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israel trip

Trailed by a documentary film crew, 10 Jewish ballplayers will be touring Israel from January 3-10, 2017

By Stuart M. Katz, correspondent

When centerfielder Sam Fuld and nine other Jewish athletes head to Israel on January 3 for what might be dubbed a ‘Baseball Birthright’ trip, they won’t be alone.

Wives, parents, sons, and a fiancée will be traveling with this minyan of Major League players and prospects, all of whom plan to represent Israel at the World Baseball Classic taking place in South Korea in March 2017. Team Israel qualified for the quadrennial contest by winning a qualifying tournament in September.

Also coming along for the ride? A film crew.

MLB.com reporter Jonathan Mayo (Twitter) and Ironbound Films co-founder Jeremy Newberger (Twitter) plan to create a documentary titled Heading Home about the one-week trip. For most of the players, it will be their first visit to the Jewish homeland.

“The idea for the film came first,” Mayo told Jewish Baseball News. “It wasn’t originally planned around the WBC, but after Team Israel qualified, it all came together.”

Mayo said he and Newberger, childhood friends from camp Young Judea, are getting a lot of help. Driving forces behind the project include the Jewish National Fund’s Project Baseball, JewishBaseballMuseum.com founder Jeff Aeder, and Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the United States.

Although plans for the film have not been finalized, Mayo expects the documentary will be screened at film festivals and air on MLB.com.

Fuld, who sat out the Oakland Athletics’ 2016 season with a rotator-cuff injury, will be joined on the trip by Ty Kelly of the New York Mets, Josh Zeid of the New York Mets’ organization, Ryan Lavarnway of the Athletics’ farm system, Jon Moscot of the Cincinnati Reds’ system, free agents Ike Davis and Cody Decker, former MLB outfielder Gabe Kapler (now director of player development for the Los Angeles Dodgers), St. Louis Cardinals prospect Corey Baker, and former MLB prospect, Jeremy Bleich, currently playing in the Dominican Winter League. Danny Valencia of the Seattle Mariners planned to come but had to drop out for family reasons.

A key motivation behind the trip and documentary is to build support for baseball within Israel, where soccer and basketball are king. The Israel Association of Baseball, hopes to recruit new players as well as raise funds to expand the country’s meager baseball infrastructure.

In addition to visiting Masada, the Dead Sea, an Israeli Air Force base, the Old City in Jerusalem and Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, the 10 ballplayers will conduct public practices and meet local dignitaries and ballplayers.

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Stuart M. Katz is a die-hard Yankees fan. An attorney at Cohen and Wolf in Bridgeport, Conn., he chairs the firm’s Litigation Group, practicing mainly employment law, and represents employers as well as executives.

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By Sam Brief, Correspondent

In September’s qualifying round for the 2017 World Baseball Classic (WBC), Colorado Rockies prospect Scotty Burcham tallied a .455 batting average, the best on Team Israel and among the top 15 for all teams.

If not for Facebook, Burcham might never have swung a bat in Brooklyn.

Since anyone who is Jewish or has a Jewish parent, grandparent or spouse can play for Team Israel, volunteers like Alex Jacobs, a Houston Astros scout, were asked to help find such players. Jacobs often employed creative methods.

Jewish baseball fans didn't know that Colorado Rockies prospect Scotty Burcham was Jewish until a volunteer scout for Team Israel 'discovered' him

Jewish baseball fans didn’t know Colorado Rockies prospect Scotty Burcham was Jewish until a volunteer scout for Team Israel ‘discovered’ him

“It’s Facebook stalking,” said Jacobs, who recently was named Team Israel’s director of player personnel. “I researched Scotty Burcham, and I found his Facebook. When I research these kids, I look for their parents, and I see if their parents have any Jewish in them. His mother was from New York, I believe. So I checked one box. Then, I looked at a picture of her and thought she looked kind of Jewish.

“So I called [Team Israel manager] Jerry Weinstein and said, ‘How about Scotty Burcham?’ And he said ‘Scotty Burcham? What do you have on him?’ And I’m like, ‘He plays shortstop. He’s Jewish. His mom looks like she’s Jewish.’ So Jerry called Scotty’s manager, and the manager asked Scotty if he was Jewish, and Scotty said, ‘Yeah, I am. Why do you ask?’ And the rest is history. He played really well for us.”

Burcham filled a gaping roster hole in the middle infield and helped Team Israel win the WBC qualifiers for the first time. Israel took down Great Britain and Brazil and then crushed Great Britain, 9-1, in the championship game, to advance to the March 2017 WBC games in Seoul, South Korea.

Houston Astros scout Alex Jacobs (left) and Los Angeles Dodgers scout Jonah Rosenthal (right) volunteered to help Team Israel build its roster for the World Baseball Classic

Houston Astros scout Alex Jacobs (left) and Los Angeles Dodgers scout Jonah Rosenthal (right) volunteered to help Team Israel build its roster for the World Baseball Classic

Israel’s 28-man roster in Brooklyn included former Major League Baseball players such as Ike Davis, Jason Marquis and Josh Satin, who skipped the final game to fly to California for the birth of his child. But Israel’s Law of Return made the roster-building process unlike any other, as the team would venture outside of the database of ballplayers already identified as Jewish.

The WBC’s rules state that a player can join a country’s team if he is eligible for citizenship within that country. Per Israel’s Law of Return, citizenship can be granted to anyone who has a Jewish parent, grandparent or spouse.

“We’re looking for ballplayers who can meet the Law of Return for the land of Israel and become Israeli citizens,” said Peter Kurz, the president of the Israeli Association of Baseball. “That’s a much wider interpretation than the actual Jewish law, which says that you have to have a Jewish mother in order to be considered as a Jew. We were able to make it a little broader.”

Kurz added that Paul Goldschmidt of the Arizona Diamondbacks, whose father is Jewish, doesn’t qualify since he is devoutly Christian.

“We don’t want people who don’t feel Jewish heritage,” Kurz said.

Volunteers like Houston’s Jacobs, Jonah Rosenthal of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Guy Stevens of the Kansas City Royals, and baseball veterans Adam Gladstone and Ty Eriksen uncovered some previously-unknown gems, such as Burcham. But MLB’s rules require proof of eligibility. That was Kurz’s job. Jacobs, Rosenthal and the others gave Kurz the names, Kurz reached out to the players and proved a Jewish connection, and Weinstein managed the team.

“I would get the emails or numbers of their parents, and in almost every case, the parents were totally thrilled that their sons would compete for Team Israel,” Kurz said. “They would send in their son’s Bar Mitzvah certificate, or a birth certificate or a bris certificate. In some cases, I would need a birth certificate of the father. And in other cases, I would have to go to a grandparent.”

It wasn’t always so straightforward. For one player, a tombstone with a Jewish star had to serve as proof.

“The father went to take a picture of his mother’s tombstone, and sent it to me,” Kurz said. “That was the most extreme.”

In between identifying Jewish players and providing proof of their eligibility to MLB officials, Team Israel had to secure each player’s commitment to play. Some former MLBers, like Davis and Marquis, were tougher gets.

“I called both those guys twenty-something times before I got a return call,” Weinstein said. “Marquis had basically retired in the middle of 2015, when he was playing with the Reds. But he pitched on an alumni team in the [National Baseball Congress] World Series in Wichita, and scouts told me he pitched pretty well. So that sparked my interest in him. … He said, ‘I’m gonna check with my wife,’ then he said, ‘I’ll do it.’ He was a great teammate, and a great pitcher on the team.

“Ike Davis got his release from the Yankees, so he was hanging loose, and the timing was just right.”

Team Israel began with a list of known Jewish players maintained by Jewish Baseball News and Jewish Sports Review. Because certain positions were underrepresented, particularly in the middle infield, Weinstein asked his volunteer scouts to find unknowns.

“A lot of what we did was scouring through systems, like college rosters, to find more,” said Rosenthal, the Dodgers scout. “It was an all-hands-on-deck approach. Some of these guys we hadn’t seen. But we weren’t dealing with the biggest demographic out there. Sometimes it involved calling scouts. Sometimes it involved digging for information.” Roughly half a dozen previously-unknown players were discovered as a result of these efforts.

In March, Team Israel will head to Seoul to face off against Chinese Taipei, South Korea and the Netherlands in Pool A of the WBC, where a total of 16 teams will compete for the title of world’s best.

Unlike the qualifiers, which took place during MLB’s regular season, the WBC will take place during the offseason. Kurz and Weinstein hope to add several Major Leaguers to Israel’s roster, including Joc Pederson (who played for Israel in the 2013 WBC qualifiers), Scott Feldman, Alex Bregman, Ian Kinsler, Ryan Braun, Sam Fuld, and more. Weinstein said Kansas City Royals 3B Mike Moustakas, who is married to a Jewish woman, would be eligible if not for a recent stint on the disabled list.

However the roster pans out, volunteers like Gladstone, Jacobs and Rosenthal hope Israel’s success on the international stage will boosts its popularity within the country, which has been a consistent goal. In early January, players will head to Israel for a team trip.

“When we got that final out in Brooklyn, to know the positives that it would do for growing the game in Israel is amazing,” Gladstone said. “It’s not only the money, but also the equipment and notoriety. You felt like you accomplished something. You had a very small part in growing the game of baseball, and for providing opportunities for young kids in Israel who maybe wouldn’t have that if we didn’t win a baseball game.”

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sam brief mugSam Brief is a sophomore at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, where he is a television reporter, radio producer, play-by-play man and writer. Follow him on Twitter @sambrief and feel free to shoot him an email at briefsam@gmail.com.

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The 16 Jewish Cubs

The first Jewish Cub

The first Jewish Cub

By Scott Barancik, Editor

On September 5, 1927, Lefty Weinert tossed a 6-1, complete-game win over the St. Louis Cardinals in the first game of a doubleheader at Wrigley Field, yielding 5 hits and no earned runs.

It wasn’t just the 25-year-old southpaw’s Chicago Cubs premiere. It also marked the very first Jewish appearance in this storied franchise’s history.

Another lengthy dry spell would follow. The next Jewish Cub didn’t appear until September 7, 1942, when 23-year-old third baseman Cy Block went 2-for-4 with an RBI double in his Major League debut.

In time, the numbers grew. Through 2016, a total of 16 Jewish players had worn a Cubs uniform. The most recent: outfielder Ryan Kalish, who first played for Chicago in 2014 and earned a .444 on-base percentage in 10 plate appearances during the 2016 regular season.

 

Jewish Cubs

  1. Ryan Kalish, OF (2014, 2016)
  2. Scott Feldman, P (2013)
  3. John Grabow, P (2009-11)
  4. Sam Fuld, CF (2007, 2009-10)
  5. Jason Marquis, P (2007-08)
  6. Adam Greenberg, CF (2005)
  7. Andrew Lorraine, P (1999-2000)
  8. Jose J. Bautista, P (1993-94)
  9. Ken Holtzman, P (1965-71, 1978-79)
  10. Dave A. Roberts, P (1977-78)
  11. Steve Stone, P (1974-76)
  12. Art Shamsky, 1B (1972)
  13. Ed Mayer, P (1957-58)
  14. Hy Cohen, P (1955)
  15. Cy Block, 3B (1942, 1945-46)
  16. Lefty Weinert, P (1927-28)

The roster of Jewish Cubs is dominated by pitchers. Over the decades, a total of 11 hurlers have combined for 165 wins against 156 losses and a 4.07 ERA. Kenny Holtzman tossed two of the franchise’s 10 no-hitters and racked up 80 wins, tying him for 23rd-most in Cub history. Steve Stone, who also pitched for the White Sox, played three seasons with the Cubs before going on to earn a Cy Young Award with the Baltimore Orioles.

A partial box score from Lefty Weinert's Chicago Cub debut on September 5, 1927 (click for full box score)

A partial box score from Lefty Weinert’s Chicago Cub debut on September 5, 1927 (click image for full box score)

Pitchers are so dominant on the list that they account for 75 percent of all at-bats by Jewish Cubs — and eight of nine Jewish home runs. Position players have hit .253 with a .343 on-base percentage for the Cubs but managed just one home run in 328 combined at-bats, a solo shot by CF Sam Fuld on the last day of the 2009 regular season.

Art Shamsky burned the Cubs twice. In 1969, the outfielder hit .300 with the New York Mets to help deliver Chicago its most devastating late-season collapse. In 1972, in the twilight of his career, Shamsky managed just two hits in his only 16 at-bats as a Cub.

Ryan Kalish played for the Cubs in 2014 and 2016

Ryan Kalish played for the Cubs in 2014 and 2016

Theo Epstein, the Cubs’ president of baseball operations, assembled the roster that led to the team’s 2016 World Series triumph. There were no Jewish players in uniform during the Cubs’ playoff run, however. Kalish, who hit .368 at Triple-A in 2016, was left off the Major League roster and declared his free agency on October 11.

There was one Jewish Cub in a World Series, if only briefly. Cy Block entered Game 6 of the 1945 Series against Hank Greenberg‘s Detroit Tigers as a pinch-runner in the 9th inning with the score tied 7-7. Although he didn’t cross home plate, Chicago went on to beat Detroit 8-7 in 12 innings despite a Greenberg home run.

Detroit, of course, won Game 7, launching what would be a 70-year World Series drought for the Cubs that would finally end, gloriously, in 2016.

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By Scott Barancik, editor

A Jewish duo keyed Oakland’s 4-3 win yesterday over the Astros (9/18/2015).

Danny Valencia supplied the power. Batting cleanup, the mid-season acquisition hit a solo HR in the 4th inning and a two-run shot in the 8th that proved to be the game-winner.

Sam Fuld furnished the glove. Houston was up 2-0 in the 3rd inning and had men on first and second base with no outs when Carlos Correa smashed a shot to left-center. Fuld, playing center, sprinted 58 feet toward left and made a leaping, backhanded catch that evoked memories of his heyday as “Super Sam.”

“We get accustomed to seeing it because [Fuld’s] so great at it, but, I mean, it definitely changes the game,” Valencia told MLB.com. “It keeps the runs down; it keeps the score down. If he doesn’t make that play, there’s a good chance we could still be playing or end up on the other side of it.”

Valencia’s homers were his career-high 15th and 16th of the season and marked his first two-dinger game since 9/25/2010, his rookie year with the Minnesota Twins. The Miami native also singled and walked for a perfect day at the plate.

It was a fitting if slightly early birthday present for Valencia, who turns 31 today. Many Blue Jays fans were distraught when Toronto placed the Miami native on waivers earlier this season. Valencia had hit .296 off the bench with 7 HRs, 13 doubles and 29 RBIs in 162 at-bats. One blogger wondered aloud whether Oakland’s pick-up just might be the best mid-season acquisition off waivers in the past decade.

The blogger proved prescient. Since joining Oakland, Valencia has hit shown even more power, hitting .278 with 9 HRs and 31 RBIs in only 133 at-bats. For the full season, he’s hitting .288 with 16 HRs, 60 RBIs, 20 doubles, a .333 on-base percentage, and a .525 slugging percentage.

 

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By Scott Barancik, editor

Here’s what’s happening in Major League Baseball.

Ryan Braun hit his 250th career home run Wednesday. Among Jewish players, only legends Hank Greenberg (331) and Shawn Green (328) have hit more. The homer, Braun’s 20th of the season, came against the Cubs’ Jason Hammel, the same pitcher who gave up Braun’s 249th round-tripper on July 31. Unfortunately, it came in Wrigley Field, where the silence was audible.

Braun, who added two singles Wednesday, is the 19th active Major League player with 250 or more HRs and the second youngest next to Prince Fielder. He is one home run behind Brewers career leader Robin Yount.

Speaking of home runs, Oakland’s Danny Valencia hit a massive shot to center Wednesday against Toronto, his 10th home run of the season and third since joining the A’s on August 5. Meanwhile, teammate Sam Fuld made two highlight-reel plays in the field, throwing out the Blue Jays’ Troy Tulowitzki at home plate, and — in a classic Jew vs. Jew moment — makes a spectacular catch in left to rob Kevin Pillar of extra bases. (Pillar, who doubled earlier in the game, got the last laugh as Toronto won its 10th straight, 10-3.)

Houston’s Scott Feldman pitched six shutout innings Wednesday in a 2-0 win over the Giants, yielding just four hits and a walk while striking out four. It was the 6’7″ right-hander’s first win since May 26, having sat out nearly 2 months this season after getting knee surgery.

 

 

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