Patrick Finley: Ex-Cat Eric Berger relishes playing for Israel

2012-09-24T00:00:00Z 2014-07-08T15:35:57Z Patrick Finley: Ex-Cat Eric Berger relishes playing for IsraelPatrick Finley Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
September 24, 2012 12:00 am  • 

Pitcher Eric Berger has seen the world through his clubhouse mates.

His teams this season, the Double-A Akron Aeros and Triple-A Columbus Clippers in the Cleveland Indians system, contained players from more than 20 states and 10 countries and protectorates.

There were Venezuelans, Dominicans, Panamanians, Cubans, Taiwanese, Japanese and Canadians. Texans played alongside Alaskans, Kansans with Arizonans.

Eight days ago, the former Arizona Wildcats left-hander entered his locker room in Florida and looked around.

His teammates were wearing blue baseball caps with Stars of David on them.

"To walk in and having the locker room be all Jewish guys, it was interesting," he said. "A first for me. It was pretty cool."

Three days later, Berger started - and won - Israel's first-ever serious baseball game.

How many guys can say that?

For a player still awaiting his first big-league call-up, it was thrilling to only allow two hits in three scoreless innings of a World Baseball Classic qualifying-round opener.

As my friend and our preps guru Daniel Berk says, that deserves more than a mazel tov: Muuuuuuuuuch mazel.

(My gentile Yiddish, meanwhile, is limited to Mel Brooks movies, Larry David shows and the time I tried, and failed, to name our JCC softball team "Goyim, Goyim, Gone.")

"To do my best to represent for where my history came from and where my family's descended from," Berger said. "In the realm of things, it's pretty cool."

Unfortunately for Berger and his new teammates, the qualifying tournament did not end well. On Sunday, Israel lost 9-7 to Spain in 10 innings at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Fla., falling one win short of qualifying for the WBC in March. Berger started the game but did not figure in the decision.

Israel, a country with literally one baseball field, had only three Israel-born players on its roster. Rules allowed the team to include any player with a Jewish grandparent. That's why 23 of the team's players were minor-leaguers playing in the United States. Other teams have similar eligibility rules: Spain had a dozen Venezuelans.

Berger was bar mitzvahed growing up in in Sacramento, Calif. Baseball games on Saturdays often conflicted with temple.

"It was hard to go to services after a certain point," he said.

The 26-year-old sought out the Israel team - which is managed by former catcher Brad Ausmus and features retired outfielder Shawn Green as a player/coach - when he heard it rumored last year.

"To be able to represent the country of Israel and all the Jewish people around - there's not too many athletes out there - it was something I wanted to help them with," Berger said.

Berger, who had a 4.37 ERA in Double-A and a 5.50 ERA in Triple-A this year, said reaching the majors is still his ultimate goal.

"We know that us getting to the big leagues is something all the Jewish baseball fans can root for," he said.

Until then, consider this the thrill of a lifetime.

"(Baseball's) in their country, but if they're playing, it's not every day," he said. "It maybe gives some kids role models.

"For all the fans around the world, it gives them something to cheer for."

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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