By Bill Simons
Israel provided bookends for Jewish baseball 2023. Euphoria accompanied its beginning when Team Israel, largely composed of American Jews, won its premier World Baseball Classic game on March 12, staging a dramatic rally to top Nicaragua 3-1. Nonetheless, three consecutive losses followed, eliminating Team Israel from WBC competition. During the subsequent MLB season, no Jewish player competed for either Most Valuable Player or Cy Young awards. Yet, Jewish baseball 2023 notched a significant milestone: there were 18 Jewish major leaguers in 2023, a new high-water mark. Then, on October 7, in the midst of MLB’s divisional playoffs, events in Israel provided a shocking climax to Jewish baseball 2023.
On Friday, October 6, the High Holiday cycle had just ended with the conclusion of Sukkot, a joyful festival. Then, on the Sabbath morning of the next day, a barrage of rockets presaged the invasion of southern Israel by Hamas terrorists committed to the destruction of Israel and the killing of as many Jews as possible, who inflicted the most serious threat to Israel’s survival since its rebirth in 1948 and the heaviest loss of Jewish life since the end of the Shoah in 1945. Clandestine attacks on military installations, kibbutzim and a musical festival left approximately 1,200 Jews, mainly civilians, dead. Torture, rape and mutilation accompanied the carnage. Hamas took another 240 Jews hostage, amongst them children, the aged and the ill. Rendered vulnerable by months of rancorous political and social division, compounded by false confidence in the dominance of its military intelligence and Iron Dome, Israel reeled. Israel had failed to address dismal living conditions that rendered some of the two million Palestinians penned in the Gaza Strip susceptible to Hamas recruitment. In the United States and other Diaspora nations, antisemitism, already ascending, reached new post-World War II peaks. American Jews had decisions to make, including those who played professional baseball.
Throwing the ceremonial pitch at game three of the American League Championship Series, Ian Kinsler donned the uniform he had worn as manager of Team Israel.
But the collective response of Jewish baseball players began with “Youk” Kevin Youkilis, a Red Sox All-Star, glove virtuoso at both infield corners, formidable hitter and Fenway fan favorite, who played on two World Series championship teams during his near decade in Boston. His shaved head, intense on-field demeanor and imposing 6’1”, 220-pound physique invested Youkilis with an intimidating appearance. Although he played fiercely, Youk is by nature warm, empathetic and witty – traits that won the hand of his wife, Julie, the sister of the nonpareil NFL quarterback Tom Brady. As a Jew, the events of October 7 rendered Youk shocked, sorrowful and determined.
On an Instagram post, Youk asserted, “Antisemitism is on display for the world to see. Many have had their eyes opened while others turn a blind eye... Be proud and never let hate and evil make you hide your Jewish heritage.” Youk and his close friend Josh Lamberg, a former minor leaguer and corporate CEO, came up with the idea of uniting Jewish ballplayers on a video denouncing antisemitism and supporting Israel. To jumpstart the project, they turned to a Jewish baseball friend with a background in video production, Nate Fish.
A generation ago, Youk and Nate were University of Cincinnati baseball teammates. During Nate’s junior year, Youk was co-captain of the team, a position Fish attained after Kevin’s graduation. Through the years, they maintained their friendship and reunited on the diamond in 2023 as Team Israel coaches during WBC competition. The October 7 tragedy brought them together in a Jewish baseball film collaboration.
Nate is a Renaissance man – ballplayer, coach, manager, anthologized poet, featured exhibit painter, DJ, entrepreneur, promoter and video producer. Baseball has taken Fish virtually everywhere: across the U.S., Latin America, Europe, Asia and Africa. As manager of the outlandish Savannah Bananas, he melded sport and entertainment. A veteran Maccabiah participant, Israel Baseball League star, Israel Association of Baseball director, and head coach of Team Israel in fall 2021 and fall 2023, Nate whimsically assumed the sobriquet King of Jewish Baseball. During our October 27 interview, Nate reported that he responded unequivocally to the request to join Youk and Josh in the Jewish baseball video project.
Youk and Josh would serve as de facto executive producers, with Nate as producer and the Israel Association of Baseball as director and distributor of the video, “Jewish Big Leaguers Support Israel,” that emerged. Past technical experience gave Nate the skill set to script and supervise film editing. Moreover, he recruited most of the ballplayers appearing in the video.
Nate contacted Jewish ballplayers asking them to contribute to the project – sending them a script and Youk’s portion as a template. Fish requested that the players record their own presentation and transmit it to him for editing. Once Youk’s segment, featuring him wearing a kippah, and that of Alex Bregman, attired in his Houston Astros uniform, were circulated, other submissions quickly followed. Absent contact information, Sandy Koufax and Max Fried did not receive invitations, and Dean Kremer, the son of sabras whose brother serves in the Israel Defense Forces, regretted that the time frame precluded his participation. Nineteen Jewish ballplayers, most active, a few retired, appear on screen in the video and are self-identified by name – Brad Ausmus, Ryan Braun, Bregman, Jake Fishman, Zack Gelof, Shawn Green, Spencer Horwitz, Rob Kaminsky, Ty Kelly, Ian Kinsler, Ryan Lavarnway, Andrew Lorraine, Jon Moskot, Robbie Ross, Garrett Stubbs, Danny Valencia, Zack Weiss, Youk and Josh Zaid.
Although Jewish Big Leaguers Support Israel, posted on X by the Israel Association of Baseball (seen here), has a running time of but a minute, it is impactful, already registering about 1.5 million hits. Baseball is a conservative game. Early in the 20th century, some Jewish ballplayers adopted pseudonyms to obscure their ethnic identity. Contempo rary players are cautious about making political statements that might erode their fan base and endorsements. But at a time of rising antisemitism and attacks on Israel, participants in the video self-identified, denounced antisemitism and built support for Israel.
Following text reference to the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel, the video features players stating their names, looking directly into the camera, and individually and collectively exhort listeners to, “Stand against antisemitism. Stand with Israel.” After Weiss acknowledges, “For years, you have supported us on the field,” Bregman provides a challenge: “But now it’s time to support all of us and stand up against antisemitism.”