Former Major Leaguers building ‘Team Israel’
When Shawn Green retired from Major League Baseball at age 34, he traded the game he loved for the relaxed life of a family man and eventual author.
As teams contacted the outfielder/first baseman over the next four years to check about a comeback, Green maintained that the itch to play hadn’t returned.
Then Team Israel called, and he couldn’t resist.
Along with former Jewish major leaguers Gabe Kapler and Brad Ausmus, Green signed up to build an Israeli team and qualify for the 2013 World Baseball Classic (WBC), a feat that would transform the country from a baseball afterthought into a contender.
“To have a chance to play on a limited basis, and representing Israel is going to be fun,” Green told JNS. “I’m thinking of some kind of player/coach role, but nothing is set in stone. I’m just looking forward to helping any way I can.”
The 16-team qualifying round, which will exclude current major and minor leaguers, is slated for September or October at a site to be determined. Superstars could join if Israel advances from its bracket to the WBC in March.
Through the WBC’s Heritage Rule, anyone who can be a citizen of a country can play for that team, allowing Israel to recruit from an impressive pool of Jewish-American talent that includes National League Most Valuable Player Ryan Braun, Texas Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler and Boston Red Sox third baseman Kevin Youkilis.
While the involvement level of each player remains unclear, the trio of retired veterans is committed. They met with Israeli baseball officials last month to discuss the options. Lending their names can’t hurt a country where soccer and basketball garner the most fans.
Baseball, however, is not ignored in Israel, despite the failed experiment of the Israel Baseball League (IBL), whose 2007 inaugural season was its last. The country belongs to the European Baseball Federation and hosted the championship qualifying rounds in July. The four-day event, which featured the United Kingdom, Georgia, Lithuania and Israel, drew more than 4,000 fans, nearly 10 times more than similar tournaments held at the same time.
According to Peter Kurz, the secretary-general of the Israel Association of Baseball (IAB), more than 2,000 children and adults are playing baseball in Israel. Getting Jewish role models such as Green, Ausmus and Kapler to contribute in coaching, recruiting and fundraising, he said, will help generate excitement.
“There is a lot of interest in baseball,” Kurz said. “Our main goal is to develop baseball in Israel by putting a competitive team together.”
Should the 24-player squad advance to the main tournament, the IAB hopes to create enough buzz to raise $3 million to build a state-of-the-art home stadium in Ra’anana. That would advance the sport in Israel and create a stronger bridge between the Israeli and American Jewish communities.
“This impacts the North American and Israeli Jewish communities more than the athletes themselves,” Gabe Kapler said. “Those people are going to be psyched. It’s worth dreaming about what could happen because this creates momentum and excitement, which in turn gets more people who want to participate.”
Beyond that, Kapler echoed the sentiments of the fraternity of athletes proud to shatter the notion that Jewish kids should pursue academics. After some lean years, today’s crop of Jewish Major Leaguers also includes Oakland’s Craig Breslow, Texas’s Scott Feldman and New York Mets’ first baseman Ike Davis.
“It battles the stereotype that Jews aren’t good athletes, which I think is what fires us up the most,” said Kapler, the possible manager of Team Israel. “It’s difficult to hear. I believe there are fewer athletes because of parental guidance and not an inability to perform. More Jewish parents are steering their children away from athletics, stereotypically.
“It’s easy to find a doctor, lawyer or somebody in Hollywood to look up to, but there are fewer Jewish athletes. When a Jewish athlete gets to the highest level, it automatically becomes a big story in the Jewish community. That’s where I see the impact.”
That’s why being a part of this team was an obvious step for Kapler, who understands what it means to inspire Jewish kids. A Star of David tattoo adorns his left calf with the inscription “Strong Willed, Strong Minded” in Hebrew, and the dates of World War II with the Holocaust motto “Never Again” sit on his right calf.
To him, being Jewish is more than symbolism.
“There’s always the dynamic of, ‘Are you supporting a Jewish endeavor because you go to synagogue every night, fast on the high holidays and follow Jewish tradition and law?’ ” he said. “Then there’s the element of, ‘This is who I am. This is where I come from. This is what I’m proud of.’ Scenario number two is where I fit best, and why I feel this is a natural fit.”
The decision to compete was similarly easy for Brad Ausmus, who is Jewish on his mother’s side. Though he wasn’t raised Jewish, he often heard stories from his grandfather.
When he arrived as a Major Leaguer, he realized how much he meant to people.
“Jewish fans would come up to me and talk about how they were proud to have a Jewish major leaguer on their team, whether I was in San Diego, Detroit or Houston,” Ausmus said. “I would get letters from Jewish children. I quickly realized that American Jews identified with me because of my heritage. I’m very proud of that.”
Green takes it to another level. In a book he wrote that was released this summer, “The Way of Baseball: Finding Stillness at 95 mph,” he describes his spiritual outlook on staying in the moment and finding full awareness, presence and fulfillment in any endeavor.
As a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Green felt honored to wear the same uniform as Sandy Koufax and always embraced his role in the community.
“The Jewish people embraced me, and I embraced that as well,” Green said. “There aren’t as many Jewish athletes, so it’s important that the ones who are out there be role models. I was encouraged early in my career to embrace that attention, and I want to pass that on.
“If Team Israel can find a way to qualify, it would be a big deal,” he added, “and I would hope we could get the superstars to play for us instead of the U.S. team. It would be a lot of fun.”