Gabe Kapler would have loved to play for Israel in the World Baseball Classic. He has not played in the major leagues for seven years, but that would not have been a problem. Eric Gagne is playing for Canada, and he hasn’t played in the majors for nine years.
But Kapler has a full-time job, as the Dodgers’ director of player development. The Dodgers had minor league staffers to hire, spring training arrangements to make, inquiries from players to answer.
Kapler coached for Israel in its 2012 WBC qualifying round, the first time the country entered the tournament. He never had seen Israel, but he accepted an invitation to travel there with this year’s team, sharing the journey with his two teenage sons.
So, as the tour bus rolled along the roads of Israel last month, and everyone else took a nap or read a book or played a video game, Kapler did his job from half a world away, thanks to the wonders of Wi-Fi and text messaging.
The Israel roster consists largely of Jewish minor leaguers from the United States. The team failed to advance out of the qualifier in 2012, but this time advanced to pool play in South Korea next month by winning a tournament in New York last fall. Under WBC rules, no one has to set foot in Israel to play for Israel.
“It was important for me to get them to Israel to understand what they’re playing for and who they’re playing for,” said Peter Kurz, president of the Israel Assn. of Baseball.
The Holy Land highlights included visits to the Western Wall and the Dead Sea, and meetings with a member of Parliament, a high-tech venture capitalist, fighter pilots and graffiti artists. The players rode bicycles along the Mediterranean Sea, gorged themselves with tomatoes and hummus, and took batting practice before hundreds of kids who had never seen baseballs hit quite so far.
“It was an extraordinary life experience,” Kapler said.
Nowhere more so, perhaps, than at the team visit to the Holocaust museum and memorial. Kapler paused to collect his thoughts before he could talk about it.
“That’s an experience that almost makes you emotional for several days after,” he said.
“Given our politics here right now, there was so much. The political climate in the United States amplified the experience.”
Israel itself was born out of the horrors of the Holocaust. Sandy Koufax is older than the state of Israel.
“I am immensely proud of our people,” Kapler said. “The way we have been persecuted, and our drive and our survival, is mind-boggling. I think that is part of the reason I continue to be so connected to the Holocaust, and why that has such a moving effect on me.”
He could explain how he believes the political climate in the United States amplified his experience in Israel. He won’t.
“I’m being vague and general for a reason,” he said. “There is so much that could be misconstrued or misunderstood.”
There is little time for vague generalities in Israel. The locals are confident and strong, but there is nothing distant or subtle about the urgency of life in the Middle East. Kapler had batting practice on a field about six miles from the West Bank.
Kapler said he would like to visit there someday, to get the Palestinian perspective on history and politics.
The danger here is saying “the Israelis” or “the Palestinians” to suggest an entire people must share one point of view, or one way of life. It’s an issue baseball faces, in its own way.
Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations, has talked about how major league teams have “failed the Cuban players” by not putting the appropriate focus on their adjustment to American culture. Kapler said teams have struggled to develop programs flexible enough to nurture different personalities from the same homeland.
“We’re still learning our way,” he said. “It’s not an easy thing. One Cuban player, one Dominican player, one Venezuelan player, one Jewish player is not like the guy standing next to him, necessarily.
“There’s a lot of variability from American player to American player. I think we run into a lot of problems when we begin to lump human beings together just because they come from the same country.”
Given our politics here right now, there was so much. The political climate in the United States amplified the experience.
The best way to learn about another country is to engage with it. The Dodgers this week held a dedication ceremony for their expanded and renovated training facility in the Dominican Republic.
“This is about more than baseball,” Dodgers President Stan Kasten told the assembled dignitaries. “We intend to work with our players in teaching them language skills and life skills and, very importantly, we also intend to conduct programs with our neighbors in the community.”
Kapler said he isn’t sure his trip to Israel will have “any real application” to his job with the Dodgers, and not just because Israel has yet to produce a major leaguer. (Dean Kremer, the first Israeli chosen in the baseball draft, pitches at the Class A level in the Dodgers’ minor league system and will play for Israel in the WBC.)
But the more people you talk to — in Jerusalem, in Santo Domingo or in Los Angeles — the better the chance you have to learn something that makes you click with someone else.
“Being good at cultural acclimation is not us figuring out one part of the world,” Kapler said. “It’s more about figuring out human beings.”
Follow Bill Shaikin on Twitter @BillShaikin