Dean Kremer Baltimore Orioles

Sunday was a dream-come-true for Israeli pitcher Dean Kremer—and for tens of thousands of fans of baseball in the Holy Land and around the world. Kremer, 24, became the first Israeli citizen by birth to play in the Major Leagues and his debut was a memorable one as he pitched a gem to lead his Baltimore Orioles to a 5-1 victory over the New York Yankees.

Kremer allowed just 1 run on 1 hit through 6 innings to claim the victory. He struck out 7, which was the most by an Orioles pitcher in his MLB debut in over two decades! With pitches reaching 96 miles per hour (155 kph), Kremer struck out the first two batters he faced. He ran into a little bit of trouble when the Yankees got their lone hit against him and scored in the second inning, but then Kremer retired 11 consecutive hitters and left the game after 6 innings with his team ahead 4-1.

"It is with tremendous pride that I watched as a product of our youth and adult national programs excelled in his Major League debut against the New York Yankees," Jordy Alter, the president of the Israeli Association of Baseball said. "We have watched Dean grow up as a member of our national teams, often outperforming our competition, and it was great to share this gift with the world tonight. The IAB and Israel Olympic team look forward to watching Dean in what promises to be a long and successful MLB career."

Kremer joined Team Israel catcher Ryan Lavarnway as the second Israeli citizen to play in the Major Leagues this season. They are the only Israelis to ever play in the Majors in the history of the game.

HereWeCome

HereWeCome

Today was the day that every Team Israel baseball player had marked on his calendar since September 22, 2019, when they danced off the field at Nino Cavalli Stadium in Parma, Italy, having clinched a berth at the 2020 Olympic Games. On Friday night, the 24 men on the Team Israel roster were to march into Tokyo's Olympic Stadium for the opening ceremonies, thus experiencing another dream-come-true in their collective Cinderella story. Days later, they would take the field for the first time and challenge for their ultimate goal, winning an Olympic medal.

Alas, the COVID-19 pandemic put those dreams on hold. The Summer Games were postponed by one year and will now begin on July 23, 2021. It has created an interesting dynamic for Team Israel's players. The group is still tight and gets together for regular Zoom calls, while each pursues his baseball path to ensure they will be in peak form when they get to Tokyo, which is no easy task in the wake of the virus, with lockdowns and league and team closures around the world. But they all know that baseball is secondary in the battle against the pandemic.

"At this time, my thoughts are that I’m happy that everyone is safe and healthy," Coach Eric Holtz shared earlier this week. "It’s an incredible shame that we will not be leaving for Tokyo as planned, but everyone will continue to train and remain ready for the first time the Umpire screams 'Play Ball'."

Coach Holtz’s players echoed their leader's sentiments, though each reflects on the fact that the games were scheduled to start now in his own way.

Danny Valencia: "It’s crazy to think we should be in Tokyo right now."

"It’s crazy to think we should be in Tokyo right now," said Danny Valencia, who with nine seasons in the Major Leagues is one of Team Israel's most accomplished players. "I try to envision what I’d feel like over there both in sport and with my family. I know we were all doing our part in being as prepared as possible to compete for a gold medal. I was feeling really good about how I felt in a baseball sense. Hopefully we can get past this pandemic and reset with clear minds and figure out how to be better than what we are today, come this time next July."

"It doesn’t feel real that today would have been the opening ceremonies. We’re so far removed and so much has happened. The thing I keep coming back to is that everyone all over the world has their own 'would have been' or 'supposed to' so I try to keep perspective and be thankful for the things we do have," the team's ace pitcher Joey Wagman said. "I cannot wait for next summer. It just adds another challenge for this team which has already overcome so many. It gives us another year to prepare in every way and represent Israel to the best of our abilities."

Blake Gailen: "It’s going to be one of the greatest experiences of all of our lifetimes and I can’t think of a better group to share that with."

Slugger Blake Gailen is one of the few who has already put the 2020 games out of his mind and is only looking forward: "It’s crazy how quickly we adapt because the notion of going to the Olympics this year slipped my mind once we knew for sure it was postponed. Once the Olympic committee made it official that the 2020 Olympics are going to be held in 2021, the first notion I had was obviously disappointment; But soon after was the awareness that there’s nothing we can do about it. As surreal as it’s been to qualify for the Olympics, it’s hard to imagine that a year from now we are going to be at the opening ceremonies," he said. "I'm fairly certain that I can speak for everyone in saying that there aren’t really words to describe the excitement and anticipation that are leading up to next year’s Olympic games. It’s not just about playing; it’s going to be one of the greatest experiences of all of our lifetimes and I can’t think of a better group to share that with."

The postponement of the games has been bittersweet for three of the best players Israel's local leagues have ever produced. Alon Leichman, a pitching coach in the Seattle Mariners system; and college baseball players Tal Erel and Asaf Lowengart, had their respective 2020 seasons in the United States taken away. However, that has opened the door for them to take on integral roles with the Israel Association of Baseball by playing in the local Premier League while coaching and mentoring the next generation of stars.

Alon Leichman: "I prefer to focus on the positives… I know that the one-year delay will only make the fire in our team burn stronger."

"I imagine that walking into the Olympic Stadium for the opening ceremonies will be one of the greatest moments of my athletic career," Leichman said. "I have an uneasy feeling when I think about the fact that we would be in Tokyo now under normal circumstances. However, I prefer to focus on the positives. I embrace the time I get to spend at home with my family and the time coaching and playing with the guys in Israel. I view this time as a unique opportunity to train in Israel and at the same time help get more exposure to the sport. It's been amazing. And I know that the one-year delay will only make the fire in our team burn stronger before we go to Japan next year."

No man has a deeper perspective on how far Israel baseball has come to be in the position it is now than team Israel GM Peter Kurtz: "Its been a long road to reach where we are today as Olympians, starting with the IBL in 2007, and continuing on to our three appearances in the World Baseball Classic and our frequent appearances in European Championship B and C Pool tournaments. The guys have played under insurmountable baseball conditions and to play in four tournaments last summer in a span of 10 weeks and come out as one of six Olympic teams was the highlight of my 20-year career with the IAB, so far.

"I look forward to the next chapter, and although it’s frustrating to wait an additional year, its something all Olympic athletes need to deal with. Our players are keyed up and aiming towards July 2021 and I have no doubt they will be ready. It's also given us an opportunity to improve the team, adding Ian Kinsler and WBC Team Israel alumni Ryan Lavarnway, who was our MVP in Korea in 2017, and Scotty Burcham, who got the winning hit against Korea in that tournament and played a stellar shortstop. It has also given us an extra year of fundraising for the IAB and our goal of developing fields all over Israel and increasing the number of players in Israel two, three and four-fold. It is for them that we are playing in the Olympics and I do hope that today there are kids playing in Beit Shemesh, Ra'anana and Tel Aviv who will be on the roster of the Israel Olympic Team in Los Angeles in 2028."

Gailen At The Bat

Gailen at the bat

Team Israel infielder Mitch Glasser recently penned this tribute to teammate Blake Gailen based on the famous "Casey at the Bat” poem written by Ernest Lawrence Thayer (1863-1940):

Gailen at the bat

The outlook wasn't brilliant for the Israeli nine that day:
The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play,
And then when Kelly died at first, and Paller did the same,
A pall-like sheket fell upon the patrons of the game.

A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest
Clung to HaTikvah which springs eternal in the human breast;
They thought, "If only Gailen could but get a whack at that—
We'd put up even shekels now, with Gailen at the bat."

Tal Erel preceded Gailen, as did Lowengart,
both young promising Sabras, a rally hoping to start;
So upon that stricken multitude grim melancholy sat,
For there seemed but little chance of Gailen getting to the bat.

And Erel let drive a single, to the wonderment of all,
And Assaf, the loved sportai, tore the cover off the ball;
And when the schmutz had lifted, Peter Kurz saw what occurred,
There was Assaf safe at second and Tal a-hugging third.

Then from five thousand throats and more there rose a lusty kvel;
It rumbled through the Golan, it rattled in the dell;
It pounded on the Sinai and recoiled upon Eilat,
For Gailen, mighty Gailen, was advancing to the bat.

There was ease in Gailen's manner as he stepped into his place;
There was pride in Gailen's bearing and a salty sameach lit Gailen's face.
And when, responding to the mishegas, he lightly doffed his kippa
No stranger in the crowd could doubt 'twas Gailen at the bima.

Ten thousand oy’ny’eem were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt;
Ten thousand yadayim applauded when he wiped them on his shirt;
Then while the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip,
Chutzpah flashed in Gailen's eye, a sneer curled Gailen's lip.

And now the leather matzah ball came hurtling through the air,
And Gailen stood a-watching it in haughty grandeur there.
Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped—
"That ain't my schtick," said Blake. "Strike one!" the umpire said.

From the benches, black with anashim, there went up a muffled rar,
As loud as on Rosh Hashana the sounding of the shofar
"Kill him! Kill the umpire!" Kvetched Valencia from the bench;
And it's likely he’d have killed him had not Gailen been a mensch.

With a smile of Jewish tzedakah Gailen's visage shone;
He stilled the rising ruach; he bade the game go on;
He signaled to the pitcher, and once more the baseball flew;
But Blake still ignored it and the umpire said, "Strike two!"

"Shlemiel!" cried the plotzed thousands, and echo answered "Oy gavult!"
But one scornful look from Gailen and the audience was awed.
They saw his punim grow stern and cold, they saw his biceps strain,
And they knew that Blake wouldn't let that ball go by again.

The sneer is gone from Gailen's lip, his teeth are clenched in hate,
He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the (seder) plate;
And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
And now the air is shattered by the force of Gailen's blow.

Oh, somewhere in this Chosen Land the sun is shining bright,
The klezmer is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are at shul, somewhere kids are having fun,
Israelis watching anxiously - mighty Gailen has hit a ...

Bleichgrandmother1

George and Jeremy BleichYom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) is a time when people in Israel come together not only to mourn the memories of the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust, but also to pay tribute to the survivors and the legacies they built when they resurrected their lives after the war. Team Israel pitcher Jeremy Bleich shared the story of his grandparents, Yolanda and George Bleich, who were both survivors.

George, who was from Poland, was taken to the concentration camps when he was 25 years old and survived thanks to his skills as a leatherman who could make and repair soldier’s boots. Yolanda was from an area of Czechoslovakia that is now Ukraine. She was taken away at age 17 and spent time at several different camps, including Auschwitz, and was put to work stuffing gun powder into Nazi bombs. From a large family, she had at least seven siblings who were killed in the Holocaust. After the war, they each spent time in DP camps in south Germany deciding where to go next. They were ultimately sponsored to emigrate to the United States, where they met, married and raised a family.

Jeremy's earliest memories of hearing about the Holocaust are from his parents watching the movie Schindler's Listand telling him to leave the room at certain parts. "I was always curious, but was afraid to ask," he explained. "I would get tidbits just from conversations and I would figure things out."

His grandfather passed away before Jeremy was old enough to ask about war. In his late teens, Jeremy summoned up the courage to talk to his grandmother about her experiences: "I felt like she was getting older and we had never really spoken about it. The grandkids weren’t really exposed to it. And I remember asking, kind of probing her to get more information. I asked her if anyone ever acted out. She said people tried to just say nothing, do what they were told and stay quiet.

“Just hearing her say that, my little grandmother, the grittiness, the toughness, the at-times desensitized approach that allowed her to get through life – she lived in the same building in Brooklyn for 60-odd years, never wanted to move out. That was all a product of the experiences she had as a teenager."

Over time, Jeremy has come to understand the different ways his grandparents' experiences affected his father and, in turn, himself. He feels that the importance of family, his protectiveness of those he is close to and his desire to bring people together come from that.

Yolanda and Jeremy BleichLast summer Jeremy went to Germany for the first time to play for Israel at the European championships and met a shopkeeper who asked him what he was doing there. Upon learning that Jeremy was representing Israel and thus Jewish, there was a long pause, after which the owner simply said, "I’m so sorry," and walked away. That experience, which he described as "surreal," stayed with Jeremy.

"[The Holocaust] really wasn’t that long ago when you think about it. That scares me," Jeremy said. “I think it still hits home as I get older and start to learn about the family. My father passed away five years ago and I was kind of forced to grow up at that moment. I look at some of his personality traits and why he acted certain ways. He was most definitely a product of a first-generation Holocaust survivor and I think as time goes on, as I get older, I start to put the pieces together and understand the big picture. There’s a lot of good literature out there about what happened and its effect on people and I think we as a Jewish community need to continue to learn about, to understand and to hold close to our hearts."

Being the grandchild of Holocaust survivors is at the core of who Jeremy is. It’s something he carries with him at all times and that inspires him when times are tough.

“Sometimes when you have to dig a little deep and you have to figure out who you are, you have to take control against someone or something that makes you uncomfortable, think about what the people did before you. I know what the people did before me and it’s a very strengthening feeling."

The Jewish roots that Yolanda and George Bleich planted after the war continue to bear fruit in many ways. For Jeremy, being Jewish - and playing for Team Israel - is simply who he is.

“One of the many reasons that I was raised Jewish, I want my kids to be raised Jewish, I want a Jewish family, the culture and community feel is because my grandparents sacrificed what they did and if it weren’t for that, I wouldn’t be here," he summed up. “That’s something that words don't do justice. That's the reason that I am who I am."

Margo   International Womens Day

Margo International womens day

Margo Sugarman is the Secretary General of the Israel Association of Baseball and in honor of International Women's Day, we decided to learn more about her history and contributions to baseball in Israel. Sugarman, a mother of three from Tel Mond, immigrated to Israel from her native South Africa in 1989. Her involvement in Israel Baseball began when her son, Hadar, started playing. She has since become certified as an umpire, started coaching, became Tel Mond's Regional Director, a member of the IAB Board of Directors and since 2013 the organization’s Secretary General.

She said that “seeing young kids progress through the system" is a major highlight for her. "Kids who started playing with me at 9-10 years old and have gone on to play for national teams, playing in the academy, becoming coaches… That’s a huge thing that I am very proud of."

Of course, that is one of many highlights, which also include seeing her son's team win the national championship in the Junior division with what she called a "Bad News Bears" type of team, serving as the manager of the Under-18 Team that won the European Championship Qualifier in Sweden with a lot of guys who started playing in Tel Mond, Israel's run at the 2017 World Baseball Championships and qualifying for the 2020 Olympic Games.

Sugarman explained that for her, being a woman in baseball has allowed her to forge a different bond with players than many of her male counterparts. “They are much more affectionate to me than with a man."

She told the story of how players on one of the junior teams she traveled with began calling her the team’s mom. When she challenged that they would not interact the same way with a man, the countered: "If you were a man, we wouldn't love you as much."

In closing and in honor of International Women's Day, Sugarman issued a challenge to other women in Israel who like baseball. "I think it would be nice if women took a more active role in the IAB as coaches and umpires,” she said. "I think it would be a positive thing."

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