When Israel was still a fantasy to its founding fathers, David Ben-Gurion suggested Zionist normalcy would be when Jewish thieves would be arrested by Jewish policemen in Tel Aviv. Check. Ze’ev Jabotinsky imagined a Jewish defense force, tough as any. Check. And little Jewish children on the Coney Island beach dreamed about an all-Jewish baseball team wearing yarmulkes, taking on the world and winning. Put a check next to that fantasy, too. It happened last week in Brooklyn.
Israel was near perfect Sunday night, carrying a no-hitter into the eighth inning (thanks to major leaguers Jason Marquis and Josh Zeid) before defeating Great Britain 9-1 in the opening round of the World Baseball Classic, played in the Brooklyn Cyclones stadium in Coney Island. Team Israel, 3-0 in the round, with more than 20 recently retired major leaguers and current minor leaguers — a magical brew of phenoms, prospects and suspects — is now advancing to the next round of the classic to be held in South Korea, next March.
Oh, and those yarmulkes. When Hatikvah was sung by the Yeshivah of Flatbush choir, the entire Israeli team stood (no Colin Kaepernicks on this team), removed their Israeli-blue baseball caps and placed it over their hearts, as is the American custom, only to show 30 heads wearing the blue Team Israel yarmulkes. First base coach Nate Fish explained, “This is what we do. We represent a Jewish country. We cover our heads.”
In the stands behind home plate, Brett Parker, a Crown Heights Jew – “I’m not Lubavitch but I have a lot of Lubavitch friends” — was wearing a black t-shirt with Brooklyn transliterated into Hebrew. From his ears dangled two gold earrings, and his young black daughter was in his arms. He told me, “It was a beautiful thing, when they played ‘Hatikvah’ and every player put a yarmulke on! I’ve never seen anything like that!”
He turned to his daughter. “Did you like that? Do you like baseball?”
Ryan Lavarnway, 29, a catcher for the Red Sox in the 2013 World Series, and now in the Toronto system, said after the game, “I was more proud to be Jewish and representing Israel than I’ve ever been. It was great to hear ‘Israel’ chanted, to feel the pride that I saw in the little kids. That’s not something that you see very often, little Jewish boys in yarmulkes cheering for [a team of] Jewish athletes. I know that a goal of the team coming in was to raise awareness of baseball in Israel, maybe build some more fields, get some more coaches, grow the game, and I think we started doing that.”
Blake Gailen, 31, a 5-foot-9 outfielder who went to the same high school as Lavarnway, had a more difficult career, playing for the unaffiliated Lancaster Barnstormers this summer. But in the championship game, Gailen and Lavarnway both homered for Israel.
Cody Decker, a witty Crash Davis-style career minor leaguer who is the San Diego Padres’ all-time minor-league home run leader (he went 0-for-11 in his one big league chance in 2015), homered, as well, after placing a “Mentch on the Bentch,” wrapped in a tallis, on the dugout bench. Decker emphatically said the Mentch was going with Team Israel to South Korea, “Yeah!”
Zach Borenstein, who hit a run-scoring single and made a diving catch in right field, is a rising star in the Arizona minors. Dean Kremer, the first Israeli to be drafted by a major league team, closed the game, and is a rising star in the Dodgers system. But others, such as Charlie Cutler, who powered as two-run double, like Gailen, is another unsigned journeyman who played this summer for Lancaster. Will Gailen and Cutler, for all their contributions, make Team Israel in March when the rosters will be opened up to Jewish players on current major league rosters, such as All-Stars Ryan Braun, Ian Kinsler, Joc Pederson and rookie sensation Alex Bregman? Israel’s manager Jerry Weinstein, who coached for the Colorado Rockies, said he wouldn’t forget the strong sense of pride on Israel’s “close and tight team.”
Weinstein said, “I feel very loyal to the group of guys that got us here. I feel we have an obligation to the guys on this team who made the commitment to be with us. As a manager, I’m connected to these guys that helped us to get here. I’d be very happy to take this team anywhere, to be quite honest.”
The players, nine of whom played on Israel’s 2013 WBC team, spoke of how close they’ve become. Decker said, “There was an excitement playing with all these guys having this one thing in common. After elementary school I’ve never played with more than three Jewish guys on a team, and on pro teams even less. This was a very personal thing, one of the best experiences of my baseball life, no question. I cannot stress enough how wonderful this was.” And for the whole team to wear yarmulkes? “Special. I don’t think it’s ever been done before. Very special.”
The only sour note was the attendance, or lack of it. Before the round, which also featured Pakistan and Brazil, along with Israel and Great Britain, The New York Times predicted: “New York being New York… the Cyclones stadium should be bubbling over Thursday and through the weekend, and by no means just with Jewish fans. The multitudinous Little Pakistan neighborhood sits 20 blocks to the north, and Brazilians and Britons are easy enough to find here.”
Instead, the attendance for six games was dismal, an average of 1,974, with the Israel games averaging 2,599 and Pakistan only 1,285. By contrast, the first-round games hosted by Mexicali (Mexico) averaged 9,411, and the games in Panama City averaged 5,920. There were more fans for Israel’s Thursday night game (3,919) than there were for Israel’s Sunday’s 6 p.m. championship game (2,016). The scoreboard welcomed only a handful of Jewish groups that purchased group tickets to cheer-on Israel.
The fans, however, were as enthused as any in Brooklyn’s legendary past. In the fading sunlight, when sailboats and freighters crossed the waters beyond the Coney Island beach, and as the lights came on in the colored bulbs of the Parachute Jump, roller coasters and Tilt-A-Whirl over the outfield walls, the children screamed – in Hebrew, at times – and young girls danced in a circle to Cotton Eyed Joe, as they do at bat mitzvahs. When Israel won, players wrapped themselves in Israeli flags and hugged each other, as champions do.
In the press box, a reporter asked, “There’s a Chabad in South Korea, right?”