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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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By Scott Barancik, editor

At 6:00pm ET today, Israel released its final, 28-man roster for the World Baseball Classic in South Korea this March.

The list includes a number of players who have never before represented Israel, and a handful who did so both in the 2013 and 2016 WBC qualifiers.

The players are:

  1. Dylan Axelrod, P (free agent)
  2. Corey Baker, P (Cardinals/minors)
  3. Jeremy Bleich, P (free agent)
  4. Zach Borenstein, OF (Arizona/minors)
  5. Craig Breslow, P (Twins/minors)
  6. Danny Burawa, P (free agent)
  7. Scotty Burcham, IF (Rockies/minors)
  8. Gabe Cramer, P (Royals/minors)
  9. Ike Davis, 1B (Dodgers/minors)
  10. Cody Decker, IF (Brewers/minors)
  11. Blake Gailen, OF (independent)
  12. Nate Freiman, 1B (free agent)
  13. Sam Fuld, OF (free agent)
  14. Tyler Herron, P (Mets/minors)
  15. Jake Kalish, P (Royals/minors)
  16. Alex Katz, P (White Sox/minors)
  17. Ty Kelly, IF (New York Mets)
  18. Dean Kremer, P (Dodgers/minors)
  19. Tyler Krieger, IF (Indians/minors)
  20. Ryan Lavarnway, C (Athletics/minors)
  21. Shlomo Lipetz, P (Israel)
  22. Jason Marquis, P (free agent)
  23. Mike Meyers, OF (Red Sox/minors)
  24. Troy Neiman, P (Rockies/minors)
  25. R.C. Orlan, P (Nationals/minors)
  26. Nick Rickles, C (Nationals/minors)
  27. Joey Wagman, P (Athletics/minors)
  28. Josh Zeid, P (free agent)

All but one of the 28 — Shlomo Lipetz — have at least some minor-league experience, and 11 have played in the Majors. Two key additions are Ty Kelly and Sam Fuld. During the qualifiers in September, Kelly was playing for the New York Mets, while Fuld, then with the Oakland Athletics, was on the disabled list.

A number of top Jewish players that general manager Peter Kurz had hoped to attract turned down the offer, and for a variety of reasons. Key among them were Danny ValenciaJoc PedersonRyan BraunKevin Pillar and Jon Moscot. Alex Bregman of the Houston Astros and Ian Kinsler of the Detroit Tigers have committed to play for Team USA.

Israel’s first game will take place March 6 against South Korea, followed by games against Chinese Taipei and the Netherlands. If Israel wins that first-round pool, it will be allowed to replace up to two pitchers on its roster. Options include Scott Feldman and Richard Bleier, among others.

Under WBC rules, athletes can play on Team Israel as long as they are eligible for Israeli citizenship. That means having at least one Jewish grandparent or being married to someone Jewish. Almost all the players on Israel’s roster personally identify as Jewish.

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Rowdy Tellez

Rowdy Tellez

By Scott Barancik, Editor

The latest athlete to join the ranks of Jewish ballplayers is a 6-foot-4-inch first baseman with prodigious power and a promising future with the Toronto Blue Jays.

California native Rowdy Tellez, 21, turned down a roster spot at USC in 2013 when the Blue Jays offered him an $850,000 signing bonus out of Elk Grove High School, an eye-popping figure for a 30th-round draft pick. In its pre-draft scouting report, Baseball America had called Tellez the “best lefthanded power bat” in the 2013 class with a “patient approach at the plate and excellent hand-eye coordination.” A year earlier, he’d won the Perfect Game National Showcase home run derby.

It appears Toronto’s talent spotters knew what they were doing.

Except for a rough start in rookie-league ball, Tellez has paid off for the Jays, shaking off injuries to earn a spot in the prestigious Arizona Fall League in 2015, reach #9 on MLB.com’s list of Toronto’s top minor-league prospects in 2016 (see video), and earn an invitation to the Blue Jays’ 2017 major-league Spring Training camp in Dunedin, FL.

Tellez’s 2016 season was his finest yet. Playing for the New Hampshire Fisher Cats (AA), the son of Lori Bernick Tellez and Greg Tellez hit .297 with 23 home runs (tied for 4th most in the Eastern League), 81 RBIs (5th), a .387 on-base percentage (2nd), .530 slugging percentage (3rd), and .917 OPS (3rd).

Tellez is not alone on the farm. Other Jewish prospects in the Toronto system include OF Jake Thomas, P Jake Fishman, and C Ryan Gold. And of course, at the Major League level there’s Superman himself, star centerfielder Kevin Pillar.

Please join us in welcoming Rowdy to the family, and follow him on Twitter.

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