Team Israel

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

With the loss against Spain in the last game of the European Championships only days ago still fresh, Israel came out determined to start strong against the team that left Israel in third place in Europe.

Joey Wagman pitched a complete game shut-out to help take down Spain in Team Israel’s first game of the World Baseball and Softball Confederation Olympics Qualifiers 3-0 in Bologna, Italy. Danny Valencia dominated the offense, batting in all three runs, including a first-inning two RBI home run.

With the loss against Spain in the last game of the European Championships only days ago still fresh, Israel came out determined to start strong against the team that left Israel in third place in Europe. And they did. In the top of the first inning, after outfielder Blake Gailen was walked, DH Valencia stepped up and crushed a homer deep into left field, immediately putting Israel ahead by two runs.

Wagman followed up on Israel’s strong offensive start by retiring Spain in order in the bottom of the first. He maintained the pressure on the Spaniards throughout the game, not giving them a foothold and allowing only three hits in the game.

In the top of the fifth inning, Zach Penprase singled to deep center field and advanced to second on a single from Mitch Glasser. Gailen singled to center field, loading the bases. A sacrifice fly to right field from Valencia added another RBI as Penprase scored Israel’s third run.

“I just pitched my game,” said Wagman in a post-game interview. “(Nick) Rickles called a great game behind home plate. We were on the same page all night. It’s a lot easier for me when I can trust him and trust the defense.”

Wagman also won the award for the pitcher with the best earned run average in the European Championships last week, after pitching 10.2 innings with an impressive zero ERA.

“Everything was great tonight,” said Valencia. “It was important to start well, and we did.” I helped the team with the RBIs, but the credit goes to Wagman, who was amazing on the mound.”

“This was a fantastic start,” says Peter Kurz, Team Israel general manager and president of the Israel Association of Baseball. “We have every intention of competing for every run over every inning of the rest of the games against Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Italy and South Africa. Our goal is no less than winning this tournament and representing the State of Israel in the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.”

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Original Article Published On the Jewish News Syndicate

The five top teams in the European Baseball Championships, plus South Africa, have advanced to the Olympic Qualifiers taking place in Parma and Bologna, Italy, through Sept. 22.

When the Miracle Mets won the World Series in 1969, baseball was virtually unknown in Israel. Israel had come out victorious in the Six-Day War only two years earlier, the first field was built at Kibbutz Gezer in 1979, and the Israel Association of Baseball (IAB) would be established less than a decade afterwards, in 1986.

Fifty years later, the New York Mets may need to share their “miracle” nickname with Israel’s National Baseball Team. Team Israel shocked the world in last week’s European Championships and now has its sights on the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan.

Israel got off to an unexpected 4-0 start with victories over the Czech Republic, Sweden, Germany and Great Britain. Israel then lost on Sept. 11 to current European champions, the Netherlands.

Israel finished second in its pool with a record of 4-1 and advanced to the quarter finals, held last Friday through Sunday in Bonn, Germany.

On Sept. 13, Israel faced France, which Pool B with three wins and two losses. Team Israel handily beat France 8-2 in the quarter finals, securing a coveted place in the Olympic Games qualifiers for this week in Italy.

But over last weekend, Israel dropped two games to Italy and Spain, finishing fourth overall in the European Championships. This was the first time that Israel has even gotten that far.

A Team Israel pitcher in its victory against France in the European Championships. Photo by Margo Sugarman.
A Team Israel pitcher in its victory against France in the European Championships. Photo by Margo Sugarman.

“We faced some extremely strong teams this week,” says general manager and IAB president Peter Kurz. “The fact that we were able to beat these tough competitors is a great credit to all the players and the staff. We are ready for the next phase, and look forward to representing Israel in general and Israeli baseball in particular with pride.”

The five top teams in the European Championships, plus the already qualified South Africa, advanced to the Europe/Africa Olympic Qualifiers, which take in place in Parma and Bologna, Italy, through Sept. 22. Israel beat Spain on Wednesday in a 3-0 complete game by Joey Wagman. Israel now faces the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Italy and South Africa.

One Olympic spot will be awarded to the winner of the Europe-Africa qualifier tournament in Italy, which will feature the five European teams and South Africa, the winner of the 2019 African Baseball Championship. The second-place team in Italy will get another qualification opportunity for the Olympics in the final world qualifying event.

Continuing its storied run

The Miracle Israel Team continues its storied run, which started with the World Baseball Classic qualifiers in September 2016. Israel won all three of their games in Brooklyn, N.Y., beating Great Britain twice and Brazil once. It then advanced to Pool A, playing in South Korea in March 2017 against South Korea, Taiwan/Chinese Taipei and the Netherlands.

Israel then advanced to the second round (Pool E), playing Tokyo in March 2017. In that first game, Israel beat Cuba, then lost to the Netherlands and Japan. Israel’s storied World Baseball Classic run to the quarterfinals is chronicled in the recent documentary, “Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel.”

The team is currently qualified for the 2021 World Baseball Classic.

While the World Baseball Classic only requires that players be eligible for citizenship of the country they represent, for Olympic qualifying tournaments (and for the actual Olympics players themselves), they must be actual citizens of the country they represent. Several American Jewish players, including Valencia, Blake Gailen, Ty Kelly, Corey Baker, Jeremy Bleich and Jeremy Wolf, recently got Israeli citizenship. Most will continue to reside in America.

Despite Team Israel’s incredible success thus far, competing in the Olympics is still a distant dream. The winner of the qualifier tournament will get a bid to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The runner-up will have another opportunity to qualify for Tokyo at a future qualifying event.

In an interview from Germany with JNS following the team’s Sept. 13 victory, Kurz deconstructed the meaning of the team’s recent success for Israel, as well as the experience of playing in Europe.

Q: What does the team’s recent success mean for Israel, for the players and for baseball?

A: When any Israeli sports team excels in international tournaments, it excites the country. While baseball may not yet be a mainstream sport, when Team Israel starts grabbing headlines for exceeding so many expectations, people take notice.

This is a team that has worked hard to achieve their goals. We have players who have left their wives, their young children and their full-time jobs to come and represent Israel at the tournament. They are all committed to winning.

When our teams excel abroad, the first and most palpable result is that it raises the professional level of our players in Israel. We saw this phenomenon after the excellent sixth-place result of Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic in 2017. In the two years since, our youth players have become more dedicated and have understood the need to focus on increasing their skills. In July, our Under 18 national team competed in the European Championships Qualifiers for the first time and won the tournament. The success of our Senior National Team will give our players a lot to strive for. Our teenage players now have a goal: to be a member of the SNT in the coming years.

This can only be positive for Israeli baseball. The great results of this team are also being noticed outside of the immediate community. This type of exposure increases awareness of baseball in Israel and can attract new players who may not have thought about the sport. We are building two new fields in Beit Shemesh and in Ra’anana; this will only add to the excitement we are generating here in Europe now.”

Q: Can you describe the experience of playing games these past two weeks in Europe?

A: Most of Israel Baseball’s international competition takes place in Europe. Israel is a member of the Confederation of European Baseball, or CEB. It is a tight-knit baseball community, and a good atmosphere exists between the players once the games are over. In most of Europe, baseball is also still a niche sport, so the players share a common love of it and work to support one another.

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