BROOKLYN – The mood at MCU Park an hour before the first pitch of Sunday night’s World Baseball Classic Qualifier final was so relaxed one might not know it was the “do-or-die” game for Israel and Great Britain. As the evening went on, the significance of the outcome was clear to all: The loser was going home, while the winner would earn a trip to South Korea in March for Pool B of the 2017 World Baseball Classic.
Peter Kurz, CEO of the Israel Association of Baseball, was smiling and schmoozing with Daniel Kurtzer in the stands as the former US Ambassador to Israel and current Princeton professor prepared to throw out the first pitch.
Team Israel player RC Orlan, the 26-year-old left-handed pitcher for the Potomac Nationals was chatting with his father, Adam Orlan, and grandmother, who came up from Richmond, Virginia, to watch their son play.
“I am very proud of Team Israel,” said Adam Orlan. “It has been a fun experience.”
Autograph seekers of all ages lined up near the blue-and-white dugout for signatures – with former New York Mets first baseman Ike Davis the clear crowd favorite. Davis patiently signed well over fifty autographs. Both the young fans and their parents were quite appreciative and thankful.
Cody Decker, the third baseman and chief kibitzer, kept order. When a fan requested an autograph from Decker, who was having a catch with a teammate, he playfully remarked, “Don’t be greedy. I already signed for you… give me a minute!”
Some experienced older fans came with photos in plastic sleeves in three-ring binders. Who knows who the next star be? Howard Kaplan of Medford, Long Island, was in search of 21-year-old left-handed pitcher Alex Katz, currently of the minor league Winston-Salem Dash.
“I’m a fan, a collector and I’m Jewish so I figured I’d come down. I travel all over for autographs!”
No one was talking about the game yet.
As the 6 p.m. start time approached, loyal fans began settling into their spots.
Daniel Weiss of Brooklyn, who regularly sits in the first row on first base side for Brooklyn Cyclones home games, was celebrating his birthday at the ballgame. He and a friend were both wearing Cyclones jerseys written in Hebrew. Weiss readied his drumsticks and cowbell on a stand.
Sixteen-year-old Rina Koegen, a student at the Prospect Yeshiva in Brooklyn, had so much fun at Thursday’s game that she brought her mother along today.
“I don’t even know who I took pictures of!” remarked her mom, who planned to figure out who is who when she gets home. “My daughter was never a baseball fan, but she is so into it,” she continued.
“I love rooting for Israel,” added Rina with great excitement, “My brother and I waved pom-poms the other night and made up cheers for each player!”
Weiss had some sense of the game’s importance.
“My brother lives in Israel and is going to a friend’s house at 1 a.m. to watch it live. Team Israel playing in the World Baseball Classic is good for Israel and baseball in Israel.”
Adam Orlan also understands what tonight means for his son and for Team Israel.
“If they win, I am buying tickets and going to South Korea!”
“You know what – I just might go too!” adds RC’s elderly grandmother.
The small crowd of 2,016 crowd remained subdued through 41/2 scoreless innings.
In section two, a fan blurted out, “Some runs before Rosh Hashanah.”
His words were prophetic as they were followed by a pair of two-run homers for Israel in the four-run bottom of the fifth inning. As the blue-and-white racked up one run in the sixth and seventh and three in the eighth, the fans began to grasp the momentous nature of the game.
Manager Jerry Weinstein was very aware of the significance of the evening. He brought in Israeli-born Dean Kremer to pitch in the ninth. Kremer was the first Israeli drafted by a Major League Baseball team, when was chosen in 2015 by the San Diego Padres. In the 2016 MLB draft, Kremer was picked in the 14th round by the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the20-year-old played the 2016 season with the Great Lakes Loons, a Dodgers affiliate.
The fans of sections 10 and 12 were on their feet. Kremer struck out the first batter, then gave up a single up the middle. Then another strike out. And amid chants of “od echad – one more,” Kremer struck out the side to end the contest.
The crowd goes wild, waving flags, chanting and singing. Father and son Alex and Allen Golden were proud.
“It is not just a victory for Team Israel,” notes Alex. “It is a victory for all Jews! We have a responsibility to care for each other and to celebrate happy occasions together.”
Allen understands the significance of Israel winning the qualifiers.
“International baseball is getting more competitive. Israel deserves a pat on the back for winning today.”
Liam Carrol, manager of Team Great Britain praised Israeli pitcher, Jason Marquis.
“He was outstanding. He kept our guys off balance.”
The Israeli players struggled to put in to words what winning the tournament meant to them.
“Today was real emotional for a lot of us. Today was special. Today was perfect,” observed third baseman, Decker, who unveiled a stuffed “Mensch on the Bench” doll he felt was partially responsible for the team’s exceptional performance.
Catcher Ryan Lavarnway thought it was “cool to see all the kids out there in the stands with their yarmulkes on, cheering for Jews on the field.”
Weinstein hopes Israel’s win will heighten awareness of baseball in Israel and lead to even greater participation, more fields and coaches. He would welcome the opportunity to bring the team to Israel if funding is available.
He hopes to bring most of his current team to South Korea, even if he has the option to recruit major leaguers who weren’t available to play in September (due to pennant races) but might be available in March.
“I feel loyal to the group of guys who got us here and we have an obligation to a lot of them.”
Did Team Israel think it could pull it off tonight and avenge the defeat in the 2012 qualifier final against Spain?
Pitcher Shlomo Lipetz, a member of the 2012 team, thought they could. As he walked to the bullpen for the start of the game, we reminisced on having met four years ago at City Winery in New York City, site of his day job.
Lipetz smiled and quietly uttered, “I think we got it this time!”
He was right. Israel is off to South Korea!