Choices: Part II
In 2017, a single Israeli-born player made the roster. At age 10, Shlomo Lipetz played for Team Israel in the Little League World Series. He walked-on at San Diego Mesa College before transferring to the University of California San Diego on scholarship. Lipetz went on to pitch in Mexico, and in semi-pro leagues in Brooklyn, before joining the Netanya Tigers in Israel’s professional league during their only season.
During the 2020 Olympic Games four Israeli-born players suited up for play, two guys in their early 20s and two well beyond them in years.
Tell us about your Olympic experience
Josh: The Olympics was fantastic. Getting to call myself an Olympian, getting to participate, to play, to win, to eliminate another country, obviously it will forever hold a special place in my heart but, getting to do it with my best friend, with the support of my family, it's the Olympics. I don’t know if I can put more on it than that.
Ryan: The thing that has stood out to me about all the international competitions I’ve played with Team Israel, verse playing in the major leagues, is that it’s pure competition.
The competition level of the Olympics, because they had to make the teams of people that could get citizenship, was maybe not major league quality but, the intensity, and how much it mattered to everybody there, was so much more than what you get in a major league game.
If felt like the World Series every pitch and every out that we were playing, and that makes me love baseball.
There’s nothing that I enjoy participating in more than when we have a 28-man roster pulling on the same rope in the same direction. Any petty little difference, or anything that could have mattered, nothing else in the world did matter except for that game, that day, and there’s no better feeling in the game of baseball than being involved in something like that.
There were no fans in the stands. It was just us. We were, literally, everybody’s biggest fan. It was such a cool experience.
Everybody in the dugout lost their voice cheering for us, with nobody in the stands.
John Moscot tore his elbow and will never play baseball again.
On the seventh pitch of the first game.
He had two surgeries and rehabbed for three years just to play in the Olympics and on the second batter he tore his elbow and he’ll never play again. There are pictures, after I hit the homerun to tie it and send us into extra innings, where John’s the most excited person in the dugout.
But that’s baseball, if you’re playing for the sport.
That’s family. That’s more than just baseball. We were playing with family. I know that’s corny to say but we were like brothers. We were a family. We weren’t playing for ourselves, we were playing for the family, the group that was in the locker room together, the group that had traveled across the world together.
I think we all felt a greater sense of we were playing for more than just our team. We were representing Israel. It was important, to every one of us, to make sure that we were going about it the right way.
It’s very easy to say I’m going to play for the name on the front of the Jersey, but it’s very much that. You’re not playing for a last name. It doesn’t matter how well I do if the team doesn’t do well.
You’re playing for the flag. You’re playing for the country that you walked into the Opening Ceremonies with, that they sang the national anthem for. You are honoring a country’s-worth, a history’s-worth, of people.
I’ve never played for a World Series team like Ryan. I would imagine it is very similar but, I would also imagine, to some degree, players are still playing for contracts. They’re still playing for work - you know, sponsorship deals and car deals – but here we were literally playing for family, for people that care about us, for pride.
Since there were no fans, I feel like it almost made us more tight-knit because we felt a little isolated. It felt like college baseball again where, ‘Hey, do you wanna go to the dining hall?’ ‘Yeah. I just came back from there but let’s go again.’ ‘Hey, do you wanna go workout?’ ‘Yeah.’ Let’s do everything together, because there wasn’t a lot of interaction with other congregations because of covid. We did everything together.
Is there anything else you have done in your baseball career that measures up to being an Olympian?
Josh: Being an Olympian is obviously one of the very, very, very few but, if you look at the number of baseball players that have played the game in the major leagues, I think it’s like 20,000 in the history of major league baseball now. I’m blessed to have been a baseball player.
I’m blessed that my parents allowed me to play baseball growing up. It has given me such amazing opportunities and stories that I’ll be able to tell for the rest of my life.
There’s things that I’ve been lucky enough to do. I’m never going to be a hall of fame baseball player, but I have a hat in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
A lot of people grow up with their best friends. I met mine when I was 28. That doesn’t happen to everybody. It’s given me a life to live and to enjoy and I’m very, very thankful for it.
Was the Olympics one of the coolest things in the world, yeah it is, but baseball, in general, has given me more.
I’d say the Olympic experience compares very closely with my World Series experience. We very much felt like we were playing for something bigger than ourselves because, coming off the Marathon bombing, the team meant so much to the City of Boston.
That was also a team that I was a member of but I didn’t play for during the World Series. Playing in the Olympics, having the opportunity to play every out, and play a meaningful role on that team, even without the 100,000 screaming fans, it’s a very comparable experience.
Neither Josh nor Ryan has played for Team Israel in Europe. Josh was not added to the European Championship or Olympic Qualifying rosters for 2019 and Ryan, while listed, was in the middle of playoffs with his AAA team.
Any time there is a WBC event, we hear from fans. Can you explain to our readers why it’s not just a bunch of Americans playing with European names across their chest?
Josh: I do believe that this is a really important topic because we ran into this in 2012 and 2016.
The Cuban reporter, after we beat Cuba, was pissed.
We get the same issue with The Netherlands because of The Kingdom verse mainlanders. I’d like to add the player perspective, to try to bring the argument to a close.
Can you talk about what it means to have a country across your chest?
Ryan: The meaning, for me, is that’s where I feel the sense of pride. I was also recruited for the USA Olympic team this year and I had already committed to Israel.
When we played on the international stage with Israel across our chest, more importantly with the Israeli flag hanging even with the other countries, and the national anthem playing before the game, all the people that deny that Israel should exist, or deny that Jewish people are equal, your argument is null and void.
We deserve to be here. We earned our way here and you can’t deny us anymore because we belong here.
This whole journey has helped me find my own spiritual identity and my own place in the Jewish community. The same rules of obtaining citizenship for Israel are the same reasons why our ancestors were murdered in the Holocaust. I feel a close connection with that.
Anyone with a Jewish parent, or grandparent, or ties to Judaism themselves, would have been rounded up and killed. That’s why Israel exists and that is our tie to it.
That’s the tie that I feel. Those same citizenship rules are exactly what I feel inside my heart.
I’ve been so thoroughly embraced by the international Jewish community that I feel more pride playing for that than playing for a powerhouse, like the USA, that could use me or throw me away.
Josh, how does winning with USA across your chest compare to the experience with Israel there?
I have been very blessed, throughout my baseball life, to have been asked to play for many different teams. When I was 16 years old, I was asked to play for the country where I was born and live.
Playing with USA written across my chest, and hearing the National Anthem when we won gold in Taipei, was an incredible and monumental experience.
But playing for Israel, the country that has helped shape so many of my most important qualities as a human being, was something I could not possibly take lightly. Every time I put on the Israeli uniform, with the Star of David on the hat, I got chills.
Israel has been through so much in its history. To be able to represent its strength and passion on such a big stage is an honor I’ll never forget.
Shlomo Lipetz introduces his bobblehead doll to the world during the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games