When coaches set out on a nationwide search last year to assemble the U.S. junior baseball team for the 18th Maccabiah Games, their goal was to choose the best 17 players. They couldn’t have predicted that more than half the team would be from the Los Angeles area, including five from Calabasas High School.
“We could have picked all 17 from the L.A. area,” Hal Sandler boasted. “We’re trying to be fair to the rest of the country.”
Maccabiah coaches Dennis Weiner, Bret Gold and Sandler didn’t plan on having one geographic area dominate. But after a nationwide search using using a rating system on approximately 600 players, ages 15-18, that was the result.
Calabasas infielders Adam Landecker, Brian Rivera and Dustin Green, utility player Jacob Fields and outfielder Jordan Pollack join Tarzana infielder Jordan Berger (Taft High), Agoura Hills pitcher Shane Crofts (Agoura), 15-year-old Max Fried from Montclair Prep in Van Nuys and Simi Valley catcher Andrew Sandler (no relation to team coach Hal Sandler) as the area contingent. The team also has Orange County pitcher Andrew Wolfson (Laguna Hills) plus players from New Jersey, Philadelphia, Chicago, Miami and New Orleans on the roster.
“The L.A. kids have this thing about them,” Weiner said. “They know how to play the game. They know how to handle themselves on the field. They know how to talk to people. They respect the game.”
The team has played exactly one game together: a January contest against a Cincinnati Reds scout team. Teammates don’t remember the score, only that they won by at least six runs.
Still, these guys favor comparisons to the 1992 Dream Team, the 1999 Yankees and the 2009 Dodgers. The Dream Team, made up of NBA superstars that included Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and Magic Johnson, thoroughly dominated the competition, winning its eight games by a 43.75-point margin. The ’99 Yankees won 98 games and swept Atlanta in the World Series. The Dodgers have as deep a lineup as any team this year and have the best record in the league.
Although this Maccabiah baseball team has yet to play any of its games — it opens July 12 in Tel Aviv against Mexico, with games against Canada and Israel to follow, culminating in the July 21 gold medal game — its members believe it can dominate like the Dream Teamers, Yankees or Dodgers (minus the steroids, of course).
Calabasas’ Rivera went one step further in comparing individual Maccabiah players to the ’99 Yankees. Pollack has the power, speed and strong arm similar to Bernie Williams. Landecker, headed for USC in the fall, is Derek Jeter: captain on the field and able to make any play. Rivera counted himself as Alfonso Soriano in that Soriano has speed, range and a batting style that results in doubles and singles galore (although Soriano was 1 for 8 that season and didn’t come on until 2001). Sandler, bound for UC Irvine, is Jorge Posada, and coach Sandler is Joe Torre, Rivera said.
Many theories abound to explain the Los Angeles domination. It perhaps starts with the coaching staff: Weiner chose Sandler as an assistant coach because he liked the way Sandler coached the L.A. teams during recent JCC Maccabi tournaments (Weiner coached the Philadelphia teams). Sandler, in turn, has coached all nine of the L.A. teammates.
Lest anyone think this was a setup, Sandler said he stayed quiet during tryouts and let Weiner’s rating system pick the players. Fried, Landecker, Sandler and Pollack were chosen first. A pool of 30 players then were invited to a select tryout in Los Angeles, at which time the coaches picked the rest of the team.
Several players and coaches suggested the weather as another factor in the Angeleno majority: Playing 12 months a year has its advantages in that practice makes perfect.
Rivera said the only days off he had last year were Sundays. Landecker’s schedule was similar, he said.
“We see the best out here,” Agoura’s Crofts said. “We’re used to 90 mph fastballs, or whatever.”
What they’re not used to is a steady stream of Judaism. These boys are baseball players first, Jews second. Although all but Crofts celebrated their bar mitzvah, none called themselves devout. Some of their parents aren’t temple members, and only Rivera — whose father is not Jewish — belongs to a Conservative synagogue.
In fact, only Rivera said he is looking forward to going to Israel for non-baseball reasons. He plans to be called to the Torah at the Western Wall.
“I definitely want to travel and explore the country, learn my Jewish background,” he said.
The coaches have the cultural part covered. The team met in Newark June 27 before flying to Tel Aviv. Following two exhibition games against an Israeli team of collegiate players last week, the U.S. team has spent the week before the Maccabiah Games practicing and touring the country.
It remains to be seen whether they come back with a greater appreciation of their heritage. But they at least plan to return with gold medals.
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