Ausmus laughs, and says, “I’m not looking at the US. Quite frankly I’m not looking at anything past Wednesday. I’m not guaranteeing anything.”
Both Loretta and Ausmus say injuries prevent them from playing. Green, 39, is the first one in the batting cage at 8 a.m. outside Roger Dean Stadium.
In the practice game against Miami Dade College, he got two hits. Loretta asked him if he wanted him to retrieve the ball from his first hit.
“Oh, it felt weird, that first time up,” says Green. “That was my first hit in five years.”
He’s glad to do his part.
“It means a lot to Jewish Americans, because I think they have always had that stigma of being non-athletic,” Green says. “To break the stigma, and also to have a team that Jews all over the world can rally behind is great.”
Green says Team Israel has a chance to put together an even better squad in the spring if the big leaguers come aboard.
Some Sox interestIn the Red Sox clubhouse there is plenty of enthusiasm.
“There’s more guys than you would think,” says catcher Ryan Lavarnway. “I definitely expressed interest in playing for them. I’ll have to talk to [general manager] Ben [Cherington] because it’s right before spring training. I think it’d be great.”
Outfielder Ryan Kalish would love to play for Team Israel. “If they want me to play, I’m there,” he says.
Pitcher Craig Breslow will wait and see if the team qualifies.
“I don’t know yet,” he says. “Both my parents are Jewish. I’ve got two [Sandy] Koufax jerseys and I met him this past season. I think the WBC is important because it gives people a chance to see where they stack up internationally.”
Former Red Sox GM and current Orioles executive VP of baseball operations Dan Duquette, founding member of the short-lived Israel Baseball League in 2007, is optimistic about Team Israel’s chances.
“We have a good chance in the qualifier, as we have more pros than other clubs in the bracket,” he wrote in an e-mail.
Kapler says he’s been gauging interest of MLB players.
“It’s inappropriate to put the cart in front of the horse,” he says. “We’ve got to qualify. I’m not Nick Saban or Urban Meyer, this is not a recruiting game. It’s what feels best to the human being putting on the spikes. But it would be exciting, inspiring, and exhilarating.”
Ready for challengeThe current Team Israel players and staff are pumped up.
“Jews are going to be dancing in the streets when we win this thing,” says bullpen catcher Nate Fish. “Every single one of them. I kid you not. This is happening. We’re going to Muhammad Ali this freaking thing.” A native of Cleveland, Fish blogs as the “King of Jewish Baseball.”
Greenberg, who recently had the Cubs deny an Internet campaign to get him one at-bat in a late-season game, came into camp on a prayer. He didn’t play any organized ball this year.
“I knew I didn’t have a shot in hell to make this team. None,’’ he says.
But he hustled like a man possessed.
Still, he was not on the 28-man roster when the team filed in for Rosh Hashana dinner at sundown Sunday night.
As the moments ticked down to year 5773 on the Jewish calendar, Ausmus approached him.
“I was taken aback,” says Greenberg. “I was getting ready to sit down, and Brad said, ‘Hey, I need to talk to you for a second.’ I was thinking he’s going to tell me I’m going to be one of the coaches, thanks but there’s no room. But he said, ‘You’re going to be a part of this team.’ I just couldn’t stop smiling.
“Now it’s real, I can contribute. I will be a part of the greatest Jewish team ever assembled.”