“The experience for these players, especially American Jews who made aliyah, has been incredibly enriching,” says David Wanger, father of pitcher Ben Wanger. “They are so much more attuned to their heritage, and they feel incredibly connected to Israel and to the Jewish people.”
By: Howard Blas
For Team Israel and members of the media who spent three tense, very exciting nights at Maimonides Park in Coney Island, N.Y., back in September 2016, July 11 was a true homecoming.
Team Israel played a Sunday afternoon game against the FDNY (Fire Department of New York) in Brooklyn, N.Y.—at the same stadium as the miracle games of 2016—before embarking on a series of exhibition games on the East Coast that will then see them fly to Tokyo to compete in the Summer Olympic Games. Israel will face Japan, Mexico, South Korea, the United States and the Dominican Republic. While their medal chances are uncertain, the 24 players on the Olympic roster could not be more excited.
In 2016, nobody took Team Israel seriously as they played in the World Baseball Classic qualifiers. That began to change after they defeated Great Britain once and Brazil twice, and advanced to “Pool A” in South Korea in March 2017 against South Korea, Taiwan and the Netherlands.
Team Israel proceeded to battle through the World Baseball Classic and won the 2019 European Baseball Championship. By finishing in the top five, Israel earned the right to participate in the 2020 Olympics qualifiers. As the winner of that tournament, Team Israel qualified to be one of six national teams to compete in the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, however, the 2020 Olympics were postponed to July 2021, where, being that COVID remains an issue in Japan, they will largely take place without fans and with players living in a bubble reminiscent of the NBA bubble in Florida in 2020.
Nevertheless, July 11 was a day for nostalgia and celebration for the journey and for what Team Israel represents for Israel and the Jewish people. The 12 pitchers, three catchers, six infielders and three outfielders are mainly American-born players of Jewish descent, although there are some native-born Israelis on the team. In order to represent a country in the Olympics, a player must be citizen of that country; thus, all members of Team Israel hold citizenship. Some are former Major Leaguer Baseball players with extensive MLB or Minor League experience.
‘Crazy, rewarding, hard, fun, tough’
Pitcher Shlomo Lipetz, 42, was born in Tel Aviv, played college baseball in the United States and has been affiliated with Israel baseball for more than 30 years. At the World Baseball Qualifiers in 2017, the right-handed pitcher was the only native Israeli on the team.
Baseball and Team Israel have helped keep him focused throughout the pandemic. “The fact that I just keep playing the game kept me really sane while doing my day job,” he says.
Lipetz is vice president of programming for City Winery. He says he is proud of how far Team Israel has come since 2017. “It is no longer the underdog mentality—that we are just happy to be here. With the help of some of the big league guys, folks like Ian [Kinsler] and Danny [Valencia], I think that really helped change our mentality to something of ‘we belong here, and we can make some noise!’ ”
Pitcher Josh Zeid, 34, has played for the Houston Astros and is currently working for the Chicago Cubs in Phoenix, where he is the rehabilitation pitching coordinator. He also pitched for Team Israel at the 2017 World Baseball Classic, where he was named to the 2017 All-World Baseball Classic Team.
At the end of the WBC, Zeid thought his baseball career was over. As he looks back on the past four years, he says “it has been crazy, rewarding, hard, fun, tough, but it is crazy. We are standing here today in Brooklyn. Four years ago, we were all here. I thought my career was over at the end of the season. We had a swan song starting in Brooklyn; it is pretty surreal, pretty special.”
The right-handed pitcher uses a bright-blue mitt with the expression “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” inscribed in Hebrew. “My grandfather died six months ago, and these were his last words to me,” he reveals.
Zeid pitched the second inning of the FDNY game and struck out all three batters. “I am honored to play for Team Israel in the Olympics,” he says. “It’s a lifelong dream come true. I feel I have been blessed. Just putting in the work and care and effort to making sure this one comes true as well.”
Pitcher Joey Wagman, 29, was also all fired up to return to Brooklyn as part of Team Israel. Drafted by the Chicago White Sox in the 17th round of 2013 draft, he recalls, “The last time I was here was five years ago for the qualifiers, so it definitely brings back a lot of memories.”
Wagman did not play in 2020, though he resumed training with Team Israel teammate, Zach Weiss, when both lived in Southern California.
“I used the time to refine some things in my movement and delivery and shore up my mental game,” he relates. Over the past three months, Wagman has played professional baseball in the Czech Republic. “It was a different pace of baseball. After an 18-month layoff, it was a decent, relaxed environment, where I could control pitch counts and innings, and it served its purpose as prep for the Olympics.”
Of the opportunity to reunite with his teammates, Wagman says: “It has been years since I’ve seen all these guys—being together brings back so many good memories. There have been so many good memories with Team Israel in the past five years.”
‘We need to start playing some good baseball’
Danny Valencia is arguably Team Israel’s most accomplished player. Valencia, 36, has played for eight Major League teams, and had 795 hits and 95 home runs in 3,000-plus plate appearances. He says he is looking forward to representing Israel in Tokyo. “It is a really cool experience, and it is going to be an awesome memory for all of us.”
Valencia also knows what being in the Olympics will take, noting that “we need to start playing some good baseball.”
Valencia knows this Olympics will feel different due to COVID precautions. “Obviously, we will be in a bubble. There will not be many fans at the games, but it should be an amazing experience. We will be around a lot of great athletes. And we’re there to handle the job but also to enjoy the experience.”
Ben Wanger, 23, a right-handed pitcher, also serves as a designated hitter. His parents, David and Gwen Wanger—both clothed in “Wanger” jerseys—traveled from Newton, Mass., to Brooklyn and watched their son from behind the Team Israel dugout. While they’re unable to attend the Olympics in Tokyo, they dream of the day they will be able to visit Israel for the first time—and celebrate what they hope will be a medal for Team Israel.
Whether Israel ultimately wins gold, silver or bronze, the Wangers are practically glowing over the accomplishments of their son and his teammates—and of what the experience has done for everyone’s Jewish identity.
“The experience for these players, especially American Jews who made aliyah, has been incredibly enriching,” says David Wanger. “They are so much more attuned to their heritage, and they feel incredibly connected to Israel and to the Jewish people.”
The Wangers and the good-sized observant Jewish crowd that showed up in Brooklyn are praying that the miracle of Team Israel will continue. The team is off to a promising start with a 12-3 victory over New York’s bravest: the FDNY. Israel scored an impressive 12 runs on 15 hits, with the first run at the top of the sixth.