The Mensches of March


I can totally picture the conversation in my head. Two everyday Japanese baseball fans, maybe a husband and wife, sitting at the breakfast table talking about the previous day’s game at the Tokyo Dome. About how there had been a giant, stuffed bearded man on one of the benches. And how one of the teams had changed out their hats for miniature skullcaps during the national anthem. About how the Cuban starter had been throwing a no-hitter until the fourth, when the opposing catcher hit a double down the left field line. And how, right after that, a deafening yell had emanated from the dugout where that weird stuffed mascot was sitting:

“Nobody … and I mean NOBODY! … no-hits the JEWS!”

There were probably around 20,000 people in the Dome that day a few weeks ago, watching my Team Israel brothers and me play against Cuba in the second round of the 2017 World Baseball Classic. And even if most of the fans didn’t understand what Cody Decker was screaming after Ryan Lavarnway’s double, I’m pretty sure a good number of them at least heard Cody yelling:

“Nobody … and I mean NOBODY! … no hits the JEWS!”

Aside from being an awesome rallying cry, there’s something interesting about Decker’s choice of words. Yes, we were Team Israel, but there’s a reason why he didn’t say anything about no-hitting the Israelis. As the only team in the WBC identified by something other than nationality, we represented the worldwide Jewish community, which has obvious connections to the State of Israel. So that was the link. That’s what brought us together to compete in the tournament. We were bound by our heritage.

But that didn’t necessarily mean we were blessed with an All-Star team.

I played first base for Israel. Right off the bat that disqualifies us from being any sort of All-Star squad.
I played first base for Israel. Right off the bat that disqualifies us from being any sort of All-Star squad. /

In fact, with a few exceptions, we were mostly minor leaguers and guys who have struggled to stay in the big leagues.

Our No. 2 starter, Corey Baker, a former 49th-round draft pick, entered spring training hoping to stick in Triple A after four years in Double A. Decker has been unable to find at bats in the majors despite almost 200 professional home runs. Our closer, Josh Zeid, hadn’t even been able to land a minor league contract. The WBC was motivation for him to continue playing.

I played first base for Israel. Right off the bat that disqualifies us from being any sort of All-Star squad. I got to play in the big leagues with Oakland in 2013 and ’14, a fact that still hasn’t entirely sunk in. I’ve bounced around the past couple years, but still haven’t been able to catch on with a team affiliated with an MLB franchise. And to the extent that anyone still remembers my stint with the A’s, it’s usually related to the fact that I’m really tall — six-foot-eight.

While teams like Venezuela, Puerto Rico, the U.S. and the Dominican Republic had to figure out how to deploy their many All-Stars, our tournament prep was a bit different. More than a third of our players had to scuffle to find local high schools where they could train, and some of us would hit up those public batting cages where you have to buy tokens to take some hacks.

It’s pretty safe to say that the entire international baseball community probably expected us to lose to Cuba in Tokyo.

But then we won.

Our 4–1 victory, behind a big outing from Jason Marquis, left a lot of people in Tokyo scratching their heads, especially the Cuban media. At the press conference, one reporter angrily asked our manager — miked up with a real-time translation device as if he was at the U.N. — whether this so-called Team Israel was actually some kind of American JV team.

Nobody ever asked me that question, but I’ll go ahead and answer it anyway: No, we were not the U.S. JV team … because if there really had been an American JV team, none of us would have made it.

Or even the freshman team.

Shugo Takemi/WBCI/MLB Photos/Getty Image

Our miracle lasted for seven days and manifested itself on an artificial turf baseball diamond 5,685 miles from the Holy Land.

Nate Freiman

But that’s what made this group so special. For some of our guys, playing in the tournament was not only a chance to represent an ancient religious conviction, but also a way to inspire a new generation of baseball players in Israel. For others, it was an adventure, an opportunity to compete on a world stage. And for many of us, it was a chance to show that we still have what it takes to play pro ball.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, aside from what the team stood for to the worldwide Jewish community, we were just a bunch of guys who nobody thought had any business holding our own with Cuba. And the same goes for South Korea and the Netherlands, two other teams we defeated in the tournament. Those teams had star players and winning legacies on the international stage, especially in the World Baseball Classic.

It didn’t matter though.

We beat them all in Seoul, somehow going undefeated and finishing first in our pool, earning the right to advance to Tokyo.

The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah celebrates the miracle of one day’s worth of oil burning for eight days. As a team, we may have written a new chapter in that lore. In this case, though, the miracle lasted for seven days and manifested itself on an artificial turf baseball diamond 5,685 miles from the Holy Land.

Have you ever flown first-class on a 747 from San Francisco to Asia? If you haven’t, you can approximate the experience by sitting in a comfortable recliner for twelve hours with all the cocktails, food and movies you want. Oh, and your recliner turns into a bed. For real, you should give it a shot sometime. Just try to get someone else to pay for it.

When we left the U.S. for the opening round of the WBC, our team took up the entire nose of the plane. It was a 12-hour voyage, and I’m pretty sure a few guys tried to stay awake for the whole trip, just for the experience. For most of us, “luxurious travel” means having a row of seats all to yourself on an overnight team bus ride from Akron to Maine. Or maybe it means whipping out your best fake cough on a Southwest flight to scare away those poor souls in the C boarding group who are eyeing that open middle seat next to you.

My point here is that we weren’t connoisseurs of luxury. And we’re definitely not superstars … unless you count being mentioned in news stories as a baseball version of the Jamaican bobsled team.

So there we were, flying high and talking nonstop about whether they’ll make a movie about us someday. “Like Hoosiers,” somebody said, “except they’d call it … Jewsiers.” It was so much better than having 6:30 a.m. meetings in minor league camp about how we’re supposed to wear our pants. And, while we didn’t know it at the time, it would end up being the best baseball experience most of us have ever had.

Maybe it’s because the uninformed thought we’d be a joke, or maybe it’s because we were fortunate to have 28 high-character guys. Maybe both. But there were no egos. There were no cliques. Every day there were group text messages going out to the entire team with dinner invites. (There were also group texts marveling at the heated toilet seats in Asia … seriously, that’s a thing.) We were a cohesive unit, and we were all equals — the only exception being that if you went out to eat with Marquis, he paid for the entire crew.

That guy’s one of a kind. He was out there every day taking BP and ground balls with the rest of us. And he hit bombs. “They don’t just give out silver to anybody,” he’d say, referencing the Silver Slugger award he earned in 2005 when he batted .310 as a starting pitcher.

And now that I think about it, I feel like it’s kind of fitting that the most decorated hitter on Team Israel might just have been a 38-year-old starting pitcher.

Our team was unique, no doubt. We were different. But we did have something in common with all the other teams I’ve played on: the team barber. I’m talking about a player who cuts hair in exchange for a drink at the bar or maybe a can of dip. Remember, we’re baseball players. We are, at best, partially functioning members of society, and getting your hair cut without having to leave the clubhouse is a big deal.

Our barber was outfielder Blake Gailen. You’ve never heard of him because he’s spent most of the last 10 years in independent ball, but he can flat-out play. He went deep in the qualifier championship last fall to help send us to Seoul. And that dude is shredded — our very own statue of David.

Anyway, the night before we opened the tournament against South Korea, a couple of guys went to Blake’s hotel room to get lined up. It was Zeid, Lavarnway, and Alon Leichman, an Israeli member of the 2012 team who now works in player development with the Mariners.

In their own words, here’s what happened.

Lavarnway: “Blake cuts my hair … gives me racing stripes because he said they have hits in them.”

(Side note: Blake might be onto something because Ryan raked over in Asia and was the pool MVP. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc aside, I think this might be a thing.)

Gailen: “Then Alon came to me for ‘just a little off the top.’ But it looked to me like he needed more than that. He just said ‘I trust you.’ That was his first mistake.”

Lavarnway: “Then we said we wanted to carve a six-pack into his stomach hair. Before long, it turned into a full upper-body shave.”

Gailen: “We realized that Alon was the sacrificial lamb.”

So, yeah, it ended up being kind of a mess. And, for the record, this was definitely the hairiest team I have ever been on. But it didn’t occur to me until later that we had created an odd sort of currency to sacrifice up to the baseball gods.

In the 10th inning of that first-round contest against South Korea, after Scotty Burcham’s grounder got up the middle to give us the lead, we figured it must have been Alon’s chest hair that had made the difference. Abraham may have been the first monotheist, but I think he’d be O.K. with his descendants making the occasional offering to the baseball gods.

Tsafrir Abayov/AP Images

I hope every athlete can someday experience the feeling we had after winning that game. Hitting a home run or getting a big strikeout is nice, but there’s no feeling in sports that compares to playing in an emotional roller-coaster of a game on a big stage — and winning with your team. This is no indictment of pro ball, but the 140-game grind of a minor league season rarely creates the urgency of a desperate team struggle. In the WBC, every night could be your last together as a team.

And for many of us, these games were a chance to play in front of scouts. There were nine free agents on the team looking to make an impression. The term free agent often evokes an image of relaxing by the pool while your agent sits in his corner office directing the bidding war for your services. And it’s true that some guys have worked their entire lives and earned that scenario, but that wasn’t our world. For the nine of us on this team, we had nothing to go home to — there was no spring training waiting for us. The lucky ones had indy ball offers. So there were players on this team fighting for their very careers.

We celebrated each and every victory as though it might be our last.  

And, of course, no Team Israel celebration would have been complete without our beloved mascot: the Mensch on the Bench.

That whole thing started with Cody Decker.

Going into the qualifier, Decker was looking for a team symbol. For those of you who aren’t familiar, The Mensch on the Bench is basically The Elf on the Shelf for Jewish kids. He put a regular-sized one on our bench in Brooklyn for the WBC qualifying tournament last fall. Then an amazing thing happened. After we won the qualifier, the company who makes those things sent Cody a six-foot-tall stuffed Mensch.

Ahn Young-joon/AP Images

After the initial shock of seeing a huge stuffed mascot wore off, most reporters simply wanted a Korean translation of the Yiddish word mensch.

Nate Freiman

Our mascot rode shotgun to help Decker get clear of the L.A. gridlock in the car-pool lane, but then got relegated to a checked duffel bag on the flight to Seoul. The Mensch was a minor celebrity, or a major novelty, in Korea. I don’t think the players or the media there had ever seen a life-size stuffed rabbi. Not that we had, either. After the initial shock of seeing a huge stuffed mascot wore off, most reporters simply wanted a Korean translation of the Yiddish word mensch. (I don’t think we found one.)

He ended up being around for so many huge wins. And he was clearly looking out for us. So on the team charter flight to Tokyo, the Mensch got his own seat at the front of the plane. We felt like he’d earned that luxury.

That 4–1 victory over Cuba ended up being our last win in Tokyo. We got blown out by the Netherlands and then fell to Japan, despite finishing with a three-run ninth inning. The atmosphere in the clubhouse after the Japan game was upbeat — we felt truly grateful and blessed for having been a part of these experiences.

A couple of days after I got back from Tokyo, I saw a guy at the gym in Scottsdale wearing a Jew Crew T-shirt. (We free agents still go to our own gyms in March, and it’s a humbling exercise.) So, of course, I asked him about it.

“We had a really good team,” he said. “We went 4–0 before losing those last two games.”

He clearly had no idea he was talking to one of the players. But I love that he said “we.” The best part of the WBC is the personal way that people identify with these teams. My most enduring individual contribution to Major League Baseball may be the picture of me with José Altuve that went viral a couple of years ago (because I’m tall and José is, well … not). But thanks to our WBC run I got to be part of a team that people will talk about for years — even if they can’t name any of our players.

I still can’t believe how exciting those games were. And based on the celebrations I saw in other games, I don’t think I’m alone. I won’t weigh in on the debate the WBC ignited about showing emotion on the field, but I think we can agree that this tournament is the perfect stage for rally plantains, bald eagles and yes, gigantic stuffed rabbis.  

Best of all, by winning those games in Seoul, we automatically qualified for the next WBC.

I can guarantee you that the Mensch will be ready to roll in 2021. And while I don’t know exactly where I’ll be in four years, I can tell you this much: I’ll be going through a ton of tokens at the batting cages in the meantime.