No, it’s not a Purim spoof. Fresh off reading the Megillah in the dugout, Team Israel celebrated Purim by beating the heavily favored Cuban team 4-1 to begin the second round of the World Baseball Classic. No matter what happens the rest of the way in the tournament, Israel’s achievements in the World Baseball Classic should be a proud and inspiring moment for Jews around the world.
The Jewish people have excelled in many fields. Baseball has not been one of them. To be sure, Jews abound in the business of baseball. The previous Commissioner Bud Selig is Jewish, as are many of the team owners, including the Wilpon and Katz families, owners of the New York Mets. But on the playing field it’s a different story. Of the thousands of major league baseball players over the years, fewer than 200 were Jewish. Sure we had Hank Greenberg the great hitter, and Sandy Koufax the incredible pitcher, who brought pride to Jews everywhere when he would not pitch in the first game of the World Series because it was Yom Kippur. The very fact that we have to go back 50 years to find something in baseball to take pride in says something in itself.
A baseball league started in Israel in 2007. Dan Duquette, who has been General Manager of the Montreal Expos, the Boston Red Sox, and the Baltimore Orioles, was in charge of player development. A number of former major leaguers, including Art Shamsky – a star of the 1969 Miracle Mets – were managers in the league. It folded after just one season. When I asked Art Shamsky if the level of play was equivalent to Class A, the lowest level of minor league baseball in the United States, he said it was not even that high. So when talk about Israel playing in the World Baseball Classic began, no one took it too seriously.
When Israel won the qualifying round for the World Baseball Classic in Brooklyn last September, that raised some eyebrows. But the World Baseball Classic itself would be another story
Undeterred, general manager Peter Kurz and Jerry Weinstein began scouring the ranks of minor league baseball in America to find Jewish ballplayers for Team Israel. The connection of many of the players to Judaism was weak. Few had any kind of religious background. Some are halachically Jewish but were the products of mixed marriages and were actually raised in other faiths. Very few have even visited Israel. Most of the career minor leaguers or players let go by major league teams joined Team Israel with the hope that by gaining some attention from playing on the world stage they might be able to move up to the big leagues or land a contract with another team. The roster included only two familiar names, Jason Marquis, a pitcher who won 15 games for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2004, and Ike Davis, who hit 32 home runs for the Mets in 2012.
When Israel won the qualifying round for the World Baseball Classic in Brooklyn last September, that raised some eyebrows. But the World Baseball Classic itself would be another story. They would be going up against countries with highly successful professional leagues, some of them stacked with top-flight talent from the major leagues here. Going into the tournament, I thought Israel would do well to win a single game.
But something happened along the way. Young men who joined the team hoping to prolong their careers as ballplayers began to embrace the idea of being Jewish ballplayers. They started to learn about their heritage.
For Israel, the first round of the World Baseball Classic would be played in Seoul, South Korea. They would be playing the first game of the tournament against the host team, Korea, a team that has been to the finals of the World Baseball Classic twice and winners of the 2008 Olympic Gold Medal in baseball. The first sign that something very special was about to happen came when the teams lined up for the playing of the national anthems: The players for Israel removed their caps and every one of them was wearing a kippah.
In the second inning, with a runner on first base, Zach Borenstein hit a double to place runners on second and third. A walk to Ryan Lavarnway to load the bases and to Tyler Krieger to force in a run gave Israel a 1-0 lead. Jason Marquis pitched three scoreless innings. Korea tied the game in the fifth inning when Geonchang Seo stroked an RBI single. That was the way it stayed till the top of the tenth inning. With one out, Ike Davis walked. Ryan Lavarnway hit a single and the usually slow-footed Davis went from first to third. The Korean second baseman made a diving stop on a ground ball by Scott Burcham but could not make a play. Pinch runner Mike Myers scored the go-ahead run as Israel took a 2-1 lead. Josh Zeid, with help from Burcham’s catch of a scorching line drive, completed three innings of scoreless relief as Israel defeated Korea 2-1.
Israel wasted no time get things started against Chinese Taipei as the first four batters reached base. Sam Fuld singled, Ty Kelly doubled, Ike Davis hit a two-run single for a 2-0 lead. Nate Freiman and Ryan Lavarnway singled to load the bases. Tyler Krieger’s two-run single gave Israel a 4-0 lead. Ryan Lavarnway’s two-run home run in the third inning made it 6-0. A botched double-play ball set the stage for Chinese Taipei to get back in the game as Chih Sheng Lin hit a two-run double and Yi Chuan Lin hit a sacrifice fly to cut Israel’s lead to 6-3. Israel quickly bounced back in the seventh inning. Davis hit a leadoff triple and Nate Freiman hit an RBI single. With the bases loaded, Tyler Krieger’s RBI single made it 8-3. Burcham’s bunt, which was misplayed for an error, drove in three more runs to make it 11-3. Borenstein’s double and Freiman’s RBI single in the eighth made it 12-3. In the ninth inning, Freiman’s three-run home run made it 15-3. Chinese Taipei scored four runs in the bottom of the ninth to close the gap, but Israel hung on for a 15-7 win.
By the time Israel faced the Netherlands, both teams had clinched spots in the second round. Israel got off to a quick start once again with three runs in the first inning on a Nate Freiman RBI double, a groundout, and Ryan Lavarnway’s RBI single. Israel cruised to a 4-2 win to go undefeated in the first round, winning Pool A.
From Seoul, it was on to Tokyo for the second round and much tougher competition. On Purim day, the players took time out from their pre-game warm-ups to listen as Megillas Esther was read in the dugout. The opposition was Cuba, a team with a long record of dominance in international baseball. The game did not start out well. Alfredo Despaigne’s first inning home run gave Cuba a 1-0 lead. But there was no need to panic. V’nahafoch hu was around the corner. Israel tied the game in the fourth inning when Ike Davis scored on Ryan Lavarnway’s RBI double. In the sixth inning, Zach Borenstein singled in a run for a 2-1 lead, and Blake Griffin added an RBI double to make it 3-1. Cuba threatened, loading the bases in the eighth inning, but Josh Zeid came on in relief to retire the side. Israel got some breathing room in the bottom of the eighth when Borenstein walked, went first to third on Lavarnway’s single, and scored on Burcham’s squeeze bunt. Zeid retired the Cubans in order, in the ninth, to nail down the 4-1 win. It was a very happy Purim.
These extraordinary young men had the wisdom to understand
that they were representing not just the State of Israel
but klal Yisrael – the Jewish People.
They used the moment to proclaim that this is what a Jew is
and this is what a Jew stands for
Unfortunately, Shushan Purim was a very different story. Led by New York Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius who went 3-for-5 with a home run, a double, three runs scored, and five RBIs, the Netherlands avenged their earlier loss by trouncing Israel 12-2.
Israel still has a shot at winning the World Baseball Classic, but the odds are long. To reach the semi-finals, they must beat Japan, a country with a long-time history of baseball excellence and a team with stars from its professional league, in Japan. Should Israel make it to the semi-finals, the odds are that they would face either the United States, the Dominican Republic, or Puerto Rico, all teams loaded with major league all-stars.
But no matter what happens the rest of the way, the players and coaches on Team Israel should hold their heads high. They have gone much further than anyone thought possible. More importantly, they have accomplished something far more important than winning a championship.
Here is where the real Purim miracle comes in. Mordechai could easily have avoided bowing down to Haman by simply walking away when Haman passed by. But for Mordechai walking away was not enough. He was determined to proclaim for all to see that he would not bow down to Haman because he was a Jew. Mordechai epitomized the proud Jew. For this he was known to all as Mordechai HaYehudi – Mordechai the Jew.
I do not mean to equate the players on Team Israel with Mordechai, a tzadik, a talmid chacham, a man who risked his life for what he believed in, and Hashem’s instrument to save the Jewish People at a time of grave danger. But when the players on Team Israel took off their caps to reveal their kippot, they stood before the world as proud Jews.
Wearing a kippah is not one of the taryag mitzvos. It is not even mentioned in the Torah. The word yarmulke comes from yerei malka – one who fears the King. Wearing a kippah is a symbol that we stand in awe of Hashem at all times. In recent years, the kippah has become the symbol of the proud Jew. More specifically, it has become the symbol of the proud Torah-observant Jew.
As these extraordinary young men prepared to play a game on the world stage, they had the wisdom to understand that they stood there representing not just the State of Israel but klal Yisrael – the Jewish People. They used the moment to show the world this is what a Jew is and this is what a Jew stands for.
These were men who displayed team work, camaraderie, perseverance, fair play, and good sportsmanship – and who came to embrace our heritage and to proudly proclaim it to the world. They have accomplished something most of us will strive a lifetime to achieve. They were m’kadeish shem Shamayim b’rabim – the public sanctification of G-d’s name.
Hail to the Champions!