Danny valencia

Original Article Published on The JNS

For Team Israel and members of the media who spent three tense, very exciting nights at Maimonides Park in Coney Island, N.Y., back in September 2016, July 11 was a true homecoming.

Team Israel played a Sunday afternoon game against the FDNY (Fire Department of New York) in Brooklyn, N.Y.—at the same stadium as the miracle games of 2016—before embarking on a series of exhibition games on the East Coast that will then see them fly to Tokyo to compete in the Summer Olympic Games. Israel will face Japan, Mexico, South Korea, the United States and the Dominican Republic. While their medal chances are uncertain, the 24 players on the Olympic roster could not be more excited.

In 2016, nobody took Team Israel seriously as they played in the World Baseball Classic qualifiers. That began to change after they defeated Great Britain once and Brazil twice, and advanced to “Pool A” in South Korea in March 2017 against South Korea, Taiwan and the Netherlands.

Team Israel proceeded to battle through the World Baseball Classic and won the 2019 European Baseball Championship. By finishing in the top five, Israel earned the right to participate in the 2020 Olympics qualifiers. As the winner of that tournament, Team Israel qualified to be one of six national teams to compete in the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, however, the 2020 Olympics were postponed to July 2021, where, being that COVID remains an issue in Japan, they will largely take place without fans and with players living in a bubble reminiscent of the NBA bubble in Florida in 2020.

Nevertheless, July 11 was a day for nostalgia and celebration for the journey and for what Team Israel represents for Israel and the Jewish people. The 12 pitchers, three catchers, six infielders and three outfielders are mainly American-born players of Jewish descent, although there are some native-born Israelis on the team. In order to represent a country in the Olympics, a player must be citizen of that country; thus, all members of Team Israel hold citizenship. Some are former Major Leaguer Baseball players with extensive MLB or Minor League experience.

Team Israel (again) playing at Maimonides Park in Coney Island, N.Y., on July 11, 2021. Photo by Howard Blas.

‘Crazy, rewarding, hard, fun, tough’

Pitcher Shlomo Lipetz, 42, was born in Tel Aviv, played college baseball in the United States and has been affiliated with Israel baseball for more than 30 years. At the World Baseball Qualifiers in 2017, the right-handed pitcher was the only native Israeli on the team.

Baseball and Team Israel have helped keep him focused throughout the pandemic. “The fact that I just keep playing the game kept me really sane while doing my day job,” he says.

Lipetz is vice president of programming for City Winery. He says he is proud of how far Team Israel has come since 2017. “It is no longer the underdog mentality—that we are just happy to be here. With the help of some of the big league guys, folks like Ian [Kinsler] and Danny [Valencia], I think that really helped change our mentality to something of ‘we belong here, and we can make some noise!’ ”

Pitcher Josh Zeid, 34, has played for the Houston Astros and is currently working for the Chicago Cubs in Phoenix, where he is the rehabilitation pitching coordinator. He also pitched for Team Israel at the 2017 World Baseball Classic, where he was named to the 2017 All-World Baseball Classic Team.

At the end of the WBC, Zeid thought his baseball career was over. As he looks back on the past four years, he says “it has been crazy, rewarding, hard, fun, tough, but it is crazy. We are standing here today in Brooklyn. Four years ago, we were all here. I thought my career was over at the end of the season. We had a swan song starting in Brooklyn; it is pretty surreal, pretty special.”

The right-handed pitcher uses a bright-blue mitt with the expression “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” inscribed in Hebrew. “My grandfather died six months ago, and these were his last words to me,” he reveals.

Zeid pitched the second inning of the FDNY game and struck out all three batters. “I am honored to play for Team Israel in the Olympics,” he says. “It’s a lifelong dream come true. I feel I have been blessed. Just putting in the work and care and effort to making sure this one comes true as well.”

Pitcher Joey Wagman, 29, was also all fired up to return to Brooklyn as part of Team Israel. Drafted by the Chicago White Sox in the 17th round of 2013 draft, he recalls, “The last time I was here was five years ago for the qualifiers, so it definitely brings back a lot of memories.”

Wagman did not play in 2020, though he resumed training with Team Israel teammate, Zach Weiss, when both lived in Southern California.

“I used the time to refine some things in my movement and delivery and shore up my mental game,” he relates. Over the past three months, Wagman has played professional baseball in the Czech Republic. “It was a different pace of baseball. After an 18-month layoff, it was a decent, relaxed environment, where I could control pitch counts and innings, and it served its purpose as prep for the Olympics.”

Of the opportunity to reunite with his teammates, Wagman says: “It has been years since I’ve seen all these guys—being together brings back so many good memories. There have been so many good memories with Team Israel in the past five years.”

‘We need to start playing some good baseball’

Danny Valencia is arguably Team Israel’s most accomplished player. Valencia, 36, has played for eight Major League teams, and had 795 hits and 95 home runs in 3,000-plus plate appearances. He says he is looking forward to representing Israel in Tokyo. “It is a really cool experience, and it is going to be an awesome memory for all of us.”

Valencia also knows what being in the Olympics will take, noting that “we need to start playing some good baseball.”

Valencia knows this Olympics will feel different due to COVID precautions. “Obviously, we will be in a bubble. There will not be many fans at the games, but it should be an amazing experience. We will be around a lot of great athletes. And we’re there to handle the job but also to enjoy the experience.”

Ben Wanger, 23, a right-handed pitcher, also serves as a designated hitter. His parents, David and Gwen Wanger—both clothed in “Wanger” jerseys—traveled from Newton, Mass., to Brooklyn and watched their son from behind the Team Israel dugout. While they’re unable to attend the Olympics in Tokyo, they dream of the day they will be able to visit Israel for the first time—and celebrate what they hope will be a medal for Team Israel.

Whether Israel ultimately wins gold, silver or bronze, the Wangers are practically glowing over the accomplishments of their son and his teammates—and of what the experience has done for everyone’s Jewish identity.

“The experience for these players, especially American Jews who made aliyah, has been incredibly enriching,” says David Wanger. “They are so much more attuned to their heritage, and they feel incredibly connected to Israel and to the Jewish people.”

The Wangers and the good-sized observant Jewish crowd that showed up in Brooklyn are praying that the miracle of Team Israel will continue. The team is off to a promising start with a 12-3 victory over New York’s bravest: the FDNY. Israel scored an impressive 12 runs on 15 hits, with the first run at the top of the sixth.

Team Israel in Brooklyn, N.Y., on July 11, 2021, before they are off to the Tokyo Olympics. Photo by Howard Blas.

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Original Article Published On The Jewish News Syndicate

His career has included nearly 3,000 at bats, 795 hits, 95 home runs, 397 runs batted in and a lifetime batting average of .268. He now adds member of Team Israel, Israeli citizen and Olympian to his list of accomplishments.

For most parents, having a son play on a Major League Baseball team would be a dream come true. For Danny Valencia’s parents, it isn’t quite enough.

Though proud of his baseball career, which has included playing on eight Major League teams and Team Israel, they also want him to finish his college degree—and to join them for Rosh Hashanah dinner one year. The Valencias are almost batting three for three.

Danny Valencia is well known to baseball fans in the United States and in Israel. The 35-year-old—drafted in the 19th round by the Minnesota Twins in 2006—made his Major League debut with the Twins in 2010 and then played for them, the Boston Red Sox, Baltimore Orioles (twice!), Kansas City Royals, Toronto Blue Jays, Oakland Athletics and Seattle Mariners.

His impressive career has included nearly 3,000 at bats, 795 hits, 95 home runs, 397 runs batted in and a lifetime batting average of .268.

Valencia can now add member of Team Israel, Israeli citizen and Tokyo 2020 Olympian to his list of accomplishments.

But he cannot (at least, not yet) add college graduate to his credentials.

Valencia began his studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where he was Southern Conference Freshman of the Year and second-team all-conference. He transferred to the University of Miami, which was closer to his home and family in Boca Raton, Fla. He took a leave from college when he was drafted by the Twins in 2006.

“I promised my parents I would finish my degree—that was 14 years ago,” says the 35-year-old.

Danny Valencia, Baltimore Orioles vs. Kansas Royals, May 9, 2018. Credit: Keith Allison via Wikimedia Commons.
Danny Valencia, Baltimore Orioles vs. Kansas Royals, May 9, 2018. Credit: Keith Allison via Wikimedia Commons.

Valencia has been making good on his promise. He is taking four online courses this semester and has seven more courses to complete before earning a degree from the University of Miami.

While he has had a lot on his mind these past five weeks, including making aliyah and traveling with Team Israel to Germany and Italy, he managed to devote time to his online courses. “My family can’t believe it. I have his work ethic!” he jokes, adding that, as he has gotten older, he has gotten better at managing his time and schedule.

‘Playing for more than ourselves’

The move towards permanent Israeli residency has also taught Valencia to be better at managing bureaucracy.

“It was a long process and a lot of hoops to jump through, but it makes sense,” reports Valencia, who along teammates Ty Kelly, Nick Rickles and Ben Wanger became Israeli citizens under Israel’s Law of Return. “There was paperwork, interviews, FBI checks, marriage certificates, postiles, rabbi letters and more. It was a tedious process, but without that, there would be no passport, and we wouldn’t be Israeli citizens. I am happy I did it.”

In between trips to the Interior Ministry, Valencia and his fellow teammates toured their new homeland. They traveled to Jerusalem and to the Dead Sea; they went to Yad Vashem. Valencia makes it a point to say that he was struck by Israel in general, which was followed days later by a trip to Germany.

“It was my first trip to both,” he says. “Yad Vashem was really emotional for all of us. In Germany, we realized it [the Holocaust] all originated here.” Valencia felt the experience taught that “we are playing for more than ourselves.”

With the Boston Red Sox vs. the Baltimore Orioles, Sept. 28, 2012. Credit: Keith Allison via Wikimedia Commons.
With the Boston Red Sox vs. the Baltimore Orioles, Sept. 28, 2012. Credit: Keith Allison via Wikimedia Commons.

He and his teammates feel that an important part of their mission is to “inspire Israeli kids and to inspire a generation of Jewish athletes. “There are not so many Jewish athletes,” he acknowledges. In Israel, they have led baseball clinics for young ballplayers and found time to work out, even getting “a guy to pitch batting practice.”

Their hard work paid off.

Team Israel stunned the world with their performance, finishing in the top five in the 2019 European Baseball Championship and earning the right to participate in the 2020 Olympics qualifiers. As the winner of that tournament, Israel qualified for the first of the six spots in teams to compete in the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Valencia batted .375 in the Olympic qualifying tournament, leading the tournament in runs (7), home runs (3), RBIs (9), walks (5) and slugging percentage (1.000). He also hit a three-run homer in his final at-bat at the tournament in Parma, Italy. That wound up giving Israel a 10-run lead over South Africa.

In assessing his family’s reaction to his decision to become an Israeli citizen and play for Team Israel, Valencia reports: “My family was shocked, but they were supportive. They thought it was cool. They were blown away by my effort.”

‘Electricity in the air’

He had been following Team Israel for years, but his Major League responsibilities always precluded his participation on the team. When he realized that he would not be with a Major League team in the summer of 2019, playing for Team Israel became a possibility.

“I had been staying in good shape, and I reached out [to team president Peter Kurz] and said I would be interested in taking part,” he relates. “I joke that it was the best front-office decision he had ever made.”

Seriously, Valencia reports, “I loved it. It was a great group of guys, and I am grateful for the experience.”

And he enjoys the Jewish and Israel touches. “On Friday nights, we had Shabbat dinner with prayers, toasts and breaking bread with the boys.” He is also moved by the pre-game playing of “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem. “We kept our hats on for our national anthem—to show that God is above. We took our hats off for the national anthems of the other countries.”

With the Oakland Athletics vs. the Baltimore Orioles, Aug. 17, 2015. Credit: Keith Allison via Wikimedia Commons.
With the Oakland Athletics vs. the Baltimore Orioles, Aug. 17, 2015. Credit: Keith Allison via Wikimedia Commons.

Valencia is no stranger to Jewish holidays and traditions.

“I had a normal Jewish upbringing,” he says. “We went to synagogue on the High Holidays; my mother fasted on Yom Kippur. I was around Judaism.” Valencia was born to a Jewish mother and a Cuban father who converted to Judaism. He attended Hebrew school and celebrated his bar mitzvah, recalling being sick during the occasion, saying “I was sniffling the whole time.”

Nevertheless, he notes that it was “a proud moment for both sides of the family.”

Valencia says the hardest part of being on the road for nearly six weeks with Team Israel was being away from 16-month old son, Oliver, and his wife. “We did FaceTime. I am not sure what he understands, but he saw a video of me hitting and got excited!”

Due to the late September ending date of the Olympic qualifiers and the late falling Jewish holidays, Valencia was able to be home for Rosh Hashanah.

“It is the first time ever—home with family,” reports Valencia, happy to celebrate the holiday with parents, aunts and uncles, his wife and son. He admits that “baseball was a major topic of conversation at dinner. They were all ecstatic, and they are trying to find accommodations in Tokyo for the Olympics. It could be the last time I play baseball on that level.”

Kurz, president of the Israel Association of Baseball and the team’s general manager, notes Valencia’s performance on and off the field. “He is a proven Major Leaguer, with nine years of experience. When he joined the team, there was electricity in the air, as he was our anchor and leading hitter. He hit home runs in five straight games, and led by example on the field and off. He is now the leading advocate and spokesperson for the team, and is working hard to get us sponsorships, donations and commercial deals so that the IAB can use those funds to develop the game of baseball in Israel, and we can also provide the team with better conditions to train and practice under.”

He details the many needs still facing the team as they prepare for the Olympics, including bringing some additional players to Israel, bringing all of the players to Israel in the winter, having a two-week pre-Olympic mini-camp in the United States, holding exhibition games against Japanese teams in Japan, purchasing equipment, bringing coaches to Israel and sending scouts look for Olympic opponents. Kurz reports anticipated costs are more than $500,000, and that they are trying to raise needed funds by donations and sponsorships.

In the meantime, Danny Valencia is home with his family in South Florida. He is staying in shape, thinking a lot about the Olympics, spreading the word about fundraising for the team and working to fulfill that “three-parter” his parents wanted … getting closer every day.

Team Israel, now headed to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, at the quarter finals. Photo by Margo Sugarman.
Team Israel, now headed to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, at the quarter finals. Photo by Margo Sugarman.
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