(This is Part Two of Clinton Riddle’s profile of Team Israel. For Part One, click here)
This isn't Jerry Weinstein's first rodeo. He'd probably be the first to tell you that the game is the same, regardless of the forum in which it's being played. If he felt any pressure, you'd never know it.
After a HOF college career spent primarily with Sacramento City College, coaching with Team USA in the 1987 Pan American Games (carrying a roster full of future pros), as well as the '92 and '96 US baseball teams in the Olympics (winning a bronze in '96), winning a gold with the US team in the 2005 Maccabiah Games, and spending the last ten years in the pro ranks in multiple capacities (he will manage the Double-A Hartford Yard Goats in 2017), there is little he hasn't seen on a diamond.
He's even written several books, perhaps most notably Baseball Coach's Survival Guide in 1998 and The Complete Handbook of Coaching Catchers in 2014, and both were well-received. His work with catching prospect Wilin Rosario after the 2012 season resulted in his passed ball totals being cut by more than half and a .987 fielding percentage in 2013. Rosario's bat was expected to play, easily, but the improvement in his defense made him an All-Star caliber catcher.
Coach Weinstein made the trip to Israel in 2007, and bears fond memories from the time he spent there.
“My first trip (to Israel) was in 2005 for the Maccabiah Games, and we were there for about a month. It was a fabulous experience,” said Coach Weinstein. “The group of kids we took were really good kids; I liked them. And then to experience everything there is that goes with a trip to Israel...it was just a great experience.”
One of the strengths of this roster is the quickness with which they came together, something he noticed during the qualifying round in New York, just a few months ago.
“This team is a little bit different from the team we took to Brooklyn for the qualifier, but that team, the chemistry was immediate,” he recalled, “and I expect that will be the case with the current team.”
“Everybody who's going on this trip is excited about doing it.”
Along with Coach Weinstein, Tom Gamboa has joined the staff permanently after having filled in for another coach who had to withdraw due to a family illness. Also on the staff is Jerry Narron (third base coach), Nate Fish (first base coach), Andrew Lorraine (pitching coach) and Alon Leichman (bullpen coach), a group of coaches with decades of experience from which to draw.
Coach Weinstein is seemingly ready for anything, and will look to utilize his pitchers as efficiently as possible. “Our strength is going to be pitching match-ups; we're not going to be running anyone out there for high pitch counts,” Coach Weinstein offered.
However, his approach beyond that is simple. “Strategy-wise, you just put people in positions where they can be successful, and not ask them to do something they can't do.”
Asked about his general approach going into the WBC as it begins in South Korea, Coach Weinstein kept it simple. “Well, hopefully we run into a few cookies, and keep the opposing batters off-balance with pitching match-ups,” he said. “That's been our approach in the qualifier, and hopefully it will work in the WBC.”
The story of Team Israel is, of course, making the rounds on news sites, blogs, podcasts, and social media platforms. Some will follow the team during their time in the WBC, others will seemingly forget why this particular story is so much more important than the average sports fare.
A prominent figure among baseball scribes, Jonathan Mayo took the subject to heart. There have been Jewish baseball players perhaps for as long as the professional game has existed, but while some players were observant or at least knowledgeable about their heritage, Mayo found that many knew little about the culture that binds them all. A number of the Jewish-American players on Team Israel had never taken their taglit, often referred to as the 'birthright' trip to the Holy Land.
“The germ for the idea came from the 2012 qualifiers, but they didn't qualify,” recalled Mayo. “It was more because I have had conversations with numerous Jewish baseball players over the years, and many of them embraced being known as a Jewish baseball player, but their identity beyond that was negligible.”
“And I can't think of a better way to explore being known as a Jewish anything than going to Israel.”
This didn't come together overnight, either. “We came close a year ago to pulling off a trip,” he added. “Smaller trip, fewer players. And it just didn't work out for a bunch of reasons.”
“In the process of putting that together, I was put in touch with Jeff Aeder,” Mayo continued. “He lives in Chicago, and he's starting up the Jewish Baseball Museum. He's got the largest collection of Jewish baseball memorabilia in the world, and he wants to display it.” Mr. Aeder, Mayo added, was one of the initial investors in the planned documentary.
“A year later, Israel makes it through the qualifier. Well, Jeff Aeder was having dinner with Ron Dermer, the Israel Ambassador to the United States,” he mentioned. “Ron is a big sports guy, particularly football, and about a year ago they brought a bunch of NFL Hall-of-Famers to Israel, and it got a lot of publicity.”
“Well, Ron kind of liked the idea.”
This all led to the a moment during dinner between Aeder and Ambassador Dermer: wouldn't it be great to bring some of the players to Israel before they go to Korea? And the idea got legs, as they say.
“When they were looking for ways to publicize the idea, that's when Jeff called me,” said Mayo, “and the next thing I knew, I was on a plane with my friend Jeremy and his partner from Ironbound Films, and we went on the tour with (the players).”
And so Mr. Mayo, along with Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller and Jeremy Newberger of Ironbound Films, went to work recording the trip for their latest documentary Heading Home, an appropriately-named film that follows these young men as they experience the culture first-hand.
It started out in much the same way as one might expect: meeting with reporters, signing autographs for fans, tours to local sites of interest, etc. While the players were at a ground-breaking ceremony for only the second baseball field in Israel, a Palestinian rammed his truck into a group of Israeli soldiers in the Armon Hanatziv neighborhood in Jerusalem, killing four and wounding fifteen before he himself was killed. Not in the vicinity of the players, but certainly a jarring occurrence nevertheless.
Still, the overall impression made upon the players seemed to be one that reinforced existing faith and laying a foundation for others. “One thing that really stood out for me was how the players connected with the country, with the history, and particularly with the people,” remembered Mayo, “and I think that when they go and play in Korea, there's a whole other level of connection among the teammates now because of that.”
“On a personal level,” he added, “for my son to get to see all of this come together, and experience it with these players, was...”
Mayo paused, briefly. “I can't really verbalize how important that was, to me.”
Now, as Team Israel's players are arriving in Seoul, they understand that they are playing for a bit more than a berth in the next round; that the thoughts of the fans watching this tournament are concerned with more than just the score.
The hope is that these players have a greater sense of purpose as they represent Israel's first foray into this world-wide competition; that they have a greater understanding of their own faith and heritage; and that the children who will take the field on the brand-new baseball diamond at Beit Shemesh will remember this team for more than its talent.