Before embarking on a series of exhibition games in advance of the Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, Team Israel faced off on Sunday afternoon against the FDNY at Maimonides Park in Coney Island.
In Tokyo, Israel will face Japan, Mexico, South Korea, the United States and the Dominican Republic. The 24 players on the Olympic roster could not be more excited.
Sunday’s contest was a celebration of what Team Israel represents for Israel and the Jewish people. Its 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.
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.
Lipetz, vice president of programming for City Winery, says he is proud of how far Team Israel has come since the last Olympics. “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.
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.
Pitcher Joey Wagman, 29, was drafted by the Chicago White Sox in the 17th round of 2013 draft. Over the past three months, Wagman has played professional baseball in the Czech Republic. “It was a different pace of baseball — a decent, relaxed environment, where I could control pitch counts and innings, and it served its purpose as prep for the Olympics.”
Danny Valencia, 36, is arguably Team Israel’s most accomplished player, having played for eight Major League teams, with 795 hits and 95 home runs in 3,000-plus plate appearances. He says he is looking forward to representing Israel in Tokyo.
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.”
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, Israel scoring 12 runs on 15 hits, with the first run at the top of the sixth.