Like many American kids, Gabe Cramer dreamed of playing baseball for the U.S. national team. Then an even better opportunity came along: Israel.
Cramer, a right-handed relief pitcher who is a minor leaguer for the Kansas City Royals after starring at Stanford University, will be playing for Team Israel in the upcoming World Baseball Classic. He’ll be bringing his 97 mph fastball to Seoul, South Korea, for a first-round series starting March 6.
The native of Santa Rosa, who had his bar mitzvah at Congregation Shomrei Torah, went to Camp Newman and participated in Hillel events at Stanford, will be on the mostly American roster as Israel makes its first trip into the WBC main draw. The team will play Korea, Chinese Taipei (Taiwan) and the Netherlands in an attempt to advance to the second round in Tokyo.
“Every athlete dreams of playing for the USA, but I think it’s even cooler to play for Team Israel and have the name Israel across your chest,” the 22-year-old Cramer said in an interview shortly before heading to minor-league spring training camp in Arizona.
“It’s pretty much all I’ve been thinking about. It can’t come quick enough. I think it will be the opportunity of a lifetime.”
Since baseball is still in its infancy as a sport in Israel, team officials focused on finding Jewish-American ballplayers — often by scouring rosters of minor-league teams for Jewish-sounding names. By happenstance, they found Cramer, who went 3-2 with a 4.12 earned run average and four saves in 27 appearances last season for the Royals’ Class-A minor-league team in Lexington, Kentucky.
“Jake Kalish, also with the Royals, had been involved in the past. They came to talk with him about playing, and I overheard them and I said, ‘I’m Jewish, too,’” Cramer said. “I jumped at the opportunity.”
He was selected for the roster despite the fact that no one with Team Israel had seen him pitch in person. Jerry Weinstein, who manages the Colorado Rockies’ minor-league team in Hartford, Connecticut, and will be managing the Israeli squad at the WBC, acknowledged he didn’t know much about Cramer — except that he has a lively fastball.
“We do a lot of this sight unseen,” Weinstein said in a phone interview from his home in San Luis Obispo, adding that he often gets information from scouts and team officials focused on minor-league players. “Arm strength is sexy and that’s one of the things that drew us to him. I look at his numbers and look at his resume, having gone to Stanford, so I know he’s pitched in high-leverage situations. But it’s not like there’s a huge talent pool here. It’s not like we can pick between Gabe and 13 big-league pitchers.”
Joining Cramer on the 28-man roster is Dean Kremer, a right-handed pitcher from Stockton who last year became the first Israeli citizen to sign a contract with a major league team when he joined the Los Angeles Dodgers’ organization. He was recruited for Team Israel after officials saw him playing for Team USA at the 2013 Maccabiah Games in Israel.
Former major league starter Jason Marquis, 38, who won 124 games during a 15-year big league career that included stints with nine teams, also is among the pitchers Weinstein will have at his disposal. Former Oakland Athletics relief pitcher Craig Breslow is another, and right-handed starter Scott Feldman, a 12-year major league veteran from Burlingame, might be; though not on the active roster, he could be plucked from Israel’s designated pitcher pool for later rounds.
Several position players on Team Israel also have had major league experience, including former Oakland Athletics players Sam Fuld, Nate Freiman and Ike Davis, and Ty Kelly, who played for the New York Mets last season.
There’s probably 1,000 players in a country of 8 million. There’s a lack of facilities, a lack of financing, they don’t have the fields.
This will be the first time that Jewish-American players will represent Israel in a baseball world championship. WBC rules allow players eligible for citizenship to be on that country’s team, and the Law of Return makes all Jews candidates to become Israeli citizens.
Israel reached the WBC by winning a qualifying tournament last September in Brooklyn, New York, against Great Britain, Brazil and Pakistan. The competition now will be much tougher — Korea is No. 3 in the world ratings, Chinese Taipei is No. 4 and the Netherlands is No. 9, while Israel is ranked 41st.
“In a short series, it’s not always the nine best players that win. It’s the nine best players on any particular night,” Weinstein said. “The standard deviation between the good player and the average player, there’s not a big margin there. If you pitch well, you’ve got a chance no matter what level of competition you’re playing.”
Weinstein said team officials hope the international exposure Israel will get at the WBC will help promote the sport in that country, where eight members of the team helped break ground last month on Israel’s first regulation baseball facility, in Beit Shemesh.
“It’s not popular there. There’s probably 1,000 players in a country of 8 million. There’s a lack of facilities, a lack of financing, they don’t have the fields,” Weinstein said.
“I think it’s going to pay dividends,” Weinstein said of Israel’s participation in the WBC. “There are plenty of Jewish people in the United States who have no awareness of baseball in Israel. This could get people to financially support the program in Israel and also in the United States.”
Cramer, who has never been to Israel and said a Birthright trip is on his bucket list, will work out with other Royals minor leaguers until Friday, Feb. 24, when he will join members of Team Israel at the Rockies’ complex in Arizona. The team will travel to Seoul three days later, and its first game is March 6 against Korea.
The Royals have been enthusiastic about his participation in the WBC, Cramer said, though they requested he not throw more than two innings or 40 pitches in any game, and that he not be used in back-to-back games.
He sees the WBC experience as a chance to bond with his fellow Israel team members and to show off his talents on an international level.
“I think it’s a great opportunity to experience a higher level of baseball. It’s going to be the best competition I’ve played against on a regular basis,” Cramer said. “There’s going to be a lot of people watching, so it presents a lot of opportunities. It’s a great chance to showcase myself a little bit.”