David Leichman's primary claim to fame these days is that he is married to Rabbi Miri Gold, the first non-Orthodox rabbi to receive state funding in Israel. Today, though, David got to stake a different historical claim. He is a board member of the Israel Association of Baseball and one of the lead organizers of Team Israel, Israel's entry in the World Baseball Classic. The team played its first game ever tonight in Jupiter, Florida, beating South Africa 7-3.
Win or lose, though, it was thrilling just to see a group of professional baseball players on a field all wearing uniforms with the name "Israel" across their chests. David told me that he believes it is, "Without question, the best Jewish baseball team in history ever to play together."
With a roster made up mostly of minor league prospects and recently retired major leaguers, he's probably right about that. (Only three members of the team, including David's son, Alon Leichman, are actual Israeli citizens.) Of course, there is not much to compare to this team. There haven't been too many attempts in history to put together an all-star Jewish baseball team.
For me, watching tonight's game was like watching worlds collide. After my family, Torah, and the Jewish people, baseball is the great love of my life. Seeing this marriage of baseball and Israel in a stadium just 30 miles from my home in southern Florida was thrilling and, at the same time, a bit surreal. I had a momentary break from reality in the ninth inning, when Israel brought in a relief pitcher named Shlomo Lipetz, and the crowd started chanting, "Let's go, Shlomo!" I thought I had wandered into a Michael Chabon short story, or, perhaps, an alternate universe in which baseball was invented by Avner ben Dubi Dag.
And, yes, that was me in the third inning trying to start a cheer for Israel by shouting, "Give me a yud!" It was also me in the sixth shouting, "Hit a homer for your bubbe, Shawn!"
So, here is a little summary of Team Israel's historic game. (I always wanted to be a newspaper sports writer.)
The scoring started in the top of the first when Israel's first baseman, Nate Freiman sent a line drive over the fence in left. Israel was up 1-0. That is where the score stayed for the next six innings.
In the bottom of the sixth, South Africa put its first two batters on base. A swinging bunt moved the runners to second and third with one out. At that point, Israel brought in relief pitcher Josh Zeid to get out of the jam. Relying on a fastball in the low 90s, he struck out the first South African batter he faced. After intentionally walking the next batter to load the bases, Zeid induced a popup to short. Inning over. Score still 1-0.
In the top of the seventh, Israel replayed the same script by putting two on and moving them over to second and third with a bunt. After that, things went only slightly better for Israel than they had for South Africa. Israel scored one run in the inning on a wild pitch. Israel ahead, 2-0.
In the eighth, Israel broke the game open. With two out, Shawn Green (yes, that Shawn Green) reached on a botched infield play, ruled a hit, and advanced to second on a passed ball. The next batter for Israel walked and Jack Marder was hit by a pitch to load the bases with two out. Charlie Cutler then had the play of the game with a double lined just above the reach of South Africa's first baseman. As the ball rolled down the right field line, all three Team Israel runners came around to score. Israel had a commanding 5-0 lead.
In the bottom of the eighth, South Africa went down, echat, shtayim, shalosh.
In the top of the ninth, Israel added two more runs with Nate Freiman's second dinger and an RBI single by Shawn Green. Israel ahead, 7-0.
The bottom of the ninth was an adventure. Shlomo Lipetz ("Let's go, Shlomo!") could not find the strike zone. He put the first two batters he faced on base with two walks on just nine pitches. After getting a pop fly out, he walked a third batter to load the bases. Bye-bye, Shlomo. Enter, Jeff Kaplan to the mound.
Kaplan walked the first batter he faced to give South Africa its first run and then induced an easy grounder to shortstop that was badly booted. The error scored another run and reloaded the bases. Kaplan retained his cool following the error. A quick groundout from catcher to first produced another run for South Africa, but also the second out. A pop fly to short ended the game. Israel wins, 7-3.
How do you beat that? Well, I got former Red Sox outfielder Gabe Kapler to sign my Team Israel cap. Now that is what I call Jewish joy.
Other Posts on This Topic:
Pesach and Opening Day
Thoughts on Torah, Redemption and Spring Training
Why Torah is Like Baseball