By Bill Simons
For Team Israel and its animated, partisan followers, the squad’s 2023 World Baseball Classic game one was dramatic and memorable. At high noon in LoanDepot Park, home of MLB’s Miami Marlins, Israel and Nicaragua met on Sunday, March 12, before nearly 20,000 fans as well as thousands more watching on FS2. Enthusiastic Jewish and Nicaraguan fans, attired in team shirts and hats, shook the stadium with loud cheers. More than a few rooters jumped, gyrated and danced to encourage their teams. A substantial contingent, including Claudia Wolff and Lloyd Kaplan, came from New York. Jordan Gladstone received leave-of-absence permission from his Baltimore Jewish day school to serve as Team Israel batboy.
Game one was well-played with defense and pitching dominating up till the eighth inning, giving Nicaragua a razor-thin 1-0 lead. Then, in the eighth inning, Israel bats brought in three runs, doing damage against ace reliever Jonathan Loaisiga. With Israel’s 3-1 triumph, jubilant Team Israel fans went wild, dreaming of an improbable WBC championship.
Then, reality set in. On March 13, Puerto Rico trounced Israel 10-0 with “the mercy rule” bringing an end to the mayhem after eight innings. The next day, March 14, the scenario repeated, with “the mercy rule” again evoked as the Dominican team also overwhelmed Israel 10-0. Team Israel’s downward slide concluded with a 5-1 loss to Venezuela on March 15. Outscored 26-4, Team Israel’s WBC quest ended with a single victory against three losses. Nonetheless, that was better than winless Nicaragua, assuring Israel a spot in the 2026 WBC.
Even as Team Israel found itself outmatched, Jewish media and fans continued to foster a buzz about Team Israel players, perhaps none so more than Shlomo Lipetz. Although relegated to reserve status and thus not on the final roster during official 2023 WBC competition, Lipetz remains the heart and soul of Team Israel. At 44 years old, he is Methuselah, the only native-born Israeli on the squad and a veteran of the Israel army. As an 11-year-old Little Leaguer, Lipetz endured a humiliating 50-0 defeat inflicted by Saudi Arabia in Israel’s first international competition. Lipetz was at center stage throughout Team Israel’s baseball ascent – the one-season (2007) professional Israel Baseball League, past World Baseball Classics and the Olympics. Despite a slow toss that now tops out at about 75 MPH, Lipetz’s sidearm delivery, augmented by exceptional control, is difficult to hit. Team Israel’s patriarch, Lipetz radiates a baseball mysticism, enhanced by his paying job as a music-booking impresario. However, he is not a novelty relic. On March 8, Lipetz pitched in an exhibition game against the Miami Marlins.
At the other end of the baseball pitcher age spectrum, Team Israel boasted 19-year-old wunderkind Jacob Steinmetz, the first documented observant Orthodox Jew in organized baseball. During an inning and two-thirds against the formidable Dominican team, the 6’5” Steinmetz, an Arizona Diamondbacks prospect, struck out three batters. No 19-year-old Jewish pitcher has attracted so much media attention since teenage Brooklyn Dodger Sandy Koufax shut out the mighty Cincinnati Reds, yielding only two hits, on August 27, 1955, while recording 14 strikeouts.
Another Team Israel pitcher, righty Dean Kremer has already reached prime time, registering a 3.23 ERA for the 2022 Baltimore Orioles. Holding dual Israel-U.S. citizenship, Kremer, the son of sabras, lives part of the year in Israel and sometimes startles Orioles teammates who overhear him speaking Hebrew on the phone. The starting pitcher in Team Israel’s game one victory over Nicaragua, Kremer gave up only three hits in four shutout innings.
Several Team Israel players attracted attention for their youth and potential, amongst them Chicago Cubs prospect Matt Mervis, a 225-pound first baseman whose 2022 aggregate minor league record included a .309 batting average, 36 home runs and 119 RBIs. Of playing for Team Israel, Mervis, despite difficulties at the plate during the WBC, asserted, “I’m just honored to have had the opportunity.”
Despite their WBC won-loss record, Team Israel provided impetus for many stories in Jewish media, and the plethora of articles about individual players were positive and aspirational. Team Israel inspired pride amongst Jewish fans in the U.S. and Israel, and motivation for Jewish youth to play baseball. Team Israel players from interfaith homes experienced heightened Jewish identity. During the WBC, players from Team Israel and the Dominican Republic joined diplomats in a moving ceremony to sign a memorandum of understanding for the DR to assist Israel in developing its baseball program; it was noted that this agreement comes amidst rising antisemitism. Of major significance, Team Israel symbolizes the bonds between American and Israeli Jews at a time when the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threaten to undermine that special relationship.
Perhaps Team Israel would have advanced to the next round had they not been placed somewhat incongruously in the otherwise all Caribbean Pool D, arguably the strongest division. Geographically, Team Cuba would have appeared a more logical selection than Israel for Pool D.
Moreover, Team Israel would quite plausibly have won another game or two had the three top Jewish major leaguers – Houston Astros third baseman Alex Bregman, Atlantic Braves pitcher Max Fried, and New York Yankees centerfielder Harrison Bader – played. Bader had committed to join Team Israel, but was sidelined by injuries. Bregman, usually demonstrative about exhibiting Jewish pride, and Fried chose to concentrate on spring training preparation for the MLB season. Bregman’s Astros teammate José Altuve suffered a fractured thumb while playing for Team Venezuela and will consequently miss two months of the MLB season. Ironically, Fried, once again the Braves’ opening game pitcher, suffered a disabling left hamstring injury in that game.
Might-have-been rationalizations aside, there is a hard reality, however, that Israel baseball needs to confront. Team Israel 2023 did not do as well as it had in the 2017 WBC. Despite substantial progress, Israel baseball still consists of only a handful of ballfields and a few hundred players, with Americans dominating its international team. Indigenous Team Israel baseball is still a work in progress.
Bill Simons is a professor emeritus at SUNY Oneonta where he continues to teach courses in American history. He is also the co-director of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.