How Shlomo Lipetz and Team Israel Brought Baseball Back to the Promised Land

With the WBC over, Shlomo Lipetz is back to his day job at City Winery. (via Kate Feldman)

Shlomo Lipetz was the only Team Israel player born in Israel. Of the 36 players on the World Baseball Classic roster, 35 were born in the United States; anyone of Jewish descent, who converted to Judaism or married into the faith qualified for the tournament based on the Law of Return, Israeli legislation passed in 1950 that allows all Jews to live in and become citizens of Israel. Dodgers minor leaguer Dean Kremer was the only other player with Israeli citizenship. Most of Team Israel was made up of major league players past their prime – Ike Davis, Sam Fuld, Jason Marquis and Craig Breslow – and some still looking to prove their worth – Ty Kelly, Cody Decker, Josh Zeid and Ryan Lavarnway among other hopefuls – with a tenuous tie to Israel. More notable players like Ryan Braun and Alex Bregman played for other teams, or not at all.

But not Lipetz. The 38-year-old right-handed pitcher had another life waiting for him when he got home: vice president of programming and music director at City Winery in Manhattan, a venue frequented by names like Art Garfunkel, Kris Kristofferson and David Bromberg. That’s his real life. Baseball is the side job.

Born in Tel Aviv, Lipetz spent his childhood visiting family on Long Island once a year. His uncle took him to Mets games in the city. His aunt would send him home with baseball cards so he could learn players’ names.

He couldn’t watch major league games growing up. He couldn’t play, either. Little League didn’t exist in Israel; children focused on basketball and soccer instead. When Lipetz was 10, he started playing fast-pitch softball with classmates on a soccer field in Tel Aviv. They used softball gloves and whatever ball they could find lying around. They called themselves the Tel Aviv Tigers.

“It’s just not in their DNA. Jews aren’t known for their athleticism,” Lipetz told the Hardball Times. “At 10, 12, 13, 14, they’re looking to get into sports, but there’s no structure in baseball. We had no uniforms. The field looks danky. We played 12 games a year. And it was demotivating for my friends.”

Eventually, Lipetz and his father found enough makeshift teams around the country to form a league. By 1989, they had enough players to create a national team and compete in the Little League regional qualifier at the Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany, wearing flat sneakers, sweatpants and T-shirts with hand-drawn numbers on the back.

They lost 51-0 to Saudia Arabia in their first year, then kept traveling: Germany, Belgium, France, Croatia, Holland, Italy and Spain.

The Israel Association of Baseball, started as a non-profit in 1986, kept expanding. Today, the organization boasts five leagues for athletes from five years old to adults, trains national teams and oversees all baseball in the country. But when Lipetz was growing up, the association was still working toward legitimacy.

His 18th birthday – and Israel’s mandatory military service – loomed as the likely end to his playing career.

“I didn’t have the drive to be a big-leaguer. (In the United States), everyone’s convinced they’re getting drafted,” he said. “Since the age of eight, my goal was always college ball. Twelve-year-old Shlomo just wanted to play college ball.”

Two weeks before his high school graduation trip, the president of the Israel Association of Baseball suggested he request a qualification as an outstanding athlete, which would allow him to focus on athletics during his service. A baseball player had never qualified before. Lipetz did.

For three years, he served close to home instead of in a combat unit. For three months a year, he traveled with the national team. Against all odds, baseball was still part of his life.

Ten days after he finished his service, he moved to California, where he had family. The teams at the junior colleges he applied to were already filled by the end of November, and a shoulder injury prevented him from even throwing bullpen sessions.

But the coach at San Diego Mesa College gave him a shot. His first full season, Lipetz threw 10 innings and rarely hit above 70 mph.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

By his sophomore year, he’d jumped from throwing 69 mph to 88 – without PEDs, he insisted.

“My arm wasn’t used and abused as a kid.”

Transferring to the University of California San Diego gave him new perspective, but also new uniforms and laundry service for the first time in his playing career.

He was older than his teammates; he didn’t even enroll until he was 22, when most students graduate.

“They called me Sarge because I had a maturity that the young kids didn’t. I provided something other than buying the underage ones beer.”

Scouts from the Athletics, Orioles and Padres took looks at him, but no one bit.

Lipetz moved to New York with an ex-girlfriend who got into Parsons School of Design, and considered playing for an independent league just to stay in the game, but the outlook was grim.

“I didn’t want to travel on buses with danky fields and shitty pay.”

So instead he played semi-pro ball in Mexico, then went home for the lone year of the Israeli Baseball League in 2007, when he went 3-1 with an 0.98 ERA and a 30:3 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 27.2 innings.

The league folded after just one season and Lipetz returned stateside, but he refused to hang up the cleats.

In 2008, he went 2-0 with a 2.63 ERA for the Israeli national team in the European Championship Qualifiers, including a 10-inning, four-hit complete game against Lithuania. In the 2011 European Championship Qualifiers, he gave up just three hits across seven innings to Georgia.

He joined the Central Park League and the Pedrin Zorrilla Baseball League, an independent, semi-professional Hispanic league in Brooklyn. Lipetz was the only one who didn’t speak Spanish.

“I thought I’d lived the height of my career playing ball,” he said. “Then five years ago, we qualified for the WBC.”

Lipetz struggled in the 2013 WBC qualifiers, allowing three walks in the ninth inning against South Africa; reliever Jeff Kaplan, who was drafted by the Mets in 2008 but never got past Double-A, allowed all three runners to score.

A year later, during the 2014 C-Level European Championship, he shut out Slovenia, allowing just six hits and a walk while striking out 10. His first appearance in the 2015 B-Level European Championship came in relief down 5-4 in the ninth. Lipetz allowed an unearned run, but Israel walked it off in the bottom of the inning. A day later, he gave up just one run in a start against Austria. The finale was a disaster of hit-by-pitches and extra-base hits.

“I was 34 years old. I thought that was it.”

Then the WBC came around again. Manager Jerry Weinstein reluctantly invited him up to the Cape Cod League to throw a bullpen session.

“I’m not going to throw 95,” Lipetz told Weinstein. “But I can add something to the team even if you don’t put me in in the top of the ninth.”

That was enough to convince the coach.

“I hoped some hotshot Israeli would come take my spot,” he said. “But there was no one.”

Lipetz never saw the mound during the 2017 World Baseball Classic, but he was witness to Team Israel’s unlikely run: they upset Korea 2-1 in Game 1 of the first round in Seoul, then dominated Chinese Taipei 15-7. A 4-2 victory over the Netherlands moved them onto the second round in Tokyo. They upset Cuba 4-1 in a shocking Game 1, then were mercy-ruled 12-2 in a rematch against the Netherlands, before being booted from the tournament in an 8-3 loss to Japan.

“Before the last game, Jerry said ‘If you were asked three months ago to play in Japan, to play in the Tokyo Dome with the chance to move on to Dodger Stadium, everyone would have said hell yeah.’” We never felt like we didn’t belong,” Lipetz said. “We had scouting reports for every match-up. We weren’t surprised we won any of the games. I told my boss I was leaving for 10 days. Nobody expected us to move on. I was gone for three weeks.”

The Cinderella story died. But the tournament meant more than that to Team Israel. If its improbable run convinced even one child to pick up a glove in Tel Aviv, that was a success.

“It’s not like Detroit or Chicago. You could tell how deep the love of baseball is in Korea and Tokyo,” Lipetz said. “It’s non-stop baseball. Everyone was already in the stands an hour and a half before the games, cheering for every home run in batting practice. Ike Davis and Ryan Lavarnway talked about how they were used to trash talk, but there it was all positive. In the United States, no one shows up before the third inning or stays past the seventh-inning stretch. There, it’s like baseball in the 1920s. In Japan, you’re treated like pop stars.

“I’m still getting feedback from people in Israel. They’ve all been very supportive. I have friends in coffee shops overhearing conversations about us. We’re on the front cover of newspapers and we’re getting tweets from the prime minister. You can’t describe how big this is for Israel and Jews to see the Star of David in baseball.

“I’m a 38-year-old civilian who works at a music venue. Wednesday night, I was playing against Japan in front of 55,000 people. Eighteen hours later, I was at my desk sitting across from my boss on Varik Street.”

Cody Decker with the Mensch on the Bench. (via Cody Decker)

The team still keeps up a text chain, which got busy in late March as 25-man rosters were announced. Ty Kelly heading north with the Mets and Josh Zeid’s minor league deal with the Cardinals were cause for celebration for a group of men all trying to find their place in baseball. Cody Decker still posts photos of the Mensch on the Bench.

You wouldn’t think Lipetz was an athlete if you ran into him on the street. He’s tall – 6-foot-4– but not so tall that he stands out. His beard and leather jacket are better suited for a hipster bar in Bushwick than a baseball field. He talks, too. Not the stilted, pre-planned clichés we’ve grown accustomed to from athletes. You wouldn’t think anything special until he starts talking about baseball. There, you get an idea of exactly how much the game means to him.

He doesn’t think he’ll be back in four years to play in the Classic again, but he hasn’t made up his mind yet.

“If I’m still playing and the coach wants me…”

Kate Feldman is the editor-in-chief at Baseball Prospectus Mets and a lifelong fan of baseball teams that only make her miserable. Follow her on Twitter @kateefeldman.
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7 years ago

My name is Jason im an American college baseball player and I’m moving to Israel in a few months. Would love to connect with Mr. Lipetz. Do you have any way for me to reach him? Thanks! Great article!

7 years ago

Excellent read! Thank you.

Do you have any recommendations about jewish baseball(players)?

Marc Schneider
7 years ago

“It’s just not in their DNA. Jews aren’t known for their athleticism”

Really? I hate this; it’s racist and anti-Semitic stereotyping. That kind of stereotyping goes on all the time; black players are athletic and white players are smart. It doesn’t make it right.

To the extent that Jews don’t (or didn’t) play sports, it wasn’t because of some difference in DNA. You have to look at societal factors. This guy should be ashamed of himself for spouting such BS.

7 years ago

the ‘homeland’ is an apartheid state formed after british and western powers stripped away land rights from the communities that had been living in that land for close to a millenia. the fact that there’s a team isreal and not a team palestine is a disgrace and shameful. of course, its gonna be hard for palestenians to think about baseball when they’re living as second class citizens in their own land.

7 years ago
Reply to  imachainsaw

This is a post about the subject’s love of baseball. It was posted on a site about baseball. Take your arguably hateful comments to Twitter, where they belong.

7 years ago
Reply to  jason

*directed @imachainsaw

Drew Keller
7 years ago
Reply to  imachainsaw

and we see ant-semitism rear its ugly head.

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