It's an oy-so-humid mid-September Saturday afternoon in Jupiter, Florida, and the backup to the backup catcher, Nate Fish, just got his first hit for Team Israel, a single swatted over the outstretched glove of Miami Dade College's second baseman. Now Fish is back in the dugout, asking the bearded giant Shlomo Lipetz, a pitcher and a mensch, whether anyone got a picture of the long-awaited moment: "Shlo, I need one for the blog!" A Brooklyn-based coach for 10-and-under elites, as well as a painter, occasional funk-soul DJ, and avid blogger—"the King of Jewish Baseball" chronicles his hardball adventures—Fish, 32, is a decade removed from his college playing days and has a bum knee.
Lipetz dips his Skoal and smiles, mimicking Fish's radio-quality baritone: "I'm the King of Jewish Baseball, and I just got a hit!" Lipetz (a.k.a. Shlobot, a.k.a. Shlo-motion, a.k.a. Shlome Boy), 33, is the programming director at City Winery in New York, but he's also the most famous Israeli baseball player of all time. No, there haven't been many—only 10, including him, have made it as far as American college teams. Lipetz discovered baseball at 7, when he watched Dwight Gooden pitch at Shea Stadium. He moved to America from Israel at 22, walked on to San Diego's Mesa College team, and went on to experiment with intimidating facial hair in various semi-pro and independent leagues.
We're entering the top of the sixth inning of a warm-up game four days before Israel will compete in a modified double-elimination tournament against Spain, South Africa, and France for the right to advance to the 2013 World Baseball Classic. Israel is the cofavorite in its bracket, along with Spain. Both rosters will have ringers—a player need only be eligible for citizenship to represent a country; for Israel, it's enough to have a spouse with a Jewish grandparent. Aside from a couple of hot prospects, most of the guys who've come down to Florida are career minor leaguers, cast-offs, and has-beens. It may be a ragtag team, but it's a historic one. No one wants to be left out of the Greatest Jewish Baseball Team of All Time. Besides, there's a higher cause—the players were recruited by coaches handpicked by the Israel Association of Baseball (IAB), founded in 1986, which is hoping that a berth in the Classic will generate more interest in America's Pastime among Israel's uninterested youth than all of the IAB's previous efforts combined.
All told, 43 players with proof of Judaic roots (bar mitzvah photos, family trees), if not evidence of a bris (a clubhouse joke), are milling around the dugout. Only 28 will make the official roster: 3 Israelis, 25 Americans. They range in age from 20 to 40. Nineteen have had bar mitzvahs. There's a bench coach with a Star of David tattoo, a pitcher who works as a research consultant for the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, and former MLB All-Star Shawn Green, who signed an $84 million deal with the Dodgers in 1999 (and who famously sat out a game to observe Yom Kippur). Green, now 39, is sitting in a folding chair just outside the dugout, swinging an invisible bat with a far-off stare, as Adam Greenberg steps into the batter's box. Greenberg also owns a place in baseball lore—in 2005, the Chicago Cubs prospect was beaned on his first major-league pitch, a 92-mph fastball to the back of the head that knocked him out of the game and left him with a case of vertigo that derailed his MLB dream. Greenberg has bounced around the minors ever since. He's still seeking that first swing in the Bigs, a cause that's being helped by a sympathetic Cubs fan who started an online petition calling for a team to give Greenberg another chance.
Now Greenberg is crowding the plate, staring down a wild pitcher, with Israel up 3–1 in the seventh. Brushed back on the first pitch, he stands his ground and hits a deep fly. "Nice cut!" yells manager Brad Ausmus, a three-time Gold Glove–winning catcher who played more games than any other Jew in major-league history—1,971—before retiring in 2010 and beginning to explore his religious roots. (IAB secretary general Peter Kurz joked that until recently, Ausmus couldn't find Israel on a map.) Ausmus hopes to be a major-league manager one day.
David Klein, 24, a self-described "surfer Jew," leaves the dugout between innings to visit with his parents. They've just flown in from California and stand nearby in the grass. Klein's nervous mother pushes sandwiches into his hands: "Have the tuna first, sweetie, it's getting mushy." Israel has the lead, thanks to the hot hitting of blond outfielder Joc Pederson, a 20-year-old Dodgers Class A prospect whom Baseball America's website calls "arguably the best" player in the qualifiers. Pederson has come to Jupiter to . . . well, he's not the explaining type. Shortly after Israel beats Miami Dade, a reporter asks Pederson for a story. "I don't have any," he says. "You stumped me."