Huge moment for Israel baseball: Victory in Brooklyn means WBC games in South Korea in March
BROOKLYN, N.Y. – When players and coaches converged on the infield to celebrate Israel’s 9–1 victory over Great Britain here Sunday night that sent it to the World Baseball Classic’s main draw, The Mensch took center stage.
About an hour before each of the team’s three games at this oceanfront stadium, third baseman Cody Decker would emerge from the clubhouse and step into the dugout carrying a tallit and a stuffed figure of a Hasid-looking man in a boxed set that included a book called The Mensch on a Bench. He’d place the box, which he ordered on-line and had shipped to MCU Park in time for last Thursday’s opening game, halfway down the team’s bench and carefully drape the tallit around it.
With Sunday’s victory completed and Decker in the field, backup catcher Nick Rickles grabbed The Mensch from the bench, held him aloft and rushed into the scrum.
Decker provided his teammates with more than a mascot during the 10 days they were together, beginning with practices near the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The Boston Red Sox farmhand and former San Diego Padre – one of nine players on Team Israel to have reached the majors – contributed a single, a double, a home run, a walk, a hit by pitch, a sacrifice fly and a key defensive play in Israel’s sweep of Great Britain (twice) and Brazil in the WBC qualifiers.
For Decker, Rickles and some of the other Brooklyn veterans of Israel’s 2012 WBC entry that lost to Spain in heartbreaking, extra-inning fashion, advancing to the tournament’s next round is meaningful. Peter Kurz, the president of the Israel Association of Baseball, confessed Sunday night to the victory’s providing a sense of “relief” – the first time Israel has reached the main draw. It will play in South Korea in March.
Before Friday afternoon’s game against Brazil, a 1–0 win, all current players, coaches and staff members who’d been together in Florida for the qualifiers four years ago gathered for a photograph. Kurz explained that the group shared a bond of pain, but also a commitment to breaking through this time.
In interviews in Brooklyn, 2012 veterans and first-timers alike expressed gratification in representing Israel – and, by extension, the Jewish people.
Corey Baker, a member of the St. Louis Cardinals’ AA team and the starting pitcher against Brazil, said that his Jewish consciousness was raised during a Birthright trip to Israel last December. Rickles ordered arm-length compression sleeves for the team, each in the design of Israel’s blue-and-white flag.
Decker explained that the bonds established in 2012 and renewed in Brooklyn are significant.
Last time, “I didn’t expect what it became,” he said. “It became like family.” After the tournament clincher, he spoke of Sunday’s being “a real emotional day, and a roller coaster for all of us. It was perfect. … This has been one of the best experiences I’ve had in professional baseball. This means a lot to me.”
Infielder Mitch Glasser, who plays for the Joplin (Missouri) Blasters, an unaffiliated team, said that his late maternal grandparents endured anti-Semitism in the Midwest and traveled to Israel regularly. “I’m honored not only to play for Israel, but to play for them,” he said.
Glasser fielded a grounder and threw to first base for the tournament’s final out. He was playing second base because the starter the first two games, Josh Satin, had flown home to Los Angeles that morning after his wife went into labor. Another backup, catcher Charlie Cutler, nearly skipped Brooklyn, but his wife gave birth just before he flew here.
Israel’s starting catcher, Ryan Lavarnway, socked a two-run homer in the clincher and tallied three singles in the opener, hitting .417 overall.
“I had a great time. Everyone had a great time playing ball and representing Israel,” he said. “It was very cool to see all the kids out there [in the stands] wearing yarmulkes.”
While attendance was low in the 7,500-seat stadium, those at each game overwhelmingly favored Israel. One fan, Zack Raab, a 24-year-old resident of Tel Aviv, took an extra week’s vacation to be here en route to his hometown of Boca Raton, Florida, to spend the upcoming Rosh Hashanah holiday with his parents.
Raab sat behind Israel’s dugout for each game, displaying a handwritten placard that read, “I flew 6,000 miles for this. #LetsGoIsrael.” By Sunday night, nearly every member of the Israeli team had signed it.
“Baseball and Israel are my favorite things in the world, and to see them combined is a dream,” he said.
For Raab’s friend, New York University student Aaron Steppa, attending all of the games was a homecoming.
A Washington Nationals fan, he saw Rickles catch this year at AA Harrisburg and Jason Marquis, the starting pitcher in both games against Great Britain, pitch for the Nationals in 2010 and 2011.
For his Bar Mitzvah, he explained, guests sat at tables named for Jewish Major Leaguers.
“What other chance,” he said, “do I have to see a team representing Israel play in America?”
The IAB hopes to capitalize on the Brooklyn games to promote baseball back home. Individual players could be flown to Israel to run clinics in advance of the games in South Korea and some of the estimated $360,000 in prize money likely will be used to expand the development of coaches and players and to build new fields.
“I hope we can start progressing with the plan to grow the game we love in Israel,” said relief pitcher Josh Zeid, who said he would “absolutely” like to participate in such a trip.
“I think we all played knowing it goes beyond the games of last week.”