Major League Baseball veteran’s gig as coach in the Holy Land last year is one of the more important lines on his resume
BALTIMORE – Almost from the moment they met him, several officials and players with Israel’s national baseball team said they saw manager Brad Ausmus headed for the major leagues.
They cited his communication skills, command of the game and preparation — not to mention his 18-year playing career as a catcher that included winning three Gold Gloves and reaching the 2005 World Series with the Houston Astros.
“We knew that even though he’d never had any managerial experience, he’d go and be a major league manager,” said Nate Fish, the bullpen catcher for an Israeli squad that came up short in its bid for the World Baseball Classic. “The overall chemistry was at a very, very high level, and Brad was very professional. He created a very good environment in the clubhouse.”
Fish and the others proved prophetic: Ausmus, 44, was introduced Sunday as the manager of the Detroit Tigers, succeeding Jim Leyland.
“I’m very excited about the opportunity to manage the Tigers. This is a very good team, and new managers rarely are handed the reins,” said Ausmus this week to the Times of Israel.
Ausmus joins a short roster of Jews who have managed major league teams, which includes current Oakland Athletics manager Bob Melvin — both have Jewish mothers and non-Jewish fathers. The first was one of the earliest Jewish players, Lipman Pike, an outfielder-infielder who managed the Cincinnati Red Stockings in 1877.
In the WBC qualifiers, Israel won its first two games before being eliminated by Spain in a 10-inning loss.
“Brad did a great job of managing the entire tournament, especially the [elimination] loss, which he handled with dignity and class,” said Gabe Kapler, who coached for Team Israel alongside Ausmus, his former Tigers teammate, and now is a Tampa Bay Rays consultant.
His age and long playing career helped Ausmus earn respect from the Team Israel players, officials and players said.
Ausmus was so refined in his attention to detail, said Peter Kurz, president of the Israel Association of Baseball, that the team practiced keeping on its caps for the playing of “Hatikvah,’ the Israeli national anthem, following Israeli custom.
In assembling the club, Ausmus compiled information on prospective players on his iPad and index cards. His recruiting effort also included calls to scores of candidates, as well as their parents.
His work not only before but during the WBC qualifying “made our team legitimate,” Kurz said. The experience apparently assured Ausmus that his post-playing career inclination was accurate.
“He told me he felt that he was not just the manager, but the general manager — that it was a lot of fun choosing his own players. It gave him the feeling he could do it,” Kurz said.
Though there has been some talk in the media about Ausmus’s lack of experience, the veteran catcher disagrees.
“There’s many levels of qualification to manage a MLB team. I suppose we will find out a year from now if I was qualified or not. In the meantime I have a veteran bench and pitching coach standing beside me in the dugout that I can lean on if necessary,” Ausmus told the Times of Israel this week.
Last year, prior to taking on Israeli baseball, Ausmus had said, “I have experience coaching on the field at both the major and minor league level, and I have done front office work. To be a manager is not a huge shift.”
Ausmus is replacing a successful manager in Leyland, who at 68 was the oldest skipper in baseball. Leyland guided the Tigers to two American League championships in his eight seasons. In 1997, he had managed the Florida Marlins to the World Series crown.
Several members of Leyland’s staff will be staying on with Ausmus, including bench coach Gene Lamont. With Team Israel, Ausmus leaned on Kapler and Shawn Green, both former major league outfielders. It was an arrangement that developed unusually.
At a November 2011 meeting in Cypress, Calif., Kapler peppered team officials with questions, while Green and Ausmus “were very quiet,” Kurz recalled. The three ex-players were offered playing and field leadership roles and asked to select their preferred jobs.
“I thought for sure Gabe would be the manager because he’d managed one year in the minors,” Kurz said.
In a February 2012 conference call, the trio revealed to Israeli baseball officials their division of labor: Ausmus, manager; Green and Kapler, player-coaches.
“From then on, Brad came into his own” on the job, Kurz said.
That May, Ausmus and his wife, Liz, visited Israel, where the new manager ran baseball clinics for children, held a news conference, donned tefillin for the first time and went surfing in Tel Aviv.
Ausmus took great pride in meeting Israeli President Shimon Peres, said the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, who accompanied Ausmus to the meeting.
“Peres is an impressive man. I get the feeling he could slide in to any situation with people of any background and make them feel comfortable,” Ausmus told the Times of Israel last year.
“The opportunity to lead the team struck him as fun and also novel,” Shapiro said of his conversation with Ausmus, who wracked up 1,579 hits — fifth among Jewish players — while playing for four teams in the majors.
Ausmus has stayed in touch with his Team Israel players. He helped pitcher Alon Leichman deal with some mound struggles at California’s Cypress College and wrote letters of recommendation on his behalf when Leichman was transferring to the University of California, San Diego.
“It meant so much that … he really helped me,” said Leichman, one of three Israel-born players on the team – he was raised on Kibbutz Gezer – and now a pitcher at UCSD. “He owed me nothing, so I’m really humbled by it.”
One player on the Israeli team might even rejoin Ausmus in Detroit: Ben Guez, an outfielder for the Tigers’ AAA Toledo club. Three Team Israel members played in the major leagues in 2013: Nate Freiman of the Athletics, the Astros’ Josh Zeid and Josh Satin of the New York Mets.
Leichman already was a Detroit fan because his mother, Rabbi Miri Gold, is a native. But with Ausmus as the Tigers manager, “I’m rooting for them even more,” he said. “Every baseball fan in Israel is now a Tigers fan.”
PALMER, Mass. — Each summer, Camp Ramah in New England (CRNE) brings close to 60 post-army emissaries to serve as bunk counselors and teach in such specialty areas as dance, sports, swimming, nature, woodworking, Hebrew and Jewish Studies, ropes and krav maga. Campers and staff are accustomed to such names as Neta, Ela, Tal, Ofer…
This past summer, however, one young Israeli tennis player, who spent a week at Camp Ramah in Canada, followed by a few days at CRNE, turned a few heads with his unusual first and last name – Fahoum Fahoum. “Fahoum means navon, like your division name, Nivonim, (the wise ones), the young visitor told a packed open-aired tent of 16-year-olds during an evening discussion at the Palmer, Mass. camp. The campers were captivated by Fahoum’s personal story and peppered him with questions about his life in Israel.
Fahoum loved growing up in Haifa. “Growing up as an Arab Muslim in Haifa was very special,” he says. “Haifa is known for its relationship between Arabs and Jews. I am thankful for growing up in Haifa because the environment gave me a better chance to integrate.”
Fahoum and his sister, Nadine Fahoum, were the first Israeli Arabs to attend the Reali School in Haifa. He credits his mother with the idea of sending him to the Israeli Jewish school but notes, “there were many concerns among our friends in the Arab community.”
“I believe the community was worried that the school would not be ready to welcome someone like me,” he recalls. “Along the years, people around saw how the support the Hebrew Reali School gave my sister and me, and how it nurtures its children. They actually became very curious about becoming a part of the Reali family as well.”
Fahoum says both he and his sister received a fine education and a wonderful introduction to tennis through their years at Reali. Nadine went on to play in such tournaments as the Juniors Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Olympics. Fahoum was the number one junior in Israel at age 14. “Tennis is like a language. It is used to communicate with others. It is a common language,” observes Fahoum.
Nadine attended Old Dominion University in Virginia and ultimately transferred to Duke University, where she played #1 on the women’s tennis team. Upon graduation, she went on to work in New York for the Israel Tennis Centers and is currently pursuing graduate studies at New York University.
Fahoum also began his college academic and tennis careers at Old Dominion; then transferred to Quinnipiac University in Hamden, where he played tennis and is pursuing a communications major and business minor. He is interning at the Quinnipiac Alumni Association in the office of Public Affairs and Development. He hopes to attend graduate school at the Yale School of Management.
“I hope to accomplish mutual understanding and future between Arabs and Jews, using sports as a tool for communication,” he says.
During Fahoum’s stint at the two Ramah camps, he did a lot more than teach tennis. Bryan Gerson, head of the sports program at Camp Ramah in New England, observed, “Fahoum adds a professionalism-on and off the courts-with a great personality and a wonderful message of inclusion. Sally Klapper of Stamford, now a junior at Ramaz in Manhattan, called the experience of having an Israeli Arab at camp “eye opening.” “It was interesting to hear from someone who is so completely accepted into Israeli society,” she said.
Bringing an Israeli Arab to a Ramah camp is not an obvious move for an observant, Zionistic Jewish summer camp. Rabbi Mitch Cohen, the National Ramah Director, feels that bringing Nadine Fahoum to three of its eight Ramah camps in the United States and Canada is very important. “Bringing Fahoum to Camp Ramah helps to emphasize the importance of co-existence and tolerance of other people, especially at a time when Jewish-Muslim relations are so sensitive. Through tennis, and the great work of the Israel Tennis Center, Fahoum inspires us with his life story.”
And Fahoum couldn’t be more pleased with his time at Ramah camps. “The visit really made me feel like home. I came to Ramah to learn more about the Jewish community abroad and share some of my experience and future goals with its members. My being in Ramah allowed the camp to have a more complete experience of Israel. After all, Israel is not all Jewish, so my visit helps complete the picture. I hope that after my visit, both campers and staff will have greater confidence in a mutual future between Arabs and Jews.”
Fahoum remains both realistic and hopeful as to the power of sports. “Sports provides a tool for communication,” he notes. “Although Arabs and Jews live next to each other, they have no common language and therefore rarely integrate. Sports is a language in and of itself. Sports provides a common ground for different people from different backgrounds to integrate. Partnerships on the [tennis] court can lead to friendships off of it.”
Fahoum certainly thinks of one day returning home to Israel – but he remains both practical and realistic. “I will go back to Israel when I feel like I received enough support to begin establishing a concrete project back home.”
In many ways, it was just another awesome day at the U.S. Open.
Leander Paes and his partner won the mens’ doubles final; Serena Williams, won the womens’ championship; a boy from Croatia became the junior singles champion, while a 15-year-old with the first name “Tornado,” would narrowly miss an upset win of the junior girls’ championship.
And on courts 7 and 11, equally talented athletes with lesser-known names were also gearing up for two more finals, both in wheelchair tennis. In many ways, wheelchair tennis is just a regular part of the US Open. At the same time, it’s quite extraordinary.
Some background, courtesy of a sign outside court 7: “Wheelchair Tennis began in California in 1976. Since then, it has grown to be played on six of the seven continents and, currently, there are more than 170 tennis tournaments on the wheelchair professional tour. The US Open Wheelchair Competition was established in 2005 … The Men’s and Women’s division athletes have disabilities in their lower extremities only and are classified by gender. Quad division athletes have disabilities in their lower and upper extremities and are classified based on disability, not gender. It is one of the only sports in which you may see men and women competing against each other on equal terms.”
Each wheelchair tennis player has his or her unique story. As a credentialed journalist (I also covered the Open for the Times of Israel), I am lucky enough to learn more about these athletes when I receive a copy of the 2013 U.S. Open Tennis Championship Wheelchair Tennis Competition Media Guide, as well as a supplemental packet of player biographies.
Houdet, who has two sets of twins and a veterinary degree, started to play tennis at the age of 8, then again at the age of 34 – ten years after his motorbike accident. Kuneida played tennis recreationally from ages 11 to 16 and then learned to play wheelchair tennis after becoming paralyzed by spine tumor surgery.
In wheelchair tennis, “preparing,” means transferring from regular wheelchairs to specially designed game chairs (large angled wheels, two small wheels in front, one small wheel in back), checking air in their tires, strapping themselves in to their chairs and putting in mouth guards. While wheelchair tennis has chair umpires, line judges and ball persons, each player has his or her own method of storing balls—in their laps, in a bag behind the chair, or in their spokes.
Court 11 hosted the Quad Singles Final is about to begin, with Lucas Sithole of Johannesburg battling #1 seed David Wagner of the United States. Wagner had been a college tennis player before a water accident 18 years ago.
“Let’s go, Wags!” cheer his buddies, many of them also in wheelchairs. Sithole, who was injured in a railway accident as a child, is “currently the highest ranked triple amputee on the wheelchair tennis rankings.”
The left-hander is an incredible athlete, using his partial right arm to help guide his chair as he races to each ball. Sithole stuns Wagner, upsetting him: 3-6, 6-4, 6-4.
Tennis fans like me returned home that Sunday having experienced quite an impressive scene — one of true inclusion. Tennis has found a way to naturally include athletes who have both disabilities and extraordinary abilities.
I wonder if tennis fans know that wheelchair tennis boasts a unique statistic: Esther Vergeerretired from wheelchair tennis last February with an active singles win streak of 470 matches. The last match she lost was ten years before her retirement, in January, 2003. Now, that’s an athlete we can all strive to emulate.