September 8, 2007
Little Leaguers catch a wave in West L.A.
To be fair, one was a quarter Jewish, three others half-Jewish. But make no mistake -- the WLA Waves, all from the Brentwood and Westwood areas, debunked the stereotype of the lack of Jewish sports legends.
During this summer, when thousands of teams from all over the world play tournaments with the goal of reaching the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa., the Waves swept through the District 25 and Section 4 tournaments to reach the state tournament. After losing the first game to Claremont -- which lost in the state final to Solana Beach, which lost in the regional final to Chandler, Ariz., which reached Williamsport -- WLA again made history by becoming the first 11-12 team from its league to win a game in state, beating Montalvo before being eliminated by Tustin.
"The state tournament is, like, huge," said catcher Cary Jacobsen, 13, of Westwood. "I don't know anybody who's gone that far, and to win a game in state."
Along the way, coaches with Jewish players on their teams would ask WLA coach Michael Rosenfeld if he had any Jews on his. Rosenfeld would tell them his whole team is Jewish, and they should have seen the after-game parties when the boys and their parents would sing "Hava Nagila" in the middle of a pizza parlor.
"It's unique," Rosenfeld said. "You don't see that a lot."
In fact, there are only two Jewish major leaguers enshrined in Cooperstown, N.Y.: Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax, both of whom made news for refusing to play on Yom Kippur. Just as Greenberg had to overcome anti-Semitism and Koufax struggled with his control before achieving greatness, so did these boys have much to overcome.
First and foremost, West Los Angeles Little League (established in 1951) historically is shadowed by Culver City and North Venice little leagues; hence, the 46-year gap in reaching state. Culver City has reached the state tournament three times, according to its Web site -- the last time in 1995.
"No one takes [West] L.A. seriously. It's not a baseball mecca," Rosenfeld said. "They do now."
Then there was WLA's own shortcomings. The Waves had just three pitchers, starters Ethan Reid and Brandon Smith, and reliever Matt Allen. Contrast that, Waves manager Victor Reskin said, with Claremont and others having as many as eight pitchers, five of whom could be considered staff aces on other teams. Cary said he thought all eight of Claremont's pitchers could have been staff aces.
Little League rules also came into play. A pitcher can throw no more than 85 pitches in a game, then must not pitch for at least two days. Substitutions also were tricky: a player who came out must come back into the same spot in the batting order he was in before being substituted.
Many of the top players participate in other nearby leagues, such as Pacific Palisades PONY, and travel ball if they think it's more competitive than Little League. This automatically decreases the pool of players from which WLA can choose.
Finally, there was a Jewish obstacle: bar mitzvah training. Just about all the players had to balance their time among school, practice and games, but many of these boys had that extra responsibility. Sometimes, they missed practices. And if synagogues imposed other training requirements, the players had to adjust. Temple Isaiah in West Los Angeles requires its students to attend services, and Cary sometimes worshipped in his uniform.
"I had no choice," said Wendi Jacobsen, Cary's mother. "He'd wash his hands and then he was fine."
Being Jewish also cost Cary a chance to play in an invitational tournament in Cooperstown after the regular season because it conflicted with his bar mitzvah date. The coaches begged Jacobsen to let her son fly in the next day (he was the team leader and top hitter), but with family in town, she refused.
"At first, I was really upset," Cary said. "I really wanted to go."
So how did the Waves not crash?
Actually, WLA's program has improved in recent years. The 12-year-old teams won the district tournament in 2003 and 2004 -- the first times since 1961 -- but faltered in the sections. The coaching staff was aware of what it took to reach state and pushed this group accordingly, with positive results.
Because the team had such strong hitters, having just three pitchers worked. Ethan and Brandon threw fastballs, and Matt threw slower stuff to keep batters off balance. No one could throw a complete game, but that didn't matter. WLA outscored its opponents 74-18 in five district games and 25-12 with one shutout in three section games.
As for Cary, he eventually realized a bar mitzvah is a once-in-a-lifetime event. Plus, teammates Ethan, Elliot Barzilli and Gabe Freeman stayed home to attend his bar mitzvah. Those who didn't attend called to wish him well just before the family left for synagogue, Wendi Jacobsen said.
There may be more moments like this summer's. Many of the Waves soon will reunite on a travel ball team, Cary said. Regardless of what happens, they'll always have this historical summer.