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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.”
“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.”
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. Continued...