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Just before the start of a recent showdown, members of Israel’s national baseball team gathered along the third baseline at Maimonides Park on Coney Island and replaced their baseball caps with yarmulkes in preparation for singing the Israeli national anthem.
But only a few players could speak Hebrew well enough to sing along.
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The team, which is currently touring in New York, has only four players based in the country. The rest of the 24-player list consists mostly of American players whose Jewish roots allow them under Olympic rules to play for the team.
It’s a ragtag collection of retired major leagues, current minor leagues and even some weekend warriors with day jobs: The team’s veteran pitcher works in Manhattan as head of programming for City Winery, a wine, food and music area. Another pitcher is an investment analyst with Goldman Sachs. An exporter of bathroom fittings is the team’s general manager.
Four years ago, the team was ranked 48th in the world, but they shocked the baseball world qualification for the World Baseball Classic, which makes it the second round of the tournament. In 2019, they continued their surprising race by qualifying for the Olympics.
Currently in the middle of a warm-up tour of the New York area, Team Israel will compete in Tokyo against five other qualifying countries: the United States, Japan, the Dominican Republic, Korea and Mexico.
“We’re kidding that we’re a combination of the Bad News Bears and the Jamaican bobsled team,” said team coach Barry Weinberg, whose famous major league career included coaching the New York Yankees, Oakland A and St. Louis Cardinals. He has earned seven World Series rings and has massaged painful joints such as Thurman Munson and Reggie Jackson.
At Maimonides Park on July 11, some fans waved Israeli flags. Others wore hats and shirts with the Star of David. A fan wore a T-shirt by a rabbi who threw a baseball that contained the words “Jew Crew”, a reference to the national team, which also wore sharp blue uniforms with the Star of David.
Team Israel gave the audience a show and beat Bravest, the club team of the New York City Fire Department, 12 to 3.
The squad probably has more fans in New York than in Israel, said Peter Kurz, the inventory exporter who is the team’s general manager.
Maybe 1,000 people play organized baseball in Israel, since official ball fields are scarce there, Kurz said, and the last Israeli team to qualify for the Olympics “in a team sport with a ball” was the men’s soccer team in 1976.
Under Olympic rules, players can qualify to be on the team if they travel to Israel and obtain citizenship, which the country grants to anyone who has at least one Jewish parent, grandparent or spouse.
For many players, being on the team has connected them or connected them to their Jewish identity. “We have a chemistry, a brotherhood, that no other team has, that tribal feeling,” said the musty Matt Soren, 30, who has an evil slider.
He grew up idolizing baseball’s short but famous list of great Jewish players, from Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg to more modern stars like Shawn Green. They gave hope that he too could play professionally.
Mr. Soren, who lives in Astoria and coaches the youth baseball team on Long Island, was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in 2013 and cast professionally for five seasons, including stints with the independent league Long Island Ducks and New Jersey Jackals. He said he was often the only Jewish player.
“We want to win not only for ourselves, but for young children in Israel to see it and know that they can do it too,” said Soren.
Team Israel was formed in the 1990s, but rarely had much success until recently. One challenge was to find the best available Jewish players, even those whose Jewish heritage was not as obvious, as Ty Kelly and Danny Valencia, both former Major Leaguers in the Olympic team whose mothers are Jewish.
“It’s not hard to find Cohens and the Levys, but try to find a Ty Kelly,” said Kurz, who has been obsessed with hitting baseball bushes for Jewish players.
Over the past decade, the team has had 18 American players fly to Israel to create aliya, the Hebrew term for homecoming that results in citizenship.
In 2017, the team used a private jet owned by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson to fly a group of players to Israel for their citizenship, including former major leagues Ike Davis, Ryan Lavarnway and Jon Moscot.
It was the same year the team first made a mark on the baseball world by finishing sixth in the World Baseball Classic. They traveled with their “Mensch on the Bench” mascot, a dummy of a Hasidic man who had his own closet and stain in the excavation and received ceremonial offerings such as Manischewitz and gefilte fish. (The mascot has since retired in hopes of cultivating a more modern image.)
The team’s current star is Ian Kinsler, 39, second baseman and a four-time All-Star. He announced his retirement from the majors in early 2020 and quickly gained citizenship in March, just before Israel locked itself in to curb the spread of coronavirus. Mr. Kurz said he has spoken with the father of Jacob Steinmetz, 17, a Long Island pitcher who recently became possibly the first Orthodox Jewish player selected in the main draft, about his son joining the team.
Major league players are currently unable to play for the team even if they qualify, as the Olympics fall during the season. Most smaller and independent league players, on the other hand, can take a break to play in the Olympics.
One of them, DJ Sharabi, 29, a member of Team Israel who currently plays for the Sioux Falls Canaries, a minor league team in South Dakota, is a faithful observant Jew who prays morning prayers wearing a prayer shawl every day and keeps kosher despite difficulties. with finding kosher restaurants.
Mr. Kurz and his team of unofficial scouts rely on word of mouth and create drafts and lists of Jewish-sounding names to recruit players.
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In the case of Mr. Kelly, he signed autographs after a minor league game and mentioned to some young fans wearing yarmulkes about his Jewish heritage. The boys’ father happened to know Mr. Kurz and called him.
Mr. Kurz heard about the Jewish identity of another player, Scotty Burcham, a 28-year-old shortstop, when one of the team’s scouts saw on the player’s mother’s Facebook page that she might be Jewish.
Mr. Kurz had been told that Valencia, 36, had a Jewish mother. His father is Cuban and had converted to Judaism.
Scott Barancik, a journalist who runs Jewish Baseball News, a website that lists Jewish ball players and publishes a feature called “Not a Jew” to eliminate the confusion caused by the Jewish-sounding names of non-Jews, was able to to find a public announcement about Mr. Valencia’s bar mitzvah in an online newspaper.
Mr. Valencia, who had spent nine years in the major leagues before retiring in 2018, received his Israeli citizenship to play for Team Israel.
Players now share a room in a New Jersey hotel, train at a smaller league stadium in Rockland County, north of New York City, and travel by bus to play against college troops, local independent league teams and club teams.
The trip has the feeling of an old-fashioned children’s storming exhibition. However, due to the current unrest between Israel and Palestine, security at the stadiums has been tight and armed Israeli security agents act as protection.
But inside Maimonides Park on July 11, the atmosphere was festive. Mr. Soren took the mound in the seventh round in front of his own cheering department: family and friends from his hometown of Roslyn, NY
Nearby, Brandon Lakind and his friend Cameron Johnson, high school students from Randolph, NJ, said they had followed the team.
“It’s crazy to see them make the top six teams in the world,” Brandon said. “It’s pretty cool.”
One fan, Ed Schneider (65), said he had participated in 13 Olympics but could not participate this summer due to a ban on spectators as a result of the pandemic.
“I’m here because I love an underdog, and this is the closest I’ll get to traveling to Tokyo,” said Mr. Schneider, a Long Island marketing consultant.
He was once an athlete, and said it was not possible to make Team Israel.
“I’m a Catholic,” he said.