The Israeli Baseball Team will make its Olympic debut on July 22 against South Korea. But last Sunday, the Israelis were in Rockville, playing Big Train Bethesda as part of a four-game series in the Northeast in preparation for the Tokyo Games.
As the sun set on Sunday, fans lined up at the entrance to Shirley Povich Field, chattering excitedly as players from Team Israel warmed up on the field. Tishah B’Av, a somber holiday of mourning, was coming to a close and now the mood was shifting toward excitement.
“We emerge from the darkness of Tishah B’Av, when we remember the destruction of the Temple, to the new day, where we celebrate the vibrancy of our strength as an American Jewish community,” said Rabbi Bruce Lustig of Washington Hebrew Congregation during the opening ceremony.
Fans in blue and white hats and jerseys with the Team Israel logo filled the stands, some waving small Israeli flags. The seats filled up and fans huddled in the standing room only area. Tickets had sold out within 48 hours.
The crowd grew quiet as Shir Madness, an a capella choir from Charles E. Smith Jewish Day school, sang “Hatikvah” and “The Star Spangled Banner.” Batboys from Team Israel and Big Train held their respective flags in the center of the field.
The first pitch was thrown a little after 9:15 p.m.
Sitting in the stands, Jason Langsner said he’s “absolutely excited for Team Israel to be in our backyard.” Langsner, national co-chair for Israel Bonds, said he’s been a baseball fan since childhood when he visited Yankee stadium with his family.
“I love baseball and I love supporting the State of Israel,” he said.
Peter Kurz, general manager of Team Israel, said the tour of the Northeast is “all about the Jewish community.”
Twenty-four players were making the trip to Tokyo. “We really see the Jewish community as being the 25th player helping the 24 reach the Olympics,” he said. “We have a strong team.
We’re very proud to be that team that’s representing Israel and the entire Jewish community.”
One of those players was pitcher Eric Brodkowitz. A native of Potomac, Brodkowitz said he is returning to “his backyard” for the game against Big Train.
Brodkowitz joined Team Israel in 2018. He said the fact that he’s going to the Olympics “still hasn’t set in.”
“Everyone has this one singular desire to win and to represent Israel and just play as well as we can because we ultimately don’t care about any individual stats, we just want to keep winning and make Israel proud,” he said.
Ian Kinsler, a former major league player who was part of the 2018 Red Sox World Series Championship team and now plays for Team Israel, led off the third inning at Povich Field with a base hit. Then, Ty Kelly, another former major leaguer, drove Kinsler home. Team Israel took the lead over Big Train and the crowd erupted.
Melissa Werbow, an educator at Hill Havurah in Washington, sat on a folding chair, talking and laughing with friends as she cheered on Team Israel. She said the game was a great opportunity to hang out with friends and see Team Israel before the Olympics.
“I’m so thrilled that they would come to our community to get people excited,” said Werbow. “It will make me more excited to watch the Olympics because I’ll feel connected to the players.”
Josh Brown, a volunteer with the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, feels the same way.
“To be able to see the team that we’re gonna see on TV here locally is so cool,” he said.
Brown’s love of baseball started when his grandfather took him to Chicago Cubs games at Wrigley Field.
“I just think it is awesome that we had this cultural event that we can bring the Jewish community out here and people who love baseball and have this friendship game,” he said.
Hazzan Henrique Ozur Bass, of Congregation Har Shalom, sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in Yiddish during the fifth inning stretch (the game had been shortened to seven innings), drawing cheers and laughter from the crowd.
At the bottom of the sixth inning, Big Train took the lead over Team Israel when Ryley Johnson hit a double and batted in two runs. The score was now 6-5 in Big Train’s favor.
At the top of the seventh, Team Israel catcher Nick Rickles drove home teammate Tal Erel, and outfielder Rob Paller hit a home run, bringing Erel home and defeating Big Train 8-7.
In response, fans stood, waved Israeli flags, clapped and chanted, “Yallah Israel.”