With a team primarily of Jewish players from the USA who are eligible thanks to the infamously lax eligibility rules of international baseball, the Israeli baseball team will probably prove to be quite a curiosity to the world press. However, as the 2017 WBC showed, Team Israel is perfectly capable of pulling upsets and should not be underestimated. They are managed by Eric Holtz, the owner of a baseball training facility in Westchester County who played in Israel’s short-lived professional league and coached for college teams for decades. Israel’s 24-man roster can be found here.
About the Country: Sitting ever perilously at the center of both international politics and the world’s three largest monotheistic religions, the current state of Israel came into existence in 1947. Despite its decades of tumultuous history, Israel is also a leader in science and technology.
Baseball History: Although some may joke that Israeli baseball began “in the big inning” that can be found when the beginning of the Book of Genesis is read aloud (it’s a lame pun, think about it for a second), Israeli baseball didn’t really begin until some Americans who had moved to Israel played it a bit. However, that was about it until, in 2007, a small professional league was created in Israel by American businessmen. While it folded after one season, its level of play was apparently pretty good, although only a small handful of the players in the league were actually Israeli. In fact, it has been rare for actual Israelis to play for Team Israel. Thanks to lax eligibility rules as well as the fact that it is quite easy for those of Jewish descent to be eligible for Israeli citizenship, most of the Israeli national teams that have competed in large tournaments have been made up of Americans and Canadians.
Israel lost to Spain for a spot in the 2013 WBC before making the tournament in 2017, where they made it to the second round with a stream of upsets. Dean Kremer, a pitcher born to two Israeli parents and who has lived in Israel at times during summers where he hasn’t been pitching, became the first Israeli citizen drafted by MLB in 2015 and the first Israeli citizen to play in MLB when Kremer made his debut with the Orioles in 2020.
Olympic History: This is, of course, Israel’s first appearance in Olympic baseball. It isn’t the first time that there was an Olympic baseball team primarily made up of people from outside the country they were representing, however: the Greek national team in 2004 was made up primarily of Americans of Greek ancestry (most notably Nick Markakis).
For decades, Israel’s Olympic history had been (and continues to be) centered around 1972’s Munich massacre. It would not be until 1992 that an Israeli would win a medal, and to this day the country has won only one gold (windsurfer Gal Fridman in 2000). Every medal for Israel has come in either judo or a boating sport like sailing or canoe.
This year’s baseball team will be the first Israeli representation in a team sport since the Israeli soccer team made it to the quarter-finals of the 1976 Montreal games.
Road to Tokyo: Israel was actually the first team to qualify for the Olympics aside from the host nation of Japan. They came out on top of a 2019 qualifier in Italy for teams from Europe and Africa, winning the round robin thanks to holding a head-to-head tie-breaker against the Netherlands.
Notable Names: The former MLB players on Team Israel are, of course, Americans of Jewish heritage. The most notable is certainly Ian Kinsler, the four-time all-star second baseman and two-time Gold Glove winner. He was a member of Team USA’s WBC title team in 2017. He’s played a bit in the Atlantic League this year in preparation for the tournament.
Other players with MLB experience include Danny Valencia, who played third base for a variety of teams over a nine-year career and who is perhaps best known among degenerate baseballaholics like me for the fact that he always hit David Price exceptionally well (a career .600 BA) to the point where the Orioles, Red Sox and Blue Jays all made points of having him in the lineup for series against Tampa. Catcher Ryan Lavarnway played parts of 10 seasons in the big leagues and remains active in the affiliated minors on Cleveland’s AAA team in Columbus. Utilityman Ty Kelly played parts of three seasons between the Mets and Phillies and is a career .275 hitter in the minors. While less notable, the team also has MLB-experienced pitchers in Jeremy Bleich, Jon Moscot, Zack Weiss, and Josh Zeid.
Ones to Watch: First off, I want to the pay tribute to the actual people born in Israel that are on the team simply because on a team mostly of Americans they stand-out for… actually being from the country they are representing.
Shlomo Lipetz was born in Tel Aviv, fell in love with baseball during visits to New York, and later moved to the USA to pitch in college. He’s since played semi-pro ball and in the short-lived Israeli Baseball League while also working as a music booker at City Winery in New York City. Now 42, this is probably his last ride… but a ride it has been. Another Israeli-born pitcher on the team is Alon Leichman. Born in a kibbutz in the late 80s, Leichman fell in love with the game thanks to American relatives and moved to America to pitch in college. He’s since gone into coaching, where he is currently the pitching coach for Seattle’s AA Arkansas Travelers.
Among position players, there is catcher Tal Erel, born in Ramat Gan (near Tel Aviv). After playing in leagues in the Czech Republic and Netherlands, he moved to Florida where he played college ball on the JuCo and Division II levels. The final Israeli-born player is Assaf Lowengart, who now plays for DII Mansfield University.
Among the Americans on the team that haven’t played in the big leagues, names that stand out include LHP Jake Fishman (Miami’s AAA team in Jacksonville), LHP Alex Katz (Cubs organization), RHP Ben Wanger (University of Miami), SS Scott Burcham (AAA Colorado), utilityman Mitch Glasser (hitting .345 in independent Sioux Falls), and long-time minor league/indyball journeyman outfielder Blake Gailen.
Outlook: On paper, Israel is undoubtedly the worst team in the field. No other team in the tournament is rolling out college and semi-pro players to fill the back-end of their rosters, and most of their top professionals (such as Kinsler and Valencia) are in states of near-retirement. However, although it is unlikely that they can get to the medal stand they are still a good enough team where they may be able to pull an upset or two against stronger but potentially overconfident opponents.
You can find all the current Olympic Baseball previews here.
Today’s neat site to check out is Digital Ballparks. It’s a site filled with slideshows of images of baseball stadiums past and present from around the country and even in some cases the world. It isn’t just limited to the pros, either: the Pastores (who run the site) also have plenty of amateur and semi-pro fields, as well as ballparks that once hosted professional baseball decades ago. In some cases where ballfields no longer have their traditional form (for example, abandoned fields or fields that may have been converted to another sport), they’ll even sometimes include Photoshop work to give an idea of what it may have looked like back in the day.
While it looks like they haven’t updated the site yet for the 2021 season, it remains a fascinating way to spend time for anyone interested in baseball stadiums.
Some of you may be familiar with the Dressed to the Nines uniform database run by the Hall of Fame. On it, you can look up what each team wore uniform-wise from 1900 to today.
But what if you wanted to know what teams looked like before 1900? Enter Threads of Our Game, a website run by SABR member Craig Brown that focuses on the first few decades of baseball. To make up for the fact that photography of those days was not as common and essentially never in color, the site uses research of newspaper accounts, contemporary drawings, and other sources to get an idea of what the uniforms of the era looked like.
What’s more, the site doesn’t just have the Major Leagues. In fact, it doesn’t just stop at professional teams in general. They also have semi-pro and amateur teams of the era. No team, seemingly, is too small for inclusion. Nor is no team too vile: among the teams with a uniform on digital display is that of the 1874 baseball team run by the Klu Klux Klan chapter of Oneida, N.Y. Somewhat surprisingly, the uniforms does not contain any white.
On Tuesday, I said that Opening Day will not take place. At the time, it was mostly figurative, at least in America, and it seemed that while the big importance of Opening Day (capitalized) wouldn’t take place it seemed likely that the season would still start on time, albeit in a more depressing manner than usual thanks to the coronavirus.
Now, though, I think that we won’t even be seeing an opening day (not capitalized) as scheduled, much less an Opening Day. In fact, I think it would be malpractice to have it.
This realization came last night. I’m not sure when, but it was probably when a NBA game inexplicably postponed at the last second, a player tested positive for COVID19, and the entire season was suspended all in the space of what felt like a half-hour. Oh, and Tom Hanks announced he tested positive as well.
The average NBA arena holds between 15 and 20 thousand fans. Even the smallest MLB stadiums (Tropicana Field with tarps up, for example) holds thousands more people. Public Health experts in cities seem to differ on what level of crowd is too big, but even the largest estimates are around 1,000 people, or WAY WAY less than any major league stadium. Even a fan-less game may break the level of a safe gathering, given the amount of support staff, journalists, and security.
Yes, it is true that most COVID19 cases are minor, and even those in dangerous categories are more likely to live than not. But think of it this way: you are also more likely to get Christian Yelich out more often than not, but nobody would want to give him the opportunity to bat in the ninth against them.
So what I’m saying is: shut it down. Shut it all down. Unless it is either something something essential or something that can be done entirely over television or the internet without any large amount of human interaction, it can wait.
It is said that baseball is life. That is true, but you also need life to have baseball, so there is no sense in putting anyone’s life at risk.
So shut it down. Cancel everything, and perhaps we can try again in a month or two.
Oh, sure, an opening day (uncapitalized) will take place. The Major League Baseball season will take place, and there will be a day where the first games take place.
No, I’m talking about Opening Day (capitalized), the holiday where the long winter is finally truly banished on a joyous late-March-or-early-April day full of ace-on-ace pitching matchups, red-white-and-blue bunting, and a sense of hope for everyone. Yes, even the Orioles… at least for a couple of innings.
That Opening Day will not take place. You know the reason, if you’ve paid any attention to the news. I won’t say it here right now for at this point it would be redundant. The reason why Opening Day won’t take place, especially in places like Japan or Korea.
Opening Day might not happen in San Jose, depending on how long the crisis lasts. The A-ball Giants don’t have their home opener until April 17, but given the scary projections from epidemiologists, we have no idea what the world may be like on that day.
It is entirely possible that in the coming days and weeks Seattle, New York City, or other great cities may have the same rules then as San Jose has imposed now. Perhaps those may come before opening day, definitively cancelling Opening Day in those cities.
Ultimately, though, Opening Day has already been cancelled. For even if the gates are open and the people can come, the feelings of the day have been lost this year. For instead of hope, optimism, and rebirth from the long winter, there will instead be worry and fear.
Questions will race: Can I shake the hand of the person in the seat next to me, who I haven’t seen since last season? Did the person selling the hot dog wash their hands correctly? Should that old-timer who has been coming to games for as long as anyone can remember even be here?
Yes, Opening Day is cancelled, and we can only fathom when the long winter will truly end.
In 1949, writer Ogden Nash wrote “Line-Up for Yesterday”, a poem that paid tribute to some of the greatest ballplayers in history up to that point by going through the alphabet. Three letters did not have representation:
I, which was used as a joking reference to himself writing the poem.
Z, for zenith, as a way of saying that these players were the top of the game.
And, of course… X, because there weren’t any ballplayers with a last name starting in X. To make up for it, he just paid tribute to Jimmie Foxx.
Time has gone on, and, well, there still isn’t an MLB ballplayer with an X starting their last name. But, I was wondering- are there any candidates for it? After all, there are a lot of baseball players, and those players come from an increasing number of countries, some of which have different languages where having an X at the start of your name is more common.
So let’s go through the history of X-named ballplayers and see who has come closest so far, and see if there is anyone who may have a shot in the near-future.
The closest so far: Joe Xavier.
The closest baseball has ever come to having a Major Leaguer with an X at the start of their last name came in the late 1980s and the 1990 season, when Joe Xavier reached AAA. An infielder with the Oakland, Milwaukee and Atlanta organizations, Xavier later told “The Greatest 21 Days” blog that he may have had a shot at the big leagues if not for being traded to Milwaukee, which had a glut of infield prospects at that time. Alas, the fact that he never was able to crack the big league roster meant that the X portion of MLB reference material would remain empty.
The most recent one: Gui Yuan Xu.
Technically, Xu is his first name, but under western naming convention his family name of Xu comes last and therefore if he were to make the big league that is where he would be found in the index of baseball history.
Putting aside that, though, Gui Yuan Xu is the most recent minor leaguer who would have broken the “X” barrier if he made the bigs. A rare pro ballplayer signed from mainland China, Gui Yuan played three years in the Orioles organization before being released this past spring.
Anyone coming up in the college ranks?
The outlook for X-named ballplayers right now is not looking good. A look at the Baseball Cube (which is better than even Baseball Reference when it comes to college ballplayers) shows no current or recent prospect-level college ballplayers with names starting with X, at least at the Division I level. While there surely must be some high school players with surnames that begin with X, I am not a big enough expert on the prospects at that level to say if any of them may have a shot of one day breaking the “X” barrier.
Ultimately, the best hope of one day having a ballplayer with a X at the start of their surname may lie in mainland China. While many ballplayers in Taiwan transliterate names with the “shoo” or “choo” sound into English with “Ch” instead of “X”, on the mainland the X seems far more common.
To see how that is, you need only look at the Baseball Reference page for players who have had their surname begin with “Xi”. Most of them are Chinese players who were on the Texas AirHogs of the independent American Association either last year or this year. The AirHogs entered an agreement before the 2018 season to more-or-less give most of their roster over to China’s national team, as China prepares for the return of baseball to the Olympics in 2020 and likely then 2028. Six of those Chinese players on the 2018 AirHogs had names starting with “Xi”, and at least one of them has returned in 2019.
Now, the stats for them don’t exactly impress, with only one of the “Xi” (reliever Qi Xin) having statistics that I’d call “good”, but who knows? Perhaps one day a Chinese player with a surname that starts with X will catch somebody’s eye, just as Gui Yuan Xu once briefly caught the Orioles’ eye. And perhaps one day they will make the big leagues, breaking the “X” barrier once and for all.
So will we have a MLB player with a last name starting in X anytime soon? Probably not, but you never know…