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By Scott Barancik, editor

With Team Israel’s surprising run at the World Baseball Championship behind us, Jewish Baseball News turns to that beloved annual rite: Spring Training.

A total of 19 Jewish players were invited to MLB Spring Training camps this year, either as part of their teams’ active roster, 40-man roster, or non-roster invitee list. Here is how they’re doing through games played March 17.

Danny Valencia (Mariners)

  • In the first Spring Training with his new team, 32-year-old Valencia is hitting .184 with 1 HR, 3 RBIs, and 5 walks in 38 at-bats. Although he’s a career .321 hitter against righties (and .246 vs. lefties), he has struggled equally against both so far.
  • Seattle has Valencia playing first base almost exclusively. Last season with Oakland, Valencia had no errors at first base, one in the outfield, and 13 at third base.

Richard Bleier (Orioles)

  • Traded to Baltimore by the Yankees last month, Bleier has performed well this Spring, delivering a 1.50 ERA across four outings and six innings overall, and yielding six hits and one walk while fanning four.
  • Bleier is among several pitchers still fighting for a spot in the Orioles’ bullpen.

Max Fried (Braves/minors)

  • A 1st-round draft pick of the San Diego Padres in 2012, Fried — who missed the entire 2015 season due to Tommy John surgery — was impressive in his first MLB Spring Training, yielding a hit and three walks in three outings (and four innings overall) while striking out five.
  • Atlanta not only has promoted Fried to Double-A but added him to the Braves’ 40-man roster, meaning he will be eligible for call-up during the regular season.

Ryan Braun (Brewers)

  • Braun has seen limited action in Spring Training, going 3-for-11 with a HR, double, three RBIs and a walk while striking out three times. Nevertheless, the 33-year-old has remained something of a lightning rod for criticism, most recently for his complaints that Spring Training lasts too long.

Kevin Pillar (Blue Jays)

  • Pillar has been hot this Spring, hitting .355 with six extra-base hits, one RBI, and a .444 on-base percentage. He’s also been batting leadoff, a privilege largely denied him in past seasons due to a dearth of walks.
  • In prior Springs, Pillar’s average has ranged from .111 to .264.

Rowdy Tellez (Blue Jays/minors)

  • A non-roster invitee with a reputation for power — he hit .297 with 23 HRs last season at Double-A — Tellez has hit .259 this Spring with no home runs, two doubles, two RBIs, four walks, and 10 strikeouts.
  • No word yet on which minor-league team Tellez will be sent to after Spring Training ends.

Brad Goldberg (White Sox/minors)

  • In addition to playing for Team Israel in the 2017 World Baseball Championship, Goldberg pitched well for Chicago during Spring Training. In four appearances and 4.2 innings overall, he delivered a 0.00 ERA and earned a save while yielding two walks a hit and striking out one.
  • Earlier this week, the White Sox sent Goldberg back to Triple-A but placed him on the Major League club’s 40-man roster. He’s likely to make his MLB debut this season.

Ian Kinsler (Tigers)

  • Normally a strong Spring Training performer — through games played March 17, his career average was .328 with 30 HRs and 117 RBIs — Kinsler has hit .263 this year, with one HR and one RBI in 19 at-bats.
  • Kinsler also has played for Team USA in the WBC, hitting .294 in 17 at-bats.

Craig Breslow (Twins/minors)

  • Breslow, who has adjusted his pitching form in a data-driven bid to revive his stalled career, earned a minor-league contract with the Twins and an invitation to Spring Training. So far, so good: in five appearances and 4.1 innings overall, Breslow has yielded no earned runs and just one hit while striking out four. On the down side, he’s walked five.
  • Breslow is likely to begin the 2017 regular season in Triple-A.

Alex Bregman (Astros)

  • In addition to playing for Team USA in the WBC, Bregman has hit .304 in Spring Training, stroking two doubles and a walk while striking out once in 23 at-bats.

Garrett Stubbs (Astros/minors)

  • A non-roster invitee who hit a combined .304 in High-A and Double-A last season, Stubbs didn’t get a chance to play with Houston this Spring due to a problem with his throwing arm. He was later assigned to minor-league camp, but manager A.J Hinch said the Astros were “excited” about Stubbs, whom he called “really good behind the plate.”

Michael Barash (Angels/minors)

  • Barash, a 2016 draft pick, was perhaps the most unlikely non-roster invitee this Spring, having topped out at Single-A his rookie season (and hitting .240 there after batting .314 in rookie-league ball). The 22-year-old catcher went a perfect 2-for-2 with the Angels, singling and doubling in two pinch-hit at-bats.

Ryan Lavarnway (Athletics/minors)

  • Despite a non-roster invite, former major leaguer Lavarnway has seen limited play during Spring Training, having instead spent his time starring for Team Israel in the WBC. The 6’4″ catcher went 2-for-3 with a double for the Athletics before joining Team Israel.

Scott Feldman (Reds)

  • Signed to a one-year deal during the offseason, the 34-year-old Feldman is 0-1 this Spring with a 4.50 ERA. In eight innings spread across the starts, he’s yielded seven hits (including 3 HRs) and two walks while striking out seven.
  • Feldman has secured a spot as a starter in Cincinnati’s rotation and might start the team’s Opening Day game.

Jared Lakind (Pittsburgh/minors)

  • A non-roster invitee, Lakind has recorded one save this Spring and held opponents scoreless over three relief appearances. He has yielded two walks and two hits over three total innings while striking out two.
  • Lakind also played for Team Israel in the WBC.

Corey Baker (Cardinals/minors)

  • A non-roster invitee, Baker made his MLB Spring Training debut before playing for Team Israel in the WBC. In a 2.2-inning relief stint, he gave up 2 hits and a hit batsman but struck out one and yielded no runs.

Ryan Sherriff (Cardinals/minors)

  • A non-roster invitee, Sherriff has made the most of his first MLB Spring Training, going 0-1 with a 1.35 in six appearances and 6.2 innings overall. The 28th-round 2011 draft pick yielded six hits and one walk while hitting one batter and striking out an impressive eight.

Joc Pederson (Dodgers)

  • In a familiar pattern, Joc Pederson is hitting .242 this Spring with both a lot of home runs (4) and a lot of strikeouts (10). But that’s not giving him credit for advances he made in 2016, his second full season in the Majors. Pederson raised his batting average 36 points last year (to .246) while reducing his strikeouts, hitting more doubles, and slightly improving his home-run frequency.

Ike Davis (Dodgers/minors)

  • Davis, a former major leaguer who signed a minor-league contract with Los Angeles during the offseason, went 2-for-2 as a non-roster invitee before joining Team Israel in the WBC. He has been assigned to the Dodgers’ Triple-A team.

Ty Kelly (Mets/minors)

  • Kelly, who played for Team Israel in the WBC but does not identify exclusively as Jewish, is 2-for-8 this Spring with two RBIs and a .500 on-base percentage. He made his MLB debut in 2016.

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By Scott Barancik, editor

You had to rise at 4:30pm ET today to watch underdog Team Israel play Korea live in the 2017 World Baseball Classic opener, but seeing Israel triumph 2-1 in 10 innings was worth missing some sleep.

There were a few ulcer-inducing moments. Israel — which knocked out 8 hits and drew 10 walks — squandered multiple scoring opportunities, including leaving the bases loaded three times.

But the highlights were far more memorable.

Starting pitcher Jason Marquis, 38, got Israel off on the right foot with three scoreless innings, yielding 2 hits and a walk while fanning 3. He stayed below 50 pitches, which under WBC rules means he can pitch again in 2 days.

Sam Fuld was rock-solid in center field, including a diving catch in the 4th to rob Dae-Ho Lee of extra bases. He also contributed two sharply-hit singles while batting leadoff.

Second baseman Tyler Krieger drew a bases-loaded, full-count walk in the 2nd to put Israel up 1-0.

Ike Davis hit a pinch-hit double in the 8th inning, and his 9th-inning walk helped set up the winning run. After the base on balls, the not-fleet-of-foot Davis somehow hoofed it from first to third on catcher Ryan Lavarnway‘s soft liner to center. Mike Meyers came in as a pinch-runner and scored the go-ahead run two batters later.

Scotty Burcham, who starred for Israel in the September qualifiers, struck out three times but was stellar at shortstop and stroked two singles, including a two-out infield hit with a 1-2 count in the 10th that proved to be the game-winner.

Burcham, Krieger, and first baseman Nate Freiman completed two double plays together, including an inning-ending one with 2 men on base in the 6th inning.

With two outs in the bottom of the 9th inning, the score tied 1-1, and a man on first, Lavarnway’s laser throw to second base erased a stolen-base attempt and sent the game into extra innings.

While Marquis opened the game with three scoreless innings, reliever Josh Zeid did the same at the end, yielding one hit and 2 walks while fanning 4, including a game-ending strikeout of slugger Dae-Ho Lee.

Israel plays Chinese Taipei tonight (Monday, March 6) at 10pm ET on the MLB Network cable station.

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Armed with a new delivery, Craig Breslow is fighting for a roster spot with the Twins

Armed with a new delivery, Craig Breslow is fighting for a roster spot with the Twins

By Scott Barancik, editor

When Team Israel announced its 28-man roster for the World Baseball Classic a couple weeks ago, Craig Breslow was on the list. The veteran Major League hurler would anchor Israel’s bullpen during the March tournament in South Korea, equipped with a nearly side-armed delivery he honed during the off-season.

But now that he’s legitimately fighting for a bullpen spot with the Minnesota Twins, Breslow feels he can’t afford to leave Spring Training for the WBC. It’s great news for the 11-year MLB veteran, if not so much for Team Israel. But this is what happens when Major League Baseball — which owns the World Baseball Classic — schedules the tourney during Spring Training. Several other Jewish prospects turned down Team Israel’s invite this year because, like Breslow, they expected to be fighting for a roster slot.

New York Mets prospect Zack Thornton will replace Breslow in Team Israel's bullpen

New York Mets prospect Zack Thornton will replace Breslow in Team Israel’s bullpen

Alex Jacobs, Team Israel’s director of player personnel and a scout for the Houston Astros, says he and his colleagues were neither shocked nor upset by Breslow’s dcision.

“We’re extraordinarily excited for Craig wish him nothing but the best of luck in his endeavors to make the Minnesota Twins’ opening day roster,” Jacobs said. “Was this a surprise to us? No, Craig was very forthcoming with us on his intentions, and although he is disappointed he can’t play for Israel, he felt this was the best for his career, and we agree. If we advance far enough in the WBC and Craig’s comfortable enough to join us later, we’ll certainly welcome his talents.”

The good news for Team Israel is that Zack Thornton, a newly-identified Jewish player with the New York Mets’ Triple-A club, has agreed to replace Breslow on the WBC roster.

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Ty Kelly and his mother Diane, who is Jewish, traveled to Israel in January 2017 with a group of Jewish-American ballplayers

Ty Kelly and his mother, Diane, who is Jewish, traveled to Israel in January 2017 with a group of Jewish-American ballplayers

By Ron Kaplan, correspondent


“Slide, Kelly, Slide!” was usually heard in association with the great 19th-century player King Kelly, who played for several Major League teams and was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1945.

But fans of the Israeli team that will be participating for the first time in the upcoming World Baseball Classic hope to shout it out for perhaps the most unlikely-sounding member of the roster: Tyler Patrick “Ty” Kelly.

The 28-year-old outfielder, who made his MLB debut last May with the New York Mets, will represent Israel in the upcoming WBC in Seoul, South Korea, beginning March 6.

Kelly spoke with Jewish Baseball News while driving to his parents’ home in Northern California prior to reporting to the Mets’ spring training camp in Port St. Lucie, Florida. Just hours after the February 9 conversation, the Mets designated him for assignment. He will begin the 2017 season with the club’s Triple-A affiliate in Las Vegas.

The first question that comes to mind when hearing that a player named Kelly wound up on Team Israel is, how on earth did this happen?

“Well, there are two sides to every story,” he said. “And there are two sides to my name, I guess. My dad’s side of the family is Catholic, and my mom’s side…is Jewish, so I got the privilege of experiencing two religions growing up.” Kelly said his family didn’t attend church or synagogue much. “When my mom’s side of the family was over, we were learning about the basic Jewish stuff… and when my dad’s side was over it was all about Christianity and everything. It was a good mix of both.”

Kelly’s first taste of international competition began with an e-mail from Peter Kurz, president of the Israel Association of Baseball. Kurz had heard the Stockton, CA, native might have Jewish roots, so asked if Kelly had at least one Jewish grandparent, which would qualify him to join Team Israel. In fact, Kelly’s mother, Diane, is Jewish, so he was in.

“I really had no idea how the World Baseball Classic worked,” said Kelly, who made his Major League debut on May 24 and ultimately appeared in 39 games for the Mets in 2016, finishing with one home run, seven RBIs, and a slash line of .241/.352/.345.  “But [Kurz] said I was eligible, and he asked if I wanted to play. It’s an amazing opportunity, and it’s really cool that so many different guys can play on different teams.” Kelly had never even considered playing for Team Israel. “I thought if there was a Team Ireland or Team Germany…”

Because Kelly was with the Mets last September, he was unable to play for Israel in the WBC qualifiers, where the team swept all three games to move on to the actual Classic for the first time. (Israel lost in its first attempt at the qualifiers, in 2013.) Since the tournament takes place during spring training, however, Major Leaguers have the option to play. Ian Kinsler and Alex Bregman have committed to playing for Team USA, while Kevin Pillar, Ryan Braun (whose father is Israeli), and Joc Pederson declined the Israeli invitation as well.

“It’s hard to say why anyone doesn’t want to play [for Team Israel]. I think that having to go to Korea and back and miss part of their spring training for two weeks, maybe that’s what it is; it’s a big commitment. It’s such a great opportunity for everyone, but everybody has their own stuff going on.”

Most members of Team Israel will participate in a mini-camp in Arizona from February 24-26 and then leave for South Korea on February 27 to get in a week of practices and exhibition games with local teams. If Israel advances beyond the first round, the team will go to Tokyo for the second. The championship round will take place at Dodger Stadium from March 20-22.

‘Heading Home’ to Israel

In early January, Kelly was part of a contingent of Jewish-American ballplayers — including Sam Fuld, Ike Davis, Ryan Lavarnway, Josh Zeid, Cody Decker, Jon Moscot, Corey Baker, Jeremy Bleich, and Gabe Kapler — who traveled together to Israel. The purpose of the visit was two-fold: introduce Israel to baseball, and introduce the players to Israel.

“Everybody was very welcoming to us,” Kelly said. “They were thanking us for representing them in the World Baseball Classic. There are a lot of people that have lived in America or have family members in America, so there are a lot of people who are baseball fans there and can connect with us.” MLB.com reporter Jonathan Mayo came along with a film crew to gather footage for a forthcoming documentary about Team Israel, titled Heading Home.

Kelly said he keeps up with the news — including what’s going on in the Middle East — via CNN. “That’s the most easily consumable media for me. Things are so complex in the world, it’s easier for me to see and hear about it than read about it.”

“Just being over there was amazing,” he said. “It was a lot different than the way the Middle East is represented [in the U.S.]. There are so many complex problems that it’s hard to conceptualize everything, so getting to go over there see how they go about their lives on a day-to-day basis [was educational].”

The group began in Tel Aviv before moving on to Jerusalem and other locales. “We bused around a bunch of different places. We saw so much and it was packed into the first four or five days. By the end of it, everyone was just exhausted. We saw tons of stuff and I know there was more that we didn’t have time to see.”

The players participated in a groundbreaking ceremony for a new baseball complex in Beit Shemesh. One of the problems of the short-lived professional Israel Baseball League in 2007 was the lack of adequate facilities in a country that seemed to have little knowledge of the game. With Israel’s recent success on the diamond, the time seemed right for an upgrade.

Asked to pick one thing he will never forget about his visit, Kelly replied, “One thing is tough. I’ve been telling everyone there were two favorite things: Going to the Western Wall; that experience was amazing. We were there on Shabbat so there were tons of people out there. Tons of people up at the Wall, praying and singing and dancing…. I don’t think we have anything like that in America, religion-wise.  It was almost like being at a sporting event with the people cheering and singing and praying together.

“My other favorite thing was being at Independence Hall and listening to the recordings of the national anthem [and] just being in the room where all this history happened.”

Back in the U.S.

Kelly is a bit of a renaissance man. He has many interests outside the game, including writing and music, and he even co-hosted a food blog for a time. And while he enjoyed the local delicacies in Israel, “by the end of it, I was happy to come back to familiar food. Everything was great, all the food I could have asked for. It was almost too much. I almost felt like I had to eat too much pita bread, and that probably wasn’t the best decision, nutrition-wise,” said Kelly, who’s listed at a trim 6-feet tall and 180 pounds.

So how does he see Israel’s odds for success in its first World Baseball Classic? “I think that everybody feels like they’re going into the tournament with a chance to at least get out of the first round,” he said. “Everyone loves March Madness because you never know what’s going to happen…. You just have to be good at the right time.”

Despite the fact that he will be representing the Jewish State and has a Jewish mother, Kelly hesitated to call himself solely Jewish, which is why Jewish Baseball News and similar websites currently don’t list him on their ‘roster’ of Jewish players.

“It is a tough question, because at any other point in my life if I was asked that, I would just have said ‘Catholic’ because I went to a Catholic high school and that’s what I studied…. It’s really hard and I haven’t thought of a good answer for this question. I respect all of the religions and it’s hard to make a case — at least to myself — that I should just pick a religion, you know what I mean?

“I guess my best answer would be, I feel happy that I was able to experience both of the religions the way that I did growing up.”

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Ron Kaplan (@RonKaplanNJ) hosts Kaplan’s Korner, a blog about Jews and sports. He is the author of three books, including The Jewish Olympics: The History of the Maccabiah Games and the forthcoming Hank Greenberg in 1938: Hatred and Home Runs in the Shadow of War.

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mayo

MLB.com reporter Jonathan Mayo is making a documentary about Team Israel, but donations are needed to send his film crew to the World Baseball Classic in South Korea

By Jonathan Mayo, special to Jewish Baseball News

I never thought the two sides of my life would ever come together. Baseball and Israel. I mean, for most of my life, that would be like peanut butter and tomato sauce.

Jews and baseball, now that’s long been a thing. That “Great Jews in Sports” pamphlet they joke about in the movie Airplane? I had that book. There was the documentary Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story, written by the great sportswriter Ira Berkow. Throughout my career covering baseball – two decades’ worth at this point – I’ve long sought out Jewish players and talked to them about their background. I vividly remember standing behind the batting cage at Shea Stadium talking to Shawn Green about how he grew up calling his grandparents Bubbe and Zayde without totally understanding why.

But baseball and Israel? My favorite sport that I’ve been lucky enough to turn into a career, and the Jewish homeland where I studied for a year before college? The American national pastime, c with the nation my sister calls home (on Kibbutz Lotan)? No way, no how.

There has been some baseball in Israel over the years, mostly brought over by Americans who moved there. There was an ill-fated attempt at a professional Israel Baseball League that lasted just one season in 2007, but the country wasn’t ready.

But now, maybe it is, which is unbelievable to say. I recently returned from a life-changing trip to Israel with professional baseball players. There were 10 in total – 9 active and one retired – on the trip, along with significant others, children and friends. About two weeks’ worth was crammed into six days of touring. Historical sites, meeting dignitaries, floating in the Dead Sea, a lot of good food and even a little baseball-related activity. The players soaked up every bit of it.

kickstarter heading home

Click here to see a video about Heading Home and become a supporter

They weren’t just ambassadors of the game, which was the most important objective in many ways. They were ambassadors of American Jewry. Many of these players suited up for Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic qualifier, held in Brooklyn last fall (Israel won). They all had spoken how proud they were to play because they were Jewish.  Now, after this trip, the connection, their bond to Israel, is exponentially stronger. All of them spoke of wanting to come back (7 of the 10 had never been before).

They also spoke of the impact they could have on the growth in Israel of the sport they have loved so long. They made two baseball stops on this whirlwind tour. One was at Baptist Village, where the country’s only real baseball field stands. The players took some batting practice, and then they took questions from the crowd, mostly kids eager to hear every word.

Then there was a groundbreaking at Beit Shemesh for what will be the first full-fledged baseball facility in the country. There were a few hundred, again largely from the younger set, on hand to get autographs and pictures with these Jewish ballplayers. Many of them were American, or their parents were American, and having baseball to play was painted as a way to help them ease into life in a new country and culture.

I was lucky enough to witness all of this first-hand. And I have Jewish sleepaway camp to thank. I went on the trip – organized by the Israel Association of Baseball and Jeff Aeder, who founded the website JewishBaseballMuseum.com – to help make a documentary film about the trip, about Team Israel, and maybe a little bit about these players exploring their Judaism and building a bond with the Jewish homeland. It’s called Heading Home, and the professional filmmakers are from Ironbound Films. Ironbound’s CEO is Jeremy Newberger, who I met at Camp Young Judaea Sprout Lake some 30 or so years ago. We’re embarking on a KickStarter fundraising campaign to raise money so we can follow the team’s exploits in the World Baseball Classic in South Korea in March and include that footage in the film.

Baseball in Israel is still very much in its infancy. There won’t be a coda to the film with an Israeli in the Major Leagues.  Playing in international competition this March might help push it closer to toddlerhood, but there is still a long way to go. The touring players understood this wasn’t going to happen overnight, that it could take 15-20 years to take hold.  Whether the end game was to produce professional-level players from the country was beside the point. Just growing the game, helping people – their people – learn to play it and love it, that would be the biggest Dayenu for all of them.

But players saw a fit there, no matter how foreign the game might seem right now. Baseball, one of them told me, is a game of failure. It will knock you down repeatedly, and success comes to those who keep getting back up. It requires a resilience few people have, a trait the players all saw in the Israelis who welcomed them warmly.

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Jonathan Mayo has been a reporter for MLB.com since 1999, covering Minor League prospects and the Draft. He spends his spare time trying to make sure he knows who every Jew in baseball is. Follow him on Twitter or at MLB.com.

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