MLB Vets Immerse in Jewish Heritage, Build Israel Baseball

There's a heavy New York influence in the Israeli baseball team, which is competing in the Olympics

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Now an Olympian representing the country, Ian Kinsler traveled to Israel for the first time last year with his wife Tess, just before the coronavirus pandemic became widespread.

“I think we were on one of the last flights to leave Tel Aviv, to come back to Newark,” he said. “We want to get our kids over there. I know my dad wants to go. So we definitely want to get back soon.”

A four-time big league All-Star, the 39-year-old Kinsler is playing for Israel's baseball team in the Olympics, part of a 24-man roster that includes former Major League Baseball players Danny Valencia, Ryan Lavarnway and Ty Kelly.

The small nation of 8 million has boosted its baseball profile because of Peter Kurz, a native New Yorker who has lived in the U.S. and Israel since the 1970s. A marketing and export consultant, he serves as the team’s general manager and helped recruit Kinsler and the other players.

“Religion was not a part of my upbringing,” said Lavarnway, a 10-year major league veteran at catcher. “We celebrated holidays for the Hallmark purposes, for presents and just to have a good time as a family. But I felt like once I dove into the deep end of embracing my Judaism — my wife is Jewish, we had a Jewish wedding, I was part of the Jewish community in Denver — I feel like the purpose and the meaning behind things, it means so much more to me now and just understanding the why behind the what has become really important.”

Israel opened with a 6-5, 10-inning loss to defending South Korea, when Lavarnway hit a pair of home runs and Kinsler also went deep, then lost to the United States 8-1, putting it in an elimination game Sunday against Mexico. The team’s pitching challenges became evident when Jeremy Bleich, a Pittsburgh front office assistant who last pitched professionally in 2019, hit batters on consecutive pitches for the final run of the opener, and relievers against the Americans included 42-year right-hander Shlomo Lipetz, whose day job is director of music programming at New York’s City Winery.

"I play on weekends. I practice as much as possible -- early in the morning, late at night,” Lipetz said.

He retired Boston prospect Triston Casas on a groundout, got Todd Frazier to line into an inning-ending double play and gave up a single to Eric Filia.

“Call me delusional. I think I can get anyone out,” Lipetz said.

Infielder Ty Kelly, a three-year big league veteran who last played in the major leagues in 2018, came out of retirement and saw action at Seattle’s Triple-A Tacoma before the Olympics. He grew up with a Jewish mother and a Catholic father in Dallas.

"Before the 2017 World Baseball Classic, Peter reached out to me when I was in the Mets organization. I was in Triple-A at the time in Las Vegas,” Kelly said. “He found out that I was Jewish. A teammate of mine in 2009, my first professional year, was Jewish, and I guess we had talked about being Jewish. And one of his family friends came to the game in Brooklyn and then we talked about being Jewish, and he knew Peter Kurz.”

Manager Eric Holtz, a former assistant coach at Manhattanville and Westchester Community College, was a player-coach in Dan Duquette’s Israel Baseball League in 2007. He became an assistant coach about six years later for Nate Fish at the Maccabiah Games — with future major league pitcher Dean Kremer as their left fielder.

Holtz returned to the Maccabiah Games coaching the U.S., won the gold medal, and at Kurz’s behest, became Israel’s coach. He relies on a positive nature and knows his limits — especially with someone like Kinsler, who has 1,999 big league hits.

“I have the respect of the guys,” Holtz said. “If I see something in Danny Valencia’s swing, we’re going to talk about it. But at the same token, what am I going to say to a guy that played nine, 10 years in the big leagues about what he’s doing? We may discuss his approach a little bit, but for me it’s more of the personal side. That to me is a big key in coaching, period, is understanding what makes every one of your players tick. How do I get into them?”

The team played exhibition games in the New York area before going to Japan and received financial support from the Jewish National Fund-USA’s Project Baseball, which also is helping build baseball fields in Israel.

Some of the players wore Stars of David on their spikes. While they all take pride in playing for Israel and their Jewish heritage, the team is U.S. based.

“Tonight it’s a little bit more weird, having the national anthem played prior to `Hatikvah,'” Holtz said after the game against the U.S. “It’s just neat when you have guys that buy into a dream. And the dream was for us to get here, and here we’re competing. And nobody cares about the name on the back. Nobody’s playing for money. Nobody’s playing for a contract or the next contract. They’re all playing for the name on the front of the jersey.”


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