Israel Baseball
Margo Sugarman

Israel’s baseball team turned to Shlomo Lipetz for the biggest out in program history

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As Israel led by 10 runs and had one out left to clinch its first Olympic baseball berth, manager Eric Holtz made a pitching change. He called on 40-year-old Shlomo Lipetz, a sidearm right-hander with a beard and mullet who had not appeared in any of the team’s four previous games in its Olympic qualification tournament.

“Shlomo was born and raised in Israel,” Holtz said in an email early Monday morning from Italy, where the joint Africa-Europe tournament was held. “He has put in over 30 years into the growth and development of this program. He played on fields that did not exist. Soccer fields transformed into some sort of diamond. He exemplifies what we are trying to show and prove to the youth in Israel. That if you work hard and put your time in, that even homegrown Israelis have an opportunity to do something special.

“Given the right opportunity there was no question that he would hold the baseball at the end of the game. He’s special to the team and he special [sic] to the kids in Israel.”

Lipetz, a vice president for booking musical acts at City Winery based in New York City, forced a flyout from the second South African batter. Israel won 11-1. Teammates dogpiled Lipetz on the mound in one of Israel’s greatest sporting moments.

“It slowly starts sinking in and repeating, again and again, that this great group of people are all going to be Olympians,” Lipetz, profiled by the Wall Street Journal in 2012, said by phone late Sunday night while celebrating the victory. “The feeling is disbelief and happiness, excitement. It’s a bunch of emotions, but it’s really hard to believe. The odds were so against us that you kind of train your mind not to have your mind wander there.”

The 2020 Olympic baseball tournament — the first since 2008 and the last until, at the earliest, 2028 — will feature six nations. Israel was ranked 41st in the world before its captivating 2017 World Baseball Classic run that included wins over the Netherlands, South Korea, Chinese Taipei and Cuba.

By this year, that ranking was up to No. 19. But Israel still had to qualify for the Olympic qualifier. It went through a July European Championships b-pool event, beating Greece, Serbia, Russia, Ireland and host Bulgaria in front of listed attendances of fewer than 100 people per game and “a field carved out of a mountain,” Lipetz said. “With sheep.”

Then it won a playoff at Lithuania — “in the middle of a horse racing track, and right field was 270 feet” — just to get into the top-flight Euros earlier this month. At Euros, Israel was the fourth-ranked team going in and went 5-3 to finish fourth, good enough to advance to the Africa/Europe Olympic qualifier, but far from a favorable position. Only the winner of the Africa/Europe qualifier would clinch a place in Tokyo.

So Israel went to Italy for the qualifier and proceeded to avenge those three defeats to Spain, the Netherlands and Italy in its first three games. All it needed was one more win Saturday against the Czech Republic or Sunday against South Africa.

When Israel’s most recognizable name, former MLB infielder Danny Valencia, smacked a three-run home run in the top of the eighth on Sunday, it had an 11-1 lead. The 10-run mercy rule would come into effect to end the game an inning early, assuming Israel could close it out. The plan all along was for Lipetz to get that chance.

“Symbolic, I would say,” said Lipetz, who called himself part of Israel’s first generation of baseball players and was one of four Israel-born players on the 24-man roster. “The personal achievement aside, I represent in a lot of ways what Israel baseball is and what it can potentially be.

“One of the first things that came to mind when I was throwing that last pitch — if I can be a role model for any players on this team, can be a role model for a 10-year-old Israeli watching this on TV for the first time, then that really is everything I want because I never had that Israeli role model.”

Lipetz, born and raised in Tel Aviv, said there were no pitching mounds where he grew up. He practiced on soccer fields. Still, he was one of the first players to get a special athletic scholarship in the military. He played for Team Israel for the first time in 1989, at a Little League World Series qualifier on a German military base.

He moved to the U.S. at age 21 to play college ball in San Diego in the early 2000s. He was part of that 2017 World Baseball Classic team that included a mascot, “Mensch on a Bench,” that did not make the trip for the Olympic qualifier.

“Stuck in customs,” Lipetz joked.

That 2017 WBC team included many players who were not Israel citizens, a requirement for the Olympics. Lipetz was the only Israel-born player, but he did not see game action.

All of the men who celebrated with Lipetz on Sunday have an Israeli ID.

“This, I think, tops [2017], all because when it comes down to it, we did it with a group of Israelis,” Lipetz said. “Yeah, some of them may have been born in the U.S., but today everyone was Israeli. That’s what Israel is all about.”

Lipetz believes most of the players on the qualifying team will be brought back for the Olympics, which is also 24 players, though he could not be sure that its oldest player will be kept one more year.

Lipetz turns 41 in February and would be one of the oldest baseball players in the sport’s short Olympic history (since 1992).

“Let them try,” to leave me off the team, he joked. “Anything can happen. I feel very lucky that I’ve been able to be part of Team Israel for so long. My role on this team is more than just throwing the last out or playing a game. It’s what makes the team what it is, basically the Israeli national team. I plan to continue to be part of the team one way or the other. I would like to think that I still have something to add as a sidearmer, late movement guy.”

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MORE: USA Baseball taps longtime catcher to be Olympic qualifying manager

Bradie Tennell’s personality shines through at Skate America

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LAS VEGAS — At Skate America on Friday night, fans got a glimpse of the “real” Bradie Tennell — strong, smart, funny; a little salty, but a little sweet.

Performing a short program set to a fast-paced medley of Kirrill Richter’s staccato piano compositions, Tennell practically gave off sparks while unleashing a solid triple Lutz, triple toe loop combination, liquid spins and her best steps ever.

The Las Vegas crowd gave her a standing ovation and so did the judges, who awarded the 2019 U.S. national silver medalist a personal best 75.10 points.

For the first time ever, Tennell leads a Grand Prix event, taking a 1.85-point advantage into Saturday’s free skate.

“I went out with the mindset to do it like I do every day in practice, no better but certainly no worse,” she said.

The 21-year-old skater, who grabbed attention with a surprising bronze medal at 2017 Skate America and went on to win the 2018 U.S. title, hasn’t always revealed as much of herself in interviews as some of her peers. She’s mostly been content with doing her job on the ice, and last season placed a solid seventh at the world championships.

“I think (this program) just allows me to show the side of myself that I am off the ice with my family, a little bit more sarcastic, a little bit funny,” Tennell said. “It’s almost like an onion when you peel back the layers. To show this program is a challenge for me but it’s a challenge I welcome.”

Longtime coach Denise Myers, who trains Tennell in the Chicago area, likes the new lens the program creates.

“Brady is a fun-loving personality that maybe now the world is getting to see a little better,” Myers said. “No surprise to me.”

The electricity Tennell ignited on Friday proves that when a skater loves her material, magic can happen. This isn’t the program Tennell and choreographer Benoit Richaud intended to use. An earlier routine, choreographed in May, failed to inspire the skater. When she saw Richaud at a training camp in Courchevel, France in June, she asked him to try again.

“So then he puts up this music and I’m like, ‘What is this, this is so cool, this is my music, let’s start now,’” Tennell recalled. “I was so excited to find this piece of music and use it…. Yeah, I love this program.”

Skate America is Tennell’s first competition of the season; a fractured bone in her right foot forced her to withdraw from a Challenger Series’ event in Canada last month. The injury kept her off of the ice for much of the summer, and when she attended U.S. Figure Skating’s Champ Camp in late August, she was wearing a protective boot.

“Before my injury, I can’t remember the last time I didn’t have pain on the ice with my feet,” Tennell said. “It felt really bad at the beginning of July, and then it started to get progressively worse really quickly. So I went to the doctor and got some scans done, and they said, ‘Yeah, you’ve got a break in the bone there.’”

About a month ago, Tennell returned to full training, resolving to make up for lost time.

“That’s just her determination,” Myers said. “You have to listen to what your body is saying. She’s just very determined to have a successful season.”

MORE: How to watch Skate America

Tennell’s free skate, also choreographed by Richaud, is set to music from the romantic 1988 film Cinema Paradiso.

“It’s a totally different feel, that’s what’s so exciting about this year,” Myers said. “The short is a little sassier, a little more mature, and the other program is so soft and feminine.”

It will take every ounce of Tennell’s mettle to stay on the Skate America podium. Japanese skaters Kaori Sakamoto and Wakaba Higuchi, both powerhouse jumpers, are close behind in second and third place. Russian teen Anna Shcherbakova sits fourth with 67.60 points and can make up the deficit if she lands the quadruple Lutz she showed at a Challenger event in Italy last month. In practices in Las Vegas, Shcherbakova has included two quad lutzes in her run-throughs. More on the results of the ladies’ short program from Friday evening in Las Vegas here.

MORE: Nathan Chen hopes to hip hop his way to Skate America crown

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Check out a free trial of the Figure Skating Pass during Skate America from Oct. 18-20. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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Bradie Tennell leads Skate America field after Russians falter

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Bradie Tennell‘s bronze medal at 2017 Skate America propelled her to a national title and a place on the PyeongChang Olympic team in 2018.

At Skate America on Friday evening in Las Vegas, Tennell outpaced the ladies’ field by 1.85 points, scoring 75.10 points — her best-ever short program score. Tennell opened her program with a triple Lutz, triple toe combination, followed by a double Axel and a triple flip. What could a win at her first Grand Prix event of the season set up for the 2019-20 year? Time will tell.

“I went out there with the mindset of doing what I do everyday in practice and not trying to make anything any better or certainly any worse,” Tennell said through U.S. Figure Skating. “I wanted to enjoy myself, be relaxed and perform. The ice is my safe space. It’s where I feel most at home… It’s almost like an onion. You have to peel back the layers, and that’s almost what I’m doing with my skating now. To show this program is a challenge for me but one that I welcome.”

MORE: Tennell’s personality shines through at Skate America

Her closest competitor, Kaori Sakamoto from Japan, tallied 73.25 points after skating to Alice Merton’s “No Roots.” Sakamoto has won the silver medal at Skate America for the past two seasons.

Japan’s Wakaba Higuchi skated to another pop song, Sia’s “Bird Set Free,” and scored 71.76 points. She’s in third place heading into Saturday’s free skate.

Skate America results are here.

The standings are a surprising twist, as many pinned Russian skaters Anna Shcherbakova and Yelizaveta Tuktamysheva to be inside the top three after the short program.

In her senior Grand Prix debut, Shcherbakova slipped and fell in her step sequence and accrued a mandatory one-point deduction. She still tallied 67.60 points, good enough for fourth place on Friday evening.

Expect to see quadruple jumps from Shcherbakova in Saturday’s free skate. She trains under Moscow-based coach Eteri Tutberidze alongside a host of burgeoning Russian skaters, including reigning world and Olympic champion Alina Zagitova.

Meanwhile, Tuktamysheva, the 2015 world champion, sits in fifth place behind Shcherbakova by a slim 0.32 points. While her triple Axel was awarded positive Grades of Execution, her triple Lutz was called under-rotated.

2017 national champion Karen Chen returned to major international competition after being away for more than a year due to injury. The Cornell freshman finished her short program in sixth place with 66.03 points.

“There were definitely nerves,” Chen said of her return to competition. “This year is my comeback year, and so I wanted to make it count, but at the same time I know that I’m throwing a lot of things out there, like I’m skating and I’m also going to school. It’s been tough balancing, but I do really enjoy it and I think it’s the right decision.”

The third American in the field, Amber Glenn, is seventh with 64.71 points.

MORE: How to watch Skate America

In ice dance Friday night, Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue have high hopes of keeping the U.S.’ winning streak alive at Skate America. After Saturday’s free dance, the Montreal-trained team could extend U.S. ice dancers’ win streak to 11. They won this event last year, too.

Hubbell and Donohue skated to a Marilyn Monroe medley — including “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” which Hubbell admitted to wanting to skate to since the 2014 season — to score 84.97 points.*

“I feel like we have so much progress to make on the program, but it was a really great performance for today,” Hubbell said through U.S. Figure Skating. “It was really exciting for me to debut the Marilyn Monroe character. It’s something I have dreamed about skating to for many years, so it was great to actualize that here in Las Vegas.”

Aleksandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin of Russia sit close behind with 81.91 points, after a rhythm dance set to “Sparkling Diamonds” and “Your Song” from Moulin Rouge. The Russian duo were fourth behind Hubbell and Donohue at the 2019 World Championships, and Stepanova recently returned from a back injury. Canada’s Laurence Fournier Beaudry and Nikolaj Sorensen performed their rhythm dance to selections from “Bonnie & Clyde” and placed third with 79.17 points.

Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko landed in sixth place after the rhythm dance with 70.41 points. The third American dance team in the field, Caroline Green and Michael Parsons, were eighth with 67.97 points after the rhythm dance in their Grand Prix debut. They’re a brand new team this season; Green formerly danced with her brother and Parsons was previously partnered with his sister.

“I feel that so far we have adapted really well to the new partnership,” Green said. “I think that we have a good trust with each other. Maybe it is not quite as natural as it was with our siblings, but I definitely think we are in a good place and this has the potential to be even a little higher.”

“I had a long career with my sister and it does feel strange to be at a competition like this without her, but I think I’m really lucky in the fact that I can use all the experiences I had with her to learn from, to teach Caroline and to build on this new partnership,” Parsons added.

*Editor’s Note: Due to a calculation error on the element “Pattern Dance Type Step Sequence” (PSt), the Rhythm Dance (RD) scores at the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating event Skate America had to be re-calculated for all skaters. The revised results and details are published with the corrected scores. The overall RD standing did not change. They are correct in this article as of 10 a.m. Saturday. 

Friday afternoon, Nathan Chen was the only men’s skater to break the 100-point barrier. More on the men’s and pairs’ short program here.

MORE: Hubbell, Donohue already thinking about worlds in Montreal

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Check out a free trial of the Figure Skating Pass during Skate America from Oct. 18-20. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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