Original Article at The Jerusalem Post

Mental coach Justine Siegal and IAB exec Margo Sugarman help blue-and-white contend in the World Baseball Classic.

BROOKLYN – When Team Israel lines up along first-base side at the start of each World Baseball Classic Qualifier game, fans tend to notice the long hair of the player with the No. 15 jersey.

While pitcher Shlomo Lipetz (No. 12) has long black hair, it is the long blonde hair which gets the most attention.

On closer inspection, No. 15 is actually a woman! Coach Justine Siegal is one of two women helping lead Team Israel to victory in the WBC Qualifier tournament in Brooklyn which saw Israel play Great Britain in Sunday night’s final for a spot in the main draw of the World Baseball Classic next year in South Korea.

Siegal, invited by Manager Jerry Weinstein to serve as mental coach for Team Israel, has a very impressive sports resume as a player, coach, academic and champion for female participation in baseball.

Siegal has a PhD in sports psychology, and she is the founder of Baseball for All,an organization which provides opportunities for girls to participate in baseball In 2009, Siegal also became the first woman to be hired as a coach at any professional level when she served as firstbase coach for the independent baseball team, the Brockton Rox. Siegal is the first woman to throw batting practice for a Major League Baseball team, a feat she accomplished first in 2015 with the Oakland Athletics, and with several teams since including the Tampa Bay Rays, St.

Louis Cardinals, Houston Astros, and New York Mets.

The road to baseball coaching was not always smooth. Siegal grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland playing baseball, attending Cleveland Indians baseball games with her season ticket-holding grandfather and discussing baseball around the dinner table. Siegal loved the sport and imagined she’d be involved in baseball forever.

At age 13, around the time she celebrated her bat mitzva in Israel, Siegal encountered her first obstacle. A coach told her she couldn’t play baseball, as girls play softball.

“That’s when I decided that I’d play baseball forever,” wrote Siegal in an essay on The Player’s Tribune website “When I was 16,” wrote Siegal, “I told one of my baseball coaches that I wanted to be a college coach. He laughed at me and said, ‘A man would never listen to a woman on the baseball field.’ That one was pretty devastating. But then I thought, who is he? Who is he to say what men would do? Who is he to say that I couldn’t pursue this dream? And that’s when I decided I needed to get that PhD because I wasn’t going to get the same playing opportunities as men. But I could at least out-degree most of them.”

Siegal noted that “I got my PhD to make me a better coach.”

Manager Jerry Weinstein took notice and invited her to help Team Israel.

“I am a safe resource for all to come to,” Siegal observed to The Jerusalem Post, before returning to her additional duties on the field pitching batting practice and helping coach Weinstein hit fungos to outfielders. “It is so special to come together for these ten days here with players who all have a common bond.”

Siegal is among the members of Team Israel who strongly identifies as a Jew, and who has visited the Holy Land.

“I am Jewish, I had my bat mitzva in Israel, my daughter had her bat mitzva in Israel, and four generations of my family has visited Israel,” she said. “I am so proud when I wear ‘Israel’ on my chest.”

Siegal is proud of her accomplishments in baseball but acknowledges that her goals is to not be the only woman in baseball.

Margo Sugarman is another important female member of Team Israel, who can also be seen on the field during pre-game warm ups.

Sugarman, Secretary-General of the Israel Association of Baseball (IAB), moves quickly on the field with her camera in tow photographing players and meeting with members of the media and MLB personnel. The South African-born, 27 year resident of Israel has her own unique “woman in baseball” story.

“I got involved when my son started playing baseball at age eight,” said Sugarman to the Post.

Sugarman expected to be “just a baseball mom,” but she was soon recruited to be a coach. “Luckily, the coach coached me to be a coach. Next thing I knew, I was doing an umpire course!” Before she knew it, Sugarman was managing Israeli teams as they played in Italy and other European countries.

She served as a board member for The Israel Association of Baseball and was recently elected the organization’s secretary- general.

Sugarman is proud of Team Israel and of the growth of baseball in Israel.

“Nearly 1,000 people play baseball in Israel,” she said. “We have many leagues, send about five teams a year to play overseas, and we offer Baseball Le’Kulam (Baseball for All), a program that aims to bring Jewish Israeli and Arab Israeli children together to play baseball and learn about one another.”

This week, Sugarman is focusing her attention on Team Israel. And, naturally, she feels a sense of pride.

“They only came together last Saturday,” she said. “They are all happy they are playing for Israel, they talk like a team and relate to each other as a team. It is such an incredible atmosphere!” And, while Sugarman is excited about the team’s prospects to advance to the 2017 World Baseball Classic, she has more modest goals. “I hope they will increase awareness of baseball in Israel – and have fun!” Peter Kurz, CEO of the Israel Association of Baseball, is proud of Siegal and Sugarman.

“Justine and Margo have been very important elements for this WBC team,” he said. “Justine, as the mental coach of the team, has helped keep the guys on an even keel, and Margo, as the head of PR and communications, has helped keep us in the news on a continuous basis in all different types of media. Both women are ground-breakers and they have both contributed significantly to our success.”

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Original Article at The Jerusalem Post

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!

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Original Article published at The Jerusalem post

How is a World Baseball Classic Qualifier game featuring Israel and Great Britain playing at MCU Park in Brooklyn different from a typical Major League Baseball game?

Thursday night’s Israel vs Great Britain WBC game featured three national anthems and two first pitch ceremonies, and a robust Maariv minyan after the third inning with scenic views of the Coney Island cyclone, Nathan’s Hot Dogs and the fifty person-long kosher food line.

Fans draped in Israeli flags chanted “Let’s Go Israel!” – and greeted friends from summer camp, youth group and the neighborhood. Of course there were also fans cheering for Team Great Britain – mostly sitting in section three.

Team Israel received special Shabbat accommodations – they played both Thursday night and Friday at noon to avoid a potential play-on-Shabbat issue. With both games ending in victory, the blue-andwhite will play in Sunday night’s final with a berth in the WBC main draw on the line.

Welcome to the Qualifiers of the World Baseball Classic double elimination tournament.

One team – Israel, Great Britain, Brazil or Pakistan will advance to Pool B in the first round of the 2017 World Baseball Classic taking place March 7-10, 2017 in Seoul, South Korea.

It is not so easy to get to MCU Park in Coney Island, along the Atlantic Ocean, at the tip of Brooklyn.

Fans battling rush-hour traffic and a 90-minute commute from Manhattan exited the N and Q subway trains at Stillwell Station in Coney Island, affectionately marked “Last Stop.”

My train car coincidentally included Michael Zalta, the Yeshiva of Flatbush graduate selected to sing the US national anthem. Some groups in attendance Thursday night included Yachad-National Council for Jewish Disabilities, Solomon Schechter of Westchester, Manhattan Day School, Yeshiva University, USY and the choir of Yeshiva of Flatbush, who sang Hatikvah. No one seemed to mind the long security lines and extra police presence outside of MCU Park.

Once inside, fans experienced baseball with a few surprises.

Jeremy Posner, attending with wife Paulette and three sons – Harry (10), Jacob (8), and Isaac (5) – was moved when the players on team Israel removed their caps for the national anthems to reveal blue Team Israel yarmulkes on the heads of each player and coach.

Steven Cohen, vice president of the Single-A Brooklyn Cyclones of the New York-Penn League, and affiliated with the New York Mets, is pleased that Major League Baseball felt that MCU Park would be the perfect venue for the World Baseball Classic.

Making his way around the stadium, speaking with fans and watching from many vantage points, Cohen could hardly contain his excitement.

“The event is exciting, it is well-received and it is great for baseball.”

Two old friends sitting five rows behind home plate, Seth Golob and Joe Orenstein have enjoyed playing sports together since their days as campers at Camp Ramah.

“Playing in a game like this has always been a childhood fantasy. Having a chance to see Team Israel play is amazing,” said Golob.

Friday’s noon game for Israel vs Brazil game offered Jewish day schools a unique opportunity to come out and cheer on the blue-and-white.

Magen David Yeshivah in Brooklyn attended with 350 students. School principal Rabbi Alan Berkowitz saw the game as “an opportunity to fully enjoy the great American pastime at its best while connecting with Medinat Yisrael.”

While the Posner children, sporting Team Israel hats, were enjoying Team Israel’s Thursday night comeback victory, the Posner parents realized the homework they had packed for the ballpark was not yet completed.

By the time they arrived to their subway stop in Manhattan, two of three boys were asleep in their parents’ arms. They still made it to school on time Friday morning.

When Israel plays in the final on Sunday night, expect five Posners in section 3, row C, with all their homework already done!

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Original Article Published at The Jerusalem Post

When the going gets tough, the coach stays calm. Even during a heart-breaking loss for Yshai Oliel in the junior boys’ doubles semifinals at the US Open, coach Jan Pochter appeared relaxed.

Pochter accompanied the 16-year-old Israeli tennis player to New York for his week of juniors’ singles and doubles play at the US Open.

Pochter sat in the stands and maintained eye contact with Oliel.

Pochter studied each point Oliel played in his singles and doubles matches. Pochter will bring his thoughtful analysis and insight back to Israel and use it in his work to help bring him to the next level of play.

During their week in New York, Pochter watched Oliel come back from one set down in both the first and second rounds, even taking out the tournament’s second seed.

Pochter calmly watched Oliel receive a medical timeout to treat his leg early in his third round singles loss to No. 13 seed Nicola Kuhn.

And Pocther calmly watched as Oliel won two pulse-raising doubles matches in a super tiebreaker.

Fridays’ later afternoon doubles semifinals match against Juan Carlos Manuel Aguilar of Bolivia and Felipe Meligeni Rodrigues Alves of Brazil was the ultimate testament to Pochter’s calm demeanor.

The doubles teams battled to a 4-4 tie in the first set on the way to a 6-4 Oliel/Bergs win.

In the second set, Oliel and Bergs’ 3-2 lead faded as their opponents battled back to a 6-6 tie, and crushed Oliel and Bergs 7-1 in the tiebreaker.

Pochter never flinched. Even trailing in the 10-point super tiebreaker 5-0, then 6-0, then 7-0, Pochter’s only response was a reassuring, “Fight ’til the end.” The end was near.

Aguilar and Alves won 10-2 to advance to the finals. Oliel, who won this year’s Roland Garros junior doubles title in June, left New York for Israel late Saturday night.

Pochter was doing double duty at this year’s US Open.

He also filled in for coach Tzipi Obziler. Oblizer was unable to coach Israeli junior girls’ player, Shelly Krolitzky through her two doubles qualifying matches and her US Open main draw singles and doubles matches.

Krolitzky returned to Israel on Friday.

For a coach, tournaments like the US Open are learning opportunities.

“The tournament was a good experience for Yshai,” said Pochter. “I think he learned that he needs to get stronger physically and mentally and to improve all parts of his game. If he does, he has a chance to become a very good player. We look forward to him playing on the professional level. I think he can do it.”

Pochter was impressed with Yshai’s performance and partially credits the Israeli and Jewish crowd who consistently filled the stands.

“The US Open is one of the best places to play. The atmosphere is amazing.”

Oliel, the tall, hard hitting left-hander with solid ground strokes and serve, showed the New York crowd how much potential he has.

Unlike the biblical Samson, who lost his strength after his hair was cut, Oliel seems to get only stronger post coiffing.

And Yshai’s motives for cutting his signature long hair were more earnest than in the Samson story.

“I cut it because one of my sister’s told me it is too long and I need to be more like a man. I donated it for children with cancer,” said Oliel.

Yshai is the youngest of five Oliel children.

While coach Pochter may have some specific areas for Oliel to focus on, he is not likely to address an area in need of improvement which was very obvious to members of the media. The sweet, modest player of humble roots could use some media training.

After he took out No. 2 seed and spoke to The Jerusalem Post and Haaretz journalists, another four writers, including US Open staff reporters, requested a press conference.

While Oliel was pleasant and cooperative, and his English was quite good, he didn’t have much to offer. He answered all questions, but didn’t elaborate, share or come across as full of life and great stories.

A trusted writer colleague present at the interview shared: “He could use some media coaching.”

Oliel will likely continue on a path of tennis success and will represent Israel tennis and Israel in many venues around the world.

The David Squad, ITA and various top coaches are working on his game.

I would love to see English speakers with media training reach out to Yshai and volunteer to help him get to the next level.”

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