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September 17, 2012

Former Bears suit up for Team Israel



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Two former California baseball players -- Charlie Cutler and Josh Satin -- are already a part of something special: the 120-year history of the Bears baseball program.

But, starting this week, they're going to be a part of something historic.

On Erev Rosh Hashanah -- the beginning of the Jewish New Year -- the two former Cal baseball stars are currently gearing up for their first game playing for Team Israel.

At 7 p.m. EDT Wednesday, Cutler, Satin and the rest of the Semitic swingers and slingers will square off with South Africa in the first contest of the World Baseball Classic Qualifying Tournament, which will decide which four new teams will join the 12 already in the bracket for the full World Baseball Classic in March.

[ROSTER: View the Roster Here | WATCH ONLINE: You can watch all of Israel's games live HERE starting on Wednesday night at 7PM Eastern]

Just in case anyone wants to practice how to say 'Go Bears!' in Hebrew -- roughly transliterated, it's 'Y'alla Duvim!'

*****

Neither Cutler nor Satin -- who were both drafted out of David Esquer's program in 2008 -- grew up going to Friday-night services on a regular basis. They weren't regulars at Berkeley Hillel during their years at Cal. They didn't always light the Shabbat candles or sing the blessings over the challah and wine. Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah were staples on the calendar -- the latter beginning at sundown this past Sunday -- and of course, Hanukkah (who doesn't like presents?). Like most American Jews, that was about the length to which the Satin and Cutler households were religiously observant.

But they did grow up partaking in another, uniquely American, Jewish tradition: Baseball.

For Cutler -- a catcher -- there were Moe Berg, Norm Sherry, Mike Lieberthal and Brad Ausmus to light the way behind the plate. For Satin -- an avid Los Angeles Dodgers fan -- there were, of course, Sandy Koufax and Shawn Green.

[RELATED: Satin Gets the Call | There Used to be a Ballpark Right Here: Baseball Canceled]

Even in Cutler's freshman season of 2006 -- when both he and Satin were making their marks on Evans Diamond and the Cal baseball program -- they were among mishpocha -- family. Also on that Bears team were bullpen catcher Ben Liepman, corner infielder Jordan Karnofsky and shortstop Brett Munster -- all Members of the Tribe.

The two former Cal teammates last played together in 2008, when Satin was named a first-team All-American by Baseball America, first-team All-Pac-10 and a second-team All-American by Rivals.com, thanks to a .379/.500/.723 season at the plate with 18 home runs -- including one hit in his last at-bat at Evans Diamond to provide the winning margin in the 10th inning against UCLA on May 25, 2008.

Cutler hit .321 that season, with 52 hits, 38 runs, six doubles, two homers and 17 RBI.

In 2005, Satin was named a Freshman All-American by Collegiate Baseball, and first-team All-Pac-10, becoming the only Cal freshman to win both those awards other than current big leaguer Xavier Nady, who turned the trick in 1998. That year, Satin hit .348 (seventh in the Pac-10) with 77 hits (eighth) and led the team with 26 multi-hit games. As a senior, he set a school record with a 27-game hitting streak.

Satin still ranks fifth all-time on the program's career hits list with 246, and is fifth all-time in total bases (381), sixth in RBI (153), eighth in career walks (119), ninth in homers (29, tied with Jerry Goff) and third for the best single-season slugging percentage (.723 in 2008) and round trippers (18 in 2008).

Now, Satin and Cutler are reunited on what Cutler affectionately calls a "Jewish All-Star team," and have traded in the blue and gold of the Bears for the kachol v'lavan -- the blue and white -- of the Israeli flag, as they join the first-ever Team Israel.

"It's becoming more and more real by the day," says Cutler, who spent this past season with the Altoona Curve -- the Double-A affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates -- hitting .296 in 55 games, scoring 25 runs, clocking seven doubles and three triples, slugging two home runs, driving in in 19, posting an on-base percentage of .407 and a slugging percentage of .421. "It wasn't really real until we got off the plane, is kind of how I feel. It's cool, man. There's no doubt about it -- it's such a unique experience, and I'm really kind of getting a feel for how big a deal it is, and how many people are really going to be paying attention. For me, personally, I've been lucky, honored and blessed to be here, and just want to do whatever I can to help."

*****

Baseball didn't work in Israel. At least, it didn't work on a professional level. The Israel Baseball League -- in which Liepman participated -- lasted just one season. Baseballs themselves are still listed as an import item. There is only one dedicated diamond in the entire state -- in the Baptist village of Petach Tikva, about 15 minutes due east of Tel Aviv. That's where the Israeli National Team that participates in the European Championships -- headed by 34-year old pitcher Shlomo Lipetz, who once tossed 16 straight innings in the same day -- makes its home. Other baseball games are played on modified soccer fields. The first sport that comes to mind when the term 'up to bat' is heard, is cricket. There's more cowhide used to make straps for t'fillin -- phylacteries used in prayer by Conservative and Orthodox sects -- than to make baseball mitts. Pig farming, of all things, has a bigger following.

It would seem odd then, that little Israel -- a nation of soldiers and soccer players, falafel and that other football, basketball and biblical history -- would have an entrant into this very American endeavor. However, when one considers the history of American Jews in the game of baseball, a Team Israel doesn't just make sense; It's as plain as the star on the flag.

Lipman Pike was the first ever professional baseball player. Albert Von Tilzer composed Take Me Out to the Ballgame. Hank Greenberg and Koufax -- along with the Dodger lefty's four no-hitters and one perfect game -- are in the Hall of Fame. New York Giants slugger Sid Gordon and American League MVP Al Rosen battered bleachers in their heyday, while Ken Holtzman helped redefine the role of the relief pitcher.

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The first-ever designated hitter was New York Yankee Ron Bloomberg. Broadcaster Steve Stone was a key cog for the Baltimore Orioles pitching staff in the 1970s and 80s, and threw a no-hitter en route to being given the nickname, 'Super Jew.'

Most recently, All-Stars Green, Ausmus, Lieberthal, Ryan Braun, Ian Kinsler and Kevin Youkilis have made their marks, and that's not even counting commissioner Bud Selig and a myriad of owners and general managers throughout the past century and a half.

With all of that history, it's hard to separate the story of American Jews from the history of the national pastime, and now, because of the nature of citizenship in the Jewish State, the best young Hebrew hitters and hurlers are all coming together under one cap.

Under Israel's Right of Return law, any individual with at least one Jewish grandparent is eligible for Israeli citizenship, and anyone eligible for citizenship in a given nation -- for instance, Mike Piazza and Italy in the 2006 WBC -- is allowed to play for that nation's team in the World Baseball Classic.

While both Satin and Cutler not only meet but exceed that requirement, only Cutler has actually been 'home.'

"I grew up around a lot of Jewish kids. A lot of my friends are, and I've been to Israel, I've seen most of the major sites there," says Cutler, who visited in the summer of 2000. "I remember a lot about the trip. It was a really eye-opening trip. I went with my family -- it wasn't Birthright or anything -- and my parents are definitely not the kind of people who want to sit on the beach all day when they're on vacation. We were getting out, getting after it, getting up early, going to museums, going to a lot of the tourist stuff. I remember the trip really vividly."

Green -- a former Dodger great, five years removed from his last big league at-bat -- is serving as a player-coach, along with fellow former big leaguer Gabe Kapler. Ausmus is serving as the manager, and made a pilgrimage to Israel in May, meeting with President Shimon Peres, presenting the head of state with a white vest jersey bearing his name in Hebrew.

[VIDEO: Cal Freshmen Take BP in Fall Ball ]

Green famously sat out a crucial late-season game against the rival San Francisco Giants when the game fell on Erev Yom Kippur -- the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. Luckily, this year, Yom Kippur falls on Sept. 26 -- a few days after the end of the tournament.

"Green, he's basically on the team and he's the hitting coach," says Cutler. "He stretches with the team, he takes BP with us. He played in our inter-squad (Saturday) and I think he had two hits. He just looks like Shawn Green, to me."

As any Dodgers fan -- including Satin -- can remember, Green once had plenty of pop in his bat, with seasons of 49 and 42 homers ranking as his best totals in his five years in Los Angeles, highlighted by a record-setting 6-for-6 day in Milwaukee on May 23, 2002, which saw the lanky 6-foot-4 slugger bash four home runs and amass 19 total bases. From May 23-25 that year, he put seven balls over the wall -- another historic achievement.

"I'm hoping to see some of that Shawn Green of '02 come back," Cutler chuckles. "I think he's just saving it for the tournament."

"I got to meet him when I got here, and I'd like to get to know him more," says Satin, who was a still in high school at Westlake Village (Calif.) Harvard Westlake when Green played for the Dodgers, and shares the former star's quiet bearing and understated intensity. "He's kind of both a coach and a player, so we haven't had a lot of time to really bond or what-not yet."

*****

When Cutler went out to a local Mexican restaurant in Jupiter, Fla., on Friday night, he may not have been saying hamotzi over his tacos, but he was going out with about a dozen Israeli baseball players to share a meal. Two hours later, they were finally finished.

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"Israelis," Cutler laughed. "What else would you expect? We just kept talking ... It was nice to get to know everybody. There are three pitchers on the National Team that are going to be on our current team -- Shlomo, Alon [Leichman] and Dan [Rothem]. They're awesome people, for sure. Everybody that's here is really behind the cause, whether it's the trainers or the strength coaches or all the support staff -- people really just want to be helpful and help out, any way they can."

The World Baseball Classic Qualifying Tournament pool featuring Israel, France, Spain and South Africa will be held from Sept. 19-23 at Roger Dean Stadium, and if this team filled with Israeli natives and Jewish American minor leaguers can make some headway and win out, they will add Major Leaguers Braun, Youkilis, Kinsler, Ike Davis and Jason Marquis to the roster for the WBC.

"I refuse to think about it, because the only way to get this done is to take it one minute, one moment, one day, one pitch, one inning at a time. That's the way we're going to get it done," says Cutler. "At the same time, it is baseball. It's a really short tournament, and anything can happen. Do we have a pretty good team? I think so, but there's nothing for sure. Everyone wants to win.

"Everybody knows who we have, and I don't think anybody would argue that our lineup is probably more experienced, but we definitely do have some talented pitchers."

[RECRUITING: Bears Add Another Local Prospect to 2014 Class ]

Those pitchers include 2011 Rule 5 draft pick Brett Lorin who played at Double-A Mobile this season, left-handed Arizona alum Eric Berger from the Cleveland Indians system, lefty starter Max Perlman from the Oakland Athletics system and San Francisco Giants farmhand Justin Schumer, who went 7-4 with a 4.87 ERA at high-A San Jose. In the bullpen, Israel has righty Josh Zeid out of the Houston Astros organization. Zeid had 66 strikeouts in 56 innings this season at Double-A, but also had a 5.59 ERA. A's lefty prospect Jeff Urlaub had 58 Ks and just nine walks in 65 innings between two A-ball stops this past season, and righty David Colvin from the Seattle Mariners system -- who was 5-3 with a 3.15 ERA and four saves in low-A Clinton this year -- round out the bullpen.

The Pac-12 is well-represented on the 28-man roster, with Cutler and Satin from Cal, Berger from Arizona, Cody Decker and Casey Haerther from UCLA and Jack Marder out of Oregon.

The first several days of practice -- yes, even on Erev Rosh Hashana, the beginning of the Jewish New Year, on Sunday -- have taken on a Spring Training atmosphere, according to Satin. It's all about meeting everyone else, bonding and feeling one another out on the diamond.

"It's pretty laid back, but we're getting our work in," says Cutler, who once called Roger Dean Stadium home, while a member of the St. Louis Cardinals organization. "There's been an eerie sequence of déjà vu for me. Being at the field, being at the back fields, we're staying at the same hotel as we did, so it's just been really weird. Another guy on the team was a Cardinals guy for about the same amount of time I was, and that's David Kopp, and he's my roommate. We're kind of going through the same eerie déjà vu together."

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Of course, that's not too hard for Cutler and Satin. The two played together for three years in Berkeley, and even played against one another in the minors back in 2009. Thursday night, though, was a reunion of sorts for the former teammates.

"It's cool, I mean, he's one of my homies," says Cutler.

"There are other guys who were college teammates on the team," says Satin, referring to former Duke Blue Devils Jake Lemmerman and Nate Freiman, as well as the UCLA duo of Decker and Haerther. "Charlie and I get along great. I enjoy playing with the guy a lot. We didn't necessarily hang out off the field back in school, but on the field, we were pretty close. We always had a good time together. I love the way he plays. I love the intensity he brings. We always get to talking in the locker room, and he's an insightful guy. It's definitely good to see him. We hung out [Thursday] night, with my roommate. He hasn't changed much."

Insightful is a word that describes most men who choose to put on the tools of ignorance and get behind the dish. Over the past two decades, there have been few better defensive catchers and handlers of staffs than Ausmus, who concluded his lengthy 18-year big-league career with the Dodgers in 2010.

"It's, it's awesome. He knows his stuff, for sure. I mean, it's been great to work with him, and I'm looking forward to getting in a lot more work with him," says Cutler, who received an e-mail from the long-time pro backstop in the middle of the season, inviting him to participate.

"Ausmus e-mailed me kind of in the middle of the season, and said it was a possibility," says Cutler. "Then, we e-mailed back and forth basically, and Peter Kurz, the president of the Israel Baseball Association, got involved. We didn't know anything for sure, really, until a couple of weeks ago, and they basically e-mailed me a plane ticket, and I knew I had a shot to be on the team."

Satin received a call from Ausmus at about the same time. After being a September call-up in 2011, Satin had a cup of coffee with the New York Mets earlier this year, and was hoping for another shot, but despite having a fine season for Triple-A Buffalo -- hitting .286, slugging 14 home runs, driving in 60 RBI and tallying 25 doubles -- he was removed from the 40-man roster late in the year.

"I told him I'd play if I wasn't in the big leagues," says Satin of his initial conversation with Ausmus. "I'm definitely excited to be here, but I'd rather be in the majors."

"Oh yeah, that goes without saying," says Cutler of his old friend, "but, we're here, now."

The here and now is all that is promised to Team Israel in the six-game double-elimination preliminary tournament, which will take place at four sites -- one each in Germany, Panama, Taiwan and Florida. The winner of each group will advance to the 2013 World Baseball Classic. Twelve teams have already qualified for the tournament, and four more will join the expanded field. Four of the teams in the qualifying round -- Canada, Chinese Taipei, Panama and South Africa -- participated in the 2009 WBC, but did not win a game. The other 12 teams from the 2009 event -- Australia, China, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Italy, Japan, Korea, Mexico, the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Puerto Rico, the United States and Venezuela -- will make it to the 2013 Classic based on their 2009 performances.

The Florida prelim, along with the Regensburg, Germany, pool, will play this month, with the Canada, the Czech Republic, Germany and Great Britain playing from Sept. 20-24 at Armin-Wolf Baseball Arena.

The next two groups will play in November. In Panama City, Panama, from Nov. 14-18, Colombia, Nicaragua and Brazil will square off. The final group will pit Chinese Taipei, New Zealand and the Philippines against one another in Taipei, Taiwan, from Nov. 15-18.

"It's going to be a really good experience, whoever we play," says Satin.

The life of a minor league baseball player is, of course, always in flux, but at least for the next week, there will be one constant for Satin and Cutler, aside from their Cal educations: the jersey with 'ISRAEL' scrawled across the chest.

"It was cool," says Cutler, following the team's first scrimmage on Saturday, when he first got to wear the jersey. "Even though we were scrimmaging a junior college [on Saturday] on like a back field in front of like, 50 people, it was cool, once the game started. You've got to feel pride, for sure."


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