Original Article in JNS:

There is a moving, somewhat entertaining scene in the recently released film “Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel” where Moshe Abutbul, the mayor of Bet Shemesh, invites the 10 visiting American baseball players from Team Israel and their significant others to help him dig a hole in the ground on the site of a future baseball field and stadium. He shares that in the Chassidic tradition, “If you want something to grow, you plant seeds.” Hopeful that the team’s success and baseball’s popularity in Israel will continue to grow, he and the Team Israel players “plant” a fresh white baseball in the ground.

Judging from film footage showing the enthusiastic reception and request for autographs the rock-star-like players received all over Israel—and from the from the cheers of the audience that packed the Marlene Meyerson JCC in Manhattan for the New York premier of the 85-minute film—Team Israel and Israel baseball are off to a great start.

The crowd came to relive the story of Team Israel’s dramatic, if not miraculous, run in the World Baseball Classic—from winning the Qualifiers in Coney Island, N.Y., in September 2016 through its perfect record in Round 1 in Seoul in March 2017, to their games in Tokyo in Round 2. They also came to hear about their life-changing, 10-dayBirthright-style trip to Israel in January 2017 and to catch a glimpse (and maybe get an autograph) from some of their Jewish baseball heroes.

Some came clad in Team Israel blue-and-white hats and shirts. (One fan made a beeline in the JCC entranceway for team CEO Peter Kurz to ask him if Atlanta Braves pitcher Max Fried is Jewish. Kurz proceeded to tell him he was, and that he was a member of the gold-medal-winning 2009 Maccabiah Games Team USA Juniors baseball team).

Others wore New York Mets gear in honor of former New York Met and current Team Israel player (in attendance) Ike Davis. At least one father and son carried white baseballs in anticipation of autographs during the celebratory rooftop reception.

‘Celebrating the team’s victories in real time’

The film begins with Kurz and assistant general manager Margo Sugarman combing through birth, circumcision and wedding documents as they attempt to verify the “Jewishness” of potential players for Team Israel. Under the Heritage Rule, to represent a country a player need only be eligible for citizenship of that country. For this reason, nearly the entire team is comprised of American players—most with a tenuous connection to Jewish religion and culture. The experience of playing for Team Israel and visiting Israel (for the 10 men who went) was transformative.

The film includes footage of all of Team Israel’s World Baseball Classic games, but mostly focuses on the trip to Israel (starting with the flight on casino mogul Sheldon Adelson’s private plane). The story is told through the eyes of Josh Zeid, Ike Davis, Ty Kelly, Sam Fuld, and the always colorful and funny Cody Decker. Audience members quietly spoke to seatmates as familiar sites such as the Dead Sea, Masada, Yad Vashem, the Western Wall and the Arab shuk in Jerusalem appeared on the screen. The filmmakers captured scenes of the players doing karaoke, watching belly dancers and buying shirts of their former or current Major League teams—written in Hebrew.

Following the film, MLB’s sportswriter Jonathon Mayo moderated a question-and-answer session. Panelists included all three directors—Daniel Miller, Jeremy Newberger and Seth Kramer—in addition to Kurz, Davis and Israeli-born pitcher Shlomo Lipetz. Mayo noted some in attendance who were connected to the team, including Jeff Aeder, a restaurant owner from Chicago, founder of and team supporter; Nate Fish, the team’s first-base coach; and Dan Rootenberg, the strength and conditioning coach, and so-called “Mensch on the Bench” (aka the team’s mascot and inspiration).

The filmmakers, who have been friends since their days as campers in Young Judea, spoke about their experiences and observations. Miller noted that “it is incredible how articulate they are. We all went to camp and experienced our spiritual metamorphosis in our teens. These guys were playing baseball and went through it later in life—through experiencing anti-Semitism and from feeling disconnected.”

Davis spoke movingly in the film about conducting family history of his non-Jewish father and Jewish mother. He noted that he could go back five or more generations on his father’s side, but barely a generation on his mother’s side, as most were killed during the Holocaust. “The trip to Israel was a learning process, a spiritual journey,” he said. “We were representing family members killed for being Jewish.”

Lipetz, who was on Team Israel’s 2013 and 2017 teams, described playing baseball for the Jewish state as “the best experience I’ve ever had on a personal level.” Prior to the screening, he told JNS that he recently got to see teammate Jeremy Bleich pitch for the Nashville Sound. “I wish more guys [from the team] were still playing ball—that’s the nature of the beast.”

During the JCC’s rooftop after-party, with music by American Jewish rapper Kosha Dillz (his song, “Jews With Bats,” is featured in the film), Miller and Kurz opened up about the experience. Miller said he is delighted that the “response to the film has been electric,” with people “celebrating the team’s victories in real time.” He was also shocked to learn of the large number of Jews who didn’t know anything about Israel playing in the World Baseball Classic. He acknowledging being moved watching the players traveling to Israel for the first time: “They came in with negative experiences and returned with great pride.”

Kurz said he’s pleased with the team’s success and its impact on baseball in Israel. He reported a 30 percent increase in Israeli children playing baseball since the World Baseball Classic. The film continues to play to enthusiastic crowds in Israel. And Kurz is looking to the future, saying “five WBC players are working on making aliyah through Nefesh B’Nefesh. They are looking forward to helping Israel baseball in its quest for the Olympic qualifiers.” Kurz went on to explain the complicated process of qualifying for the Olympics and noted enthusiastically that “Israel loves the Olympics! If they qualify, it will be the first time since Montreal in 1976 when Israel qualified for a team sport.” He also noted that only six teams will make it there.

Perhaps the baseball planted deep in the ground in Beit Shemesh will bear fruit in time for Tokyo 2020, so Israel can have a rematch against Team Japan.

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Original Article Published On The Jerusalem Post

The blue-and-white is moving its way to the top.

Israel made the biggest jump in the World Baseball Softball Confederation World Rankings in 2017, advancing from No. 41 to No. 19.

The blue-and-white defeated four Top 10 nations – Chinese Taipei, Cuba, Korea and Netherlands – in its World Baseball Classic debut in March of last year.

Team Israel ended the WBC with a 4-2 record, reaching the last eight of the tournament. Israel registered three consecutive victories in Pool A in Seoul, South Korea to advance to the second round in Tokyo.

The blue-and-white then beat Cuba, before losing to the Netherlands and Japan, who both went on to progress to the semifinals.

Elsewhere, first-time winner of the World Baseball Classic, the United States moved to within 321 points of top-ranked Japan, cutting the lead by 450 points. USA Baseball National Teams are the current title holders of three WBSC World Championships: U-12 Baseball World Cup, U-18 Baseball World Cup and World Baseball Classic.

The absence of the US in the first two editions of the U-23 Baseball World Cup (2014 and 2016) has been significant, with Japan, the current U-23 world champion, maintaining the No. 1 ranking by earning 1,236 points in these two events.

Baseball’s world rankings weigh a country’s national team performance in WBSC-sanctioned international competitions (from U-12 to Professional) over a four-year period. Points earned from the 2013 WBC have expired.

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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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