Israel Baseball

Original article published in the JNS

“It was the moment you dream about for so long,” said the 27-year-old of being told by Marlins manager and Major League Baseball legend Don Mattingly that he was being activated. “You know you are forever a big leaguer—whether you ever pitch or not.”

The Miami Marlins baseball team has a good sense of humor and loves a good fish story. When Jewish player Jake Fishman was called up to the majors from the triple-A Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp organization, the Marlins tweeted, “Last name says it all. Newest FISHman,” with a photo and caption “Jake Fishman: Welcome to the Show.”

The 27-year-old left-hander from Sharon, Mass., known for his sidearm delivery, threw mostly sinkers and sliders in his recent three-and-one-third-inning debut against the first-place New York Mets on July 31. While most of the pitches came in under 90 miles per hour, Fishman threw 33 strikes in his 49 pitches. Yet despite his successful appearance, Fishman was designated for assignment the next day to make room for lefty pitcher Jesus Luzardo, who returned to the team as he came off the 60-day injured list.

When self-described “huge Miami Marlins fan” Michele Lobovits heard that Fishman was sent down to the minors, she was disappointed. Lobovits said that she and other Jewish members of a diverse baseball chat group “were so excited for Fishman. Unfortunately, he was kind of a pawn. He pitched in one game and was DfA’d. That means another team could pick him up. Or we could get him back.”

Fishman spoke by phone with JNS while relaxing at his parents’ home in Sharon. He doesn’t share Lobovits’s disappointment and is relentlessly positive as he recounts the story of his Major League debut and shares tales of his baseball career to date.

“It was the moment you dream about for so long,” said Fishman of being told by Marlins manager and Major League Baseball legend Don Mattingly that he was being activated. “You know you are forever a big leaguer—whether you ever pitch or not.”

Jake Fishman as a young pitcher. Credit: Courtesy.

‘My first pitch was a strike’

Fishman recalled that he got called to the manager’s office while on the road in Georgia. “It really happened quickly. He told Nick Neidert and me that we were going to the Marlins, but didn’t know [at the time] if we’d be activated. The next day, we flew to Miami and spoke with Mattingly, and he told us he’d keep us posted.”

Fishman called his parents, Hutch and Cindy, at 10:30 p.m. on July 29 and told them: “I may get called up.” His parents began searching for flights to Miami. They were not successful but did manage to get one to West Palm Beach and then drove two hours, arriving just in time for the Friday-night game.

Cindy gave a television interview as she watched from the stands along with a small entourage that included Jake’s girlfriend, a lifelong friend and his trainer. She recounted that “we had to really scramble to get a flight down here. All the flights were booked; we had to fly into West Palm Beach. You know all the airports are crazy and the car-rental places are crazy, but we managed to get here. And ever since, we’ve been here [at the ballpark] every day, and it has been great!”

Fishman, who wore No. 94, didn’t play that night. He says he watched the games on Friday and Saturday from the Marlins bullpen.

On Sunday, he was following pitcher Pablo Lopez closely as the Marlins trailed 6-0 in the third inning. “His pitch count was going up, and I was getting ready. In the third inning, they called down to the bullpen and said, ‘Get red hot,’ ” a sign that he might be called in to pitch. When he finally got the nod, Fishman ran out to the pitcher’s mound.

“It was a surreal feeling!” he recalled.

Mattingly tried to put Fishman at ease. “He told me there were guys on first and second, and two out, and said, ‘Go get ’em!’ He made it feel like a regular baseball game.”

Fishman came on with the Marlins trailing the Mets 6-0 in the third inning. He had to come to terms with the fact that he would be facing Mets shortstop and four-time all-star Francisco Lindor. “I didn’t imagine I’d be going up against Lindor as my first batter. I was freaking out a bit! My first pitch was a strike, and I said, ‘I think we got this.’ ”

“He grounded out to third on a sinker, and it helped me calm down and know I’d be fine,” said Fishman, who faced each batter in the Mets lineup at least once and gave up one run on four hits in the Marlins 9-3 loss at Loan Depot Park.

He learned that his time at home with his parents would soon come to an end. He cleared waivers and flew to Jacksonville to rejoin the Jumbo Shrimp, but remains upbeat.

Hutch Fishman said his son was born into a baseball family: “What helped his baseball enormously was that his brother, who is four-and-a-half years older, let Jake play with him and his friends. … He was 8 playing with 12-year-olds.”

Fishman attended Hebrew school and celebrated his bar mitzvah at Congregation Klal Yisrael in Sharon. “It was a lot of work learning to read from the Torah, but it felt rewarding,” he said. Fishman acknowledged that his Hebrew-school attendance and temple involvement “tapered off” a bit after his bar mitzvah so he could focus on baseball.

Despite a successful high school baseball career, he was not recruited by Division 1 schools for college baseball. Hutch said, “He was 5 feet tall when he was a freshman in high school. … He grew late, so no D1 schools were interested.” Fishman was reportedly 5’7” until he had a seven-inch growth spurt in his junior year. He now stands 6’3” and weighs 215 pounds!

Fishman went on to pitch at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., where he led all of college baseball with a 0.41 earned run average. He was selected in the 30th round of the 2016 Major League Baseball draft by the Toronto Blue Jays. As he was still in college, he negotiated a contract that would include paying his tuition. Fishman returned to Union in 2018 to complete his degree in managerial economics with a minor in digital media. He spent six years in the minors with the Blue Jays organization before being selected by the Marlins in 2020.

Win against Mexico ‘a very special moment’

Fishman was also on the roster for Team Israel at the 2017 World Baseball Classic.

Peter Kurz, general manager of Israel’s Olympic and national teams, noted that “Jake Fishman was on our extended pitching roster in the 2017 WBC, but unfortunately, was not needed by the team. He has come a long way since then, and making his debut in MLB this past week was wonderful to see. He played for us in the Olympics and is a big side-armed lefty who pitched in three critical games for us. He was a wonderful teammate and really loved to be around the guys. He fit in perfectly with the team, and I hope that he’ll be on our 2023 WBC team as well.”

In order to play on Israel’s Olympic team, Fishman needed to obtain Israeli citizenship by formally making aliyah in 2019. “Traveling the country and competing in the Olympics were definitely highlights,” he reported. He was struck by the “amazing food” in Israel and was surprised by just how modern Tel Aviv was, saying with gusto: “I want to go back!”

Fishman observed that “competing in the Olympics is different than regular professional baseball—in Minor League Baseball, the team is focused on development. In the Olympics, all that matters is winning and getting the job done!”

In 2021, Israel defeated Mexico 12-5 in the double round-robin phase of the Olympic baseball tournament. Fishman said that “winning versus Mexico was a very special moment.”

The Fishman parents were proud of Jake for playing for Team Israel in the Olympics. “We woke up early and stayed up late to watch all of the games. Watching Jake play with former Major League players with good careers was cool,” said Hutch.

After years in the minors and a stint with Team Israel, Fishman finally saw Major League action. While his stint with the MLB Marlins was short-lived for now, he said he is pleased to remain in the Marlins’ system. He may even get the second chance that will make Lobovits and other fans happy.

Jake Fishman and his parents, Hutch and Cindy Fishman. Credit: Courtesy.
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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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Original Article Published On The Jewish News Syndicate

The Jewish state becomes the first nation in the world to qualify for the Olympics in baseball, joining host nation Japan.

With Team Israel’s 11-1 win over South Africa in the Olympic qualifiers in Parma, Italy, on Sunday, the startup nation became the baseball nation.

The Israel Baseball team will be the first team sport to represent Israel at the Olympic Games since 1976, when the Israel National Soccer team competed in the Montreal Summer Olympics. Israel will be one of six teams to play in the baseball competition at the Olympics.

“This is the ultimate dream come true,” said Peter Kurz, Israel Association of Baseball President and general manager of Team Israel. “It was almost too impossible to imagine, but with the astounding performances of a dedicated team that always believed in itself. Even when we were beaten on Saturday night by Czech Republic, it didn’t dampen anyone’s spirits because we knew we were capable of achieving this goal.”

Within minutes of their historic victory, the Israel Association of Baseball posted “Heading to the Olympics” in all caps on their Facebook page, and almost instantly received 236 likes and comments. The “Follow Team Israel” Facebook group, started in 2012 by a group of olim (new immigrants) to provide information on Israelis and Jewish athletes in the 2012 London Olympics, and which continues to raise awareness and enthusiasm for Israeli and Jewish athletes, similarly received 532 likes in response to its post: “Do you believe in miracles? They did it!”

Israel’s success last week, where it came in fourth place in the European Championships held in Germany (the top five teams advanced to the qualifiers) and in the Europe/Africa qualifiers, held this past Wednesday through Sunday in Parma and Bologna, Italy, earned them a spot in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Israel becomes the first nation in the world to qualify for the Olympics in baseball. Israel joins host nation Japan. Four more countries will ultimately qualify for the Olympics as baseball makes its return after being voted off the Olympic program after the Beijing 2008 Olympics. Two additional teams will qualify at the global Premier12 in November. One team from the Americas and one more from another qualifying tournament taking place later in the year will make it to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Israel began showing the world in 2017 that it needs to be taken seriously as a baseball nation. Israel won all three of its World Baseball Classic qualifiers in Brooklyn, N.Y., advanced to Pool A in South Korea in March 2017 and advanced again later that month to the second round in Tokyo. The team is currently qualified for the 2021 World Baseball Classic.

The Blue and White team, including some former Major League Baseball players who recently became Israeli citizens in order to play for Team Israel, faced three of the teams in the qualifiers it had lost to in Germany just last week, including Spain, Italy and the Netherlands (the European champions). Israel got off to an impressive 3-0 start in the qualifiers, which included an exciting 8-2 blowout Friday night against Italy. Their only loss came against the Czech Republic on Saturday night, where they lost 7-4.

In Sunday’s decisive game against South Africa, which allowed Israel to punch its card to the Olympics, Joey Wagman, who hadn’t given up a run or walk in his previous 15 innings pitched throughout the European Championships or Qualifiers, held the South Africans to six scoreless innings, allowing one run in the seventh.

Israel got on the board in the bizarre top of the second inning, which featured a sacrifice fly, three walks and two batters hit by pitches. Catcher Nick Rickles scored on a sacrifice fly by OF (outfielder) Simon Rosenbaum. With shortstop Ty Kelly on third, DH (designated hitter) Benjamin Wanger on second and third baseman Zach Penprase on first after being hit by a pitch, second baseman Mitch Glasser walked for another RBI. A single from OF (outfielder) Blake Gailen allowed Wanger and Penprase to score.

Israel was up 4-0.

In the top of the third, a double from Wanger brought Rickles home, and a sacrifice fly from Rosenbaum added another run by Kelly for a 6-0 lead.

South Africa scored one run in the bottom of the seventh inning. Israel answered back with four more runs in the top of the eighth—three coming from a home run by Team Israel’s best-known player, Danny Valencia, whose career includes stints with nine Major League teams. When Valencia’s homer brought the lead to 10 runs, the 10-run mercy rule was invoked, and Israel was permitted to break out the champagne one inning early once South Africa was unable to score in the bottom of the eighth inning.

Tel Aviv native, and current New York resident and music director at City Winery in New York City Shlomo Lipetz, now 40, came in to close the game. Lipetz, who has been affiliated with Israel baseball for more than 30 years, allowed no runs, and was on the mount when Israel won the right to move on to Tokyo.

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