Faith, Zionism and Baseball

By James Thurman Kahn

Diaspora Jews Count As Israelis – that is the fact that’s implicitly embedded in the rules of Major League Baseball, a world governing body much more wise, esteemed and ultimately important than the U.N. That’s why we love baseball.

This all began in 2005 when Major League Baseball decided to re-define who is an eligible player for the new World Baseball Classic in a way calculated to expand the international reach of the game. They wanted Mike Piazza, for instance, who had never even set foot in Italy until 2002, to be able to play for the Italian team, which he duly did. But the side effect was that anyone who was eligible to be a citizen of Israel could play for Israel, which in Israel’s case, made you eligible if your grandparent was a Jew. That, ironically or appropriately, was also the criteria the Nazis used to decide whether or not you should be put to death. A subtle breeze began blowing worldwide, simply because these rules are very different from those of the Olympics and the World Cup. For the first time, an exact equivalence between Diaspora Jews and the State of Israel had been smiled upon by International Law.

No legal system is perfect. In 2012, the plate umpire threw Israel’s catcher Charlie Cutler out of the game for asking some perfectly permissible polite questions about some atrociously horrible balls-and-strikes calls. Israel’s pitch-selector was thus removed at a crucial moment, the team lost, and didn’t make the Final Sixteen. But maybe it was God’s Will; Israel wasn’t ready, the world wasn’t ready, and it strengthens character to be forced to wait. Four years passed like a heartsick lullaby, and in September Israel got another chance to make the big tournament that will begin in early March.

In the deciding game this September against Great Britain, a high fastball came within inches of cracking open the bottom of Cody Decker’s skull. Instead it hit his shoulder and he reached first base. Another fastball, thrown by Israeli pitcher Josh Zeid, was hit back at him at twice the speed, and if he hadn’t acrobatically flung his glove up and caught it, it would have smashed through his face and ended his career. These were three days of glorious weather in Coney Island, New York. Ryan Sherriff, who pitched two scoreless innings for Israel in relief, said, “You’re playing for a whole country. It was the greatest experience I’ve ever had in my life.” Former Red Sox catcher Ryan Lavarnway told me that he doesn’t get into politics but he was so proud to be playing for Israel. He kept thinking how great it was that this was happening in Brooklyn, with its rich history in baseball and its large population of Jews.

It seemed from the moment the players took off their caps and put on their kippot for the playing of the national anthem, HaTikvah, at the start of each game, that they were all reflecting on what it means to be a Jew. Those were the under-reported circumstances that perhaps were improving the world. But as we saw in 2016, the direction of the prevailing media narrative can change in unexpected ways.

In a few weeks, in March, some of the best Jewish players will be able – for the first time – to join Israel’s team. Ian Kinsler, Kevin Pillar, former MVP Ryan Braun, and at least seven others couldn’t play in September because the major-league season was still underway, so the less-famous minor-leaguers had to step up – which they did. Many of these players have labored in obscurity in the farm system for more than a decade. Decker has hit the most homeruns of any minor-leaguer from 2009 through 2016, mostly because he should’ve been called up to the majors more than the eleven plate appearances he got in eight years. Blake Gailen, who played high-school baseball in Southern California with Lavarnway, is not even in the MLB system; he plays in the independent leagues. In the deciding game, he came up in a bunting situation and tried to bunt four times. The wind shifted and started blowing out to right field, very rare in this park, where the wind usually blows fiercely in from the Atlantic Ocean just beyond the right-field wall. On the next pitch, Gailen swung away and hit the game-winning homerun.

What poetic justice it was that the two teams Israel had to beat in September were Great Britain and Brazil! Great Britain was the nation that made Israel possible, liberating “Palestine” from the Ottoman Empire. But then the Peel Commission in 1937, and Britain’s furious effort to keep Jews out of Israel from 1937 straight through 1948, nearly turned the two countries into enemies. According to a 2014 poll, the British public now views Israel overwhelmingly negatively [72% neg/19% pos], while the same poll showed that Israelis view the UK overwhelmingly positively [50% pos/6% neg], two facts which together speak volumes about both countries, and also incontrovertibly prove that there was Divine intervention in the outcome of both games.

In between defeating Great Britain twice, Israel’s Corey Baker pitched five shut-out innings in a 1-0 victory against Brazil. Baker was born in New York City, the very city that welcomed in the first American Jews who were fleeing from – where else? – Brazil! In 1654, after the Portuguese took Brazil from the Dutch [and of course the Dutch are one of the teams Israel must now defeat in South Korea in March!] 23 of those Jews fled by boat, were captured by pirates, then liberated by a French ship, and at last landed in the city where this game was played.

Meanwhile, the rest of those Brazilian Jews dispersed instead to Caribbean islands, chiefly Curaçao. And it is only because of Curaçaoan players like Xander Bogaerts that the Dutch team is any good at all! Once he and other Curaçaoans do DNA tests, they may well be playing for Israel in 2021, along with numerous other Bnei Anusim. British-born Ashley Perry’s family has lived in England for 350 years, but earlier, when they fled the Inquisition, their name was Perez. He and his Israeli organization Reconectar estimate that as many as 100 to 150 million Latinos worldwide are at least partly descended from Jews who 500 years ago disguised themselves to escape the persecution of the Spanish and Portuguese.

Throughout history, little events that seemed innocuous at the time have changed civilizations. Jackie Robinson’s small acts of quiet dignity inspired the Civil Rights Movement. Or consider Jeremiah’s decision, in 587 B.C.E., to purchase a worthless deed to an already-conquered “field” – the world’s first baseball field – in Anathoth, Judea, three miles from Jerusalem, because he’d been instructed to do so by The Higher Power ( Jeremiah 32:8). Who knew at the time that was news? The seller could not convey good title, but that wasn’t the point; this symbolic act, many years later, paved the way for the return of the Jews to the land of Israel.

To the Jewish-baseball fan base – not just me! – this is all relevant; we’re addicted to the lessons of History. While few of us still discuss the Prophet Jeremiah and that first baseball field, how could any of us not remain obsessed with the game on September 29th between the Washington Nationals and the New York Mets? And none of us ever needs to explain that we’re talking about the original Washington Nationals and original New York Mets, who played that game on September 29th, 1880, the first game ever and first victory ever for the Mets, who had famed Jewish superstar Lipman Pike in center field. Pike may have been the first professional baseball player, and some argue he launched all of professional sports. He was a power hitter, who once hit six homeruns in one game, and also a speedster, who once outran a race horse in a 100-yard dash. He starred on the Brooklyn Atlantics team which, in 1870, finally ended the 81-game winning streak of the Cincinnati Reds.

How can we convey this heritage to our kids? – that’s what we keep asking, always looking both forward and back. A number of players spoke to me of how much it means to them to be advancing baseball in Israel, where it’s still a newborn sport. On September 25th, 20-year-old Dean Kremer, one of only two Israeli citizens on the team, pitched a scoreless final inning to cement the win in the final game. He used a curveball which comes in to the batter neck-high, then breaks down through the strike zone so sharply that the catcher catches it below the batter’s knees. He speaks fluent Hebrew and might inspire home-grown talent. This country with only a handful of true baseball fields is now building another one in Beit Shemesh.
Now I know what you’re thinking!: Since modern Anata is over the Green Line in Area B and might have to be ceded in any Two-State Solution, is it not possible that this field in Beit Shemesh, only twenty miles away, could stand in for the EXACT baseball field in Anathoth that Jeremiah bought? And furthermore, since the raw land must now be worth at least two million shekels, and Jeremiah bought it for seventeen shekels (Jeremiah, 32:9), meaning that its value grew at an average annual rate of less than ½ of 1%, for 2,603 years, didn’t he get swindled in real estate terms?

But the answer to both of your questions is No! You failed to take into account the change in 1986 when the new shekel replaced the hyper-inflated old shekel at a ratio of 1,000 to 1, plus other adjustments. If you just measure it by the silver content in those shekels, you’ll see it was Hanamel who got taken to the cleaners, and Jeremiah made out like a bandit on that deal. This is baseball talk.

There’s a wonderful book called “I Am Jewish”, a compilation of reflections on what that identity means, written by people of every age, political leaning, religious belief and point of view. It was compiled by Judea Pearl, who lives in Encino, just a few miles from where Manager Jerry Weinstein and ten of his players: Gailen, Lavarnway, Decker, Moscot, Sherriff, Pillar, Satin, Neiman, Burcham and Braun – all grew up. Encino was also the birthplace and childhood home of Judea’s son, Daniel Pearl. “I am Jewish” were his last words.

The writer is a member of the New York board of the Zionist Organization of America