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Weinstein Back In U.S. After WBC As Yard Goats Ready For Season Opener

Septuagenarian Yard Goats manager Jerry Weinstein has been involved in international baseball for a long time. A long time. He was part of the Team USA coaching staff for the 1992 and 1996 Olympics. He coached in the 1987 Pan American Games.

He coached Team USA to a gold medal at the 2005 Maccabiah Games.

Weinstein knows the power of Cuban baseball.

"Cuba has been the standard bearer in international play," Weinstein said Tuesday during the Yard Goats' media day at Dunkin' Donuts Park. "Important games, Cuba doesn't lose."

Cuba did lose to Israel, 4-1, last month at the Tokyo Dome in the World Baseball Classic Pool E second-round game. The result was shocking, shocking enough for one Cuban journalist to rationalize that his country had just lost to America's second-best team.

"To beat Cuba in an important game was significant for me," said Weinstein, who managed Team Israel to a stunning 4-2 finish in the World Baseball Classic. "The press conferences were humungous. There were hundreds of reporters and camera people. The guy from the newspaper Granma [the official newspaper of the Cuban Communist Party] said, 'Isn't this really the U.S. No. 2 team?'

"I go, 'No, this is an Israeli team. And the fact of the matter is none of these guys would have been considered as the backup guys for the USA team. You got beat by a bunch of minor leaguers and ex-big leaguers who played together as a team and still have game.'"

Weinstein laughs.

"Our nickname was the team of has-beens and wannabes," he said.

At the start of the tournament, ranked No. 41 in the world, they were compared to the Jamaican bobsled team on ESPN. Running off three successive victories, Team Israel, a team of virtually all American-born Jews, instantly became the darlings of the WBC.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent out a tweet. Weinstein said he got all sorts of emails of support and congratulations. At one point, he said he saw a tweet of a W flag flying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

The truth is not many people in Israel knew what the heck was happening.

"We got tremendous response in the United States, not only from amateur people but from professional baseball people," Weinstein said. "And when I got back to spring training every place I'd go it was, 'You guys were awesome.'"

Israel beat South Korea, the No. 3 ranked team, 2-1 in extra innings in South Korea.

Israel beat Taiwan, No. 4 ranked, 15-7.

Israel beat Netherlands, No. 9 ranked, 4-2, to go undefeated in Pool A play.

And then Israel went to Japan and knocked off, No. 5 Cuba.

By this point, the team that had to qualify out of Brooklyn by beating Great Britain and Brazil had become the Cinderella of international baseball. It also had the best mascot of the tournament: The Mensch on a Bench.

"The guys meshed unbelievably," Weinstein said. "They competed their butts off. We won four games. We competed with everybody in the world.

"It just goes to show you that it's the team of the moment. You don't need the nine best players. You need the best nine that play together. Everybody's team was like that in the WBC. Nationalism is a very strong, powerful emotion. Playing for your county is not about you as an individual. We just played extremely well."

Depending on written accounts, Israel has somewhere between one and three baseball-specific fields. There are only about a thousand active players. A league of foreign-born players a decade ago folded after one season. Basketball is huge in Israel. Baseball not so much. In a radio interview during the WBC, in fact, the sports minister was asked if she would be traveling to South Korea. She didn't know what was going on there.

"The field you're talking about is Baptist Village, just outside of Jerusalem," Weinstein said. "By U.S. standards, it would be a very low-level junior varsity baseball field. I'm talking about a high school jayvee field. It's the best they have.

"The thing that pleased me most about our participation in the WBC was that we raised revenue for Israeli baseball so they can build fields, hire staff, train coaches and raise awareness to broaden the base of the sport."

The man who refuses to retire, a Johnny Appleseed of his sport, loves the idea of broadening interest in baseball around the world.

Ian Kinsler, Kevin Pillar, Jason Kipnis, Danny Valencia, Joc Pederson, there are strong Jewish players in the majors. They did not play for Team Israel. Kinsler helped lead Team USA to the WBC championship.

"It didn't work out well in terms of us getting the top-level major league players," Weinstein said. "We didn't have a major league player. We didn't have a 40-man player. It was just too difficult at that time during spring training, and to go that far away with a 16-hour time change, guys weren't comfortable doing that.

"We had some older players like Jason Marquis, Nate Freiman, Cody Decker and Sammy Fuld. And a bunch of A-level players like Tyler Krieger and Scotty Burcham, who plays in our organization."

The WBC allows a player with more than one national affiliation to pick his team. He needs only to document that he would be granted citizenship by the country if applied. Through the Law of Return, Israel gives citizenship to a person of Jewish descent, who married a Jew or converted to Judaism. Shlomo Lipetz was the only player on the roster born in Israel and Dean Kremer, a dual citizen, was the only other Israeli citizen. Ty Kelly and Ike Davis were the only ones who appeared on an MLB roster last year.

Don't take any of this to mean participating was insignificant to the Israel players.

"Two generations ago, the way that this team was put together, would have meant that we were being killed," catcher Ryan Lavarnway, a former Red Sox player, told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. "It was, I mean, we were being picked out, just because of the way that we were born and our lineage. It means a lot more than that we're here, that we're competing in a sport on the highest level, and we have the right to be here."

The magic would run out in losses to Netherlands and Japan, which eliminated Team Israel. Weinstein returned to the U.S. on March 15 and headed directly to the Rockies' spring training in Scottsdale, Ariz.

He had agreed to manage Team Israel as it tried to qualify for the last WBC, but he was elevated to a coach for the major-league Rockies and couldn't do it. He met with Shawn Green, Gabe Kapler and Brad Ausmus and implored one of them to manage the team. Ausmus did. The Connecticut native now manages the Detroit Tigers.

In January, after he was named Yard Goats manager, Weinstein had mixed emotions about going to South Korea. He had made the commitment and wanted to do it, but suddenly he was responsible for an entire group of minor-league players. The Rockies wanted him to go ahead to the WBC.

"At the time, I was just overwhelmed," Weinstein said. "I had too many irons in the fire. Trying to put this team together, being in spring training and then being away from spring training. But once I got there, I was totally immersed. You see the enormity of the spectacle, you couldn't help but be all in.

"The WBC is like the World Series on steroids, 16 teams playing like it's the seventh game of the World Series, it's very emotional. From Day One we had unbelievable team culture with one agenda: to win ball games. It was one of the all-time great experiences."

And with that, Jerry Weinstein looked out at a brand new ballpark and smiled. Another experience awaits him in Hartford.

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