Nate Freiman and Jeremy Gould have never visited Israel. Yet last week, the pair of former Blue Devil baseball players joined another ex-Duke player, Jake Lemmerman, in suiting up for Israel’s national baseball team for the World Baseball Classic Qualifiers in Jupiter, Fla. On the opposing team, representing Spain, was former Duke left-handed pitcher Chris Manno.
Freiman, Gould, Lemmerman and Manno all currently play in the minor leagues and were all teammates at Duke.
Team Israel, dubbed ‘The greatest Jewish team ever assembled’ by its general manager, only has three true Israelis on the squad. The vast majority of the players are Americans with Jewish roots, now playing in the major and minor leagues in the U.S.
Team Israel’s manager, Brad Ausmus, a former MLB catcher who is himself Jewish, was the influencing factor that convinced Freiman to join the team. Freiman, who currently plays with the San Diego Padres’ double-A affiliate after being selected in the 8th round of the 2009 MLB Amateur Draft, said he was extremely grateful that Ausmus reached out to him with this unique opportunity.
“[I was] definitely really proud to put on the Israel jersey,” Freiman said. “It was definitely different playing for a country rather than a minor league team or even the Duke team. It was a really cool experience playing for the country like this. I’d never done anything like it.”
It was simple word of mouth and flyers posted on a bulletin board that caught Jeremy Gould’s eye. After emailing back and forth with the team for about five months, Gould’s spot seemed to be secured to head to Jupiter in September. However, things did not go as smoothly as he had hoped.
“It worked out that 10 minutes before the team got together, [Ausmus] told me that I was not going to be on the team,” Gould said. “But he said I should follow up in a week and make sure that nothing had changed. Three days later, I got an email from the person coordinating all the flights saying that I needed to make my flight arrangements as soon as possible. So pretty much, I wasn’t on the team until they called me telling me to make my flight arrangements.”
So Gould booked his flight, packed his mitt, cleats and baseball cap and hit the road to compete for the Israeli National Team in its first appearance in the World Baseball Classic. Although he has never been to Israel, the 6-foot-4 pitcher feels a deep connection to the country.
“I am American, but I am also Jewish,” Gould said. “I grew up in a Jewish community and went to a Jewish elementary school. I felt as if I was playing for the community I grew up in and the elementary school that I went to.”
Gould, who was drafted by the New York Mets in the 28th round of the 2010 draft and currently plays for a New York Mets affiliate in Savannah, Ga., chuckled when asked what connection he felt to Israel.
“This was definitely an issue that other people were talking about all tournament long and other players were asking us about,” Gould said. “But I definitely feel a connection to the country as part of my heritage…. I was very excited to represent Israel…. [It was especially great playing with Freiman and Lemmerman]. We hadn’t played together in three years [or so]. It definitely brought back a lot of great memories of playing at Duke.”
Those memories included playing with Freiman and Lemmerman, who was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the fifth round of the 2010 Draft, and currently dons a Chattanooga Lookouts jersey as part of the double-A Southern League. And they played against Manno, who currently plays for the Cincinnati Reds-affiliated Pensacola Blue Wahoos.
The four Blue Devils took the field in their respective national uniforms when the teams lined up to play one another in one of the qualifying rounds for the World Baseball Classic, which took place Sept. 23. Though the Spanish red and yellow came out on top, the Israelis did not go down without a fight. After a 10-inning, five-hour epic, Spain advanced past Israel with a 9-7 win in the qualifying-round final.
Since baseball is currently not an Olympic sport, the World Baseball Classic looks to step in to fill the void for international baseball competition. The tournament is sanctioned by the International Baseball Federation and was created by Major League Baseball in coordination with the Major League Baseball Players Association and other baseball associations around the world. The tournament, which takes place in March, is strategically dated to allow for the game’s top prospects to participate in the international competition while there is a bit of a lull in the lives of Major League and Minor League players.
The Classic, which was founded in 2005, has only seen one winner in the past two showings—two-time gold-medalist Japan. The Japanese took the title in 2006 in San Diego and again in 2009 in Los Angeles. In its third year in existence, the tournament has for the first time ever had these qualifying rounds, with 28 teams competing as opposed to 16 in the past.
Although Israel did not advance to the Classic, Gould enjoyed the experience and was encouraged by the positive atmosphere around the dugout and on the field playing for Israel.
“Playing for Israel was special,” Gould said. “Everyone was always rooting for everyone else. There was a lot of chemistry and camaraderie. We were all just playing for each other and out there having fun. It was really a great experience. I felt a great sense of pride.”