Barber: Santa Rosa's Gabe Cramer is Olympics-bound
Some sporting events feel important because of the stakes, the significance of winning or losing.
Some go way beyond that.
On Sept. 9, the Israeli national baseball team took the field in Bonn for a game against its German counterpart. The baseball squad would be the first Israeli national team to compete in Germany since the murder of 11 athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics - which of course came scarcely more than a quarter-century after the horrors of the Holocaust.
On the mound for Team Israel that day was Santa Rosa native Gabe Cramer. The gravity was not lost on him.
“It was emotional,” Cramer told me over the phone from New York, where he mentors students for a college application consulting company in Manhattan. “When Hatikvah, the (Israeli) national anthem played, everybody took a little extra time, a little extra thought, a little extra motivation to beat Germany on their own soil. The game, it seemed like slow motion.”
Team Israel won that game, and then won some more, completing a stunning run with a magnicificent prize: a berth in the 2020 Olympics.
Israel will be one of six nations vying for gold in Tokyo next summer. And Cramer will be part of the pitching staff.
It’s the high water mark in a brief baseball odyssey that has been full of highs and lows.
Cramer, now 25, was one of the best pitchers in the Redwood Empire when he played at Santa Rosa High School, but needed Tommy John surgery after his senior year. He recovered thoroughly enough to pitch for two seasons at Stanford. He wasn’t selected in the MLB draft (he turned down the Giants in a late round), but signed with the Kansas City Royals as an undrafted free agent. Cramer was in the Royals system for most of four years. He pitched in the prestigious World Baseball Classic in 2017, but returned home with a case of forearm tendinitis after one strong appearance. He tore his rotator cuff shortly thereafter, and the Royals eventually lost their interest.
“I haven’t been the healthiest guy over my career,” Cramer said. “It’s just part of baseball, and especially part of my baseball.”
His affiliation with Team Israel was sparked by chance. Cramer was with the Lexington Legends of the South Atlantic League, a Royals A-level team, in 2016 when Royals analytics executive Guy Stevens approached teammate Jake Kalish in the clubhouse one day. Stevens was scouting for Israel’s WBC team.
“They were doing anything they could to find players,” Cramer said. “Facebook. If you looked Jewish, they’d send him a message. If your last name sounded Jewish. You know, if they’d been spotted within a mile of a synagogue, they gave ’em a call.”
Stevens knew that Kalish’s brother Ryan had shown interest in playing for Team Israel. Figuring Jake was Jewish as well, he asked the player to try out. Cramer couldn’t contain himself. “Hey,” he interjected, “I’m Jewish, too. And I’m actually way more Jewish than Jake.”
Cramer enjoyed what he calls “a pretty typical Reform, California Jewish upbringing.” He and his family are longtime members of Congregation Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa. Gabe attended Hebrew school Wednesdays and Sundays, spent many a summer week at Camp Newman - the Jewish retreat in the hills between Santa Rosa and Calistoga that became a casualty of the Tubbs fire - and was bar mitzvahed in 2007.
So less than a year after that clubhouse discussion in Lexington, Cramer was standing on a mound in Seoul, wearing the blue jersey of Team Israel, tuning out the roars of a partisan crowd as he faced hitters from the South Korea team in the first game of the entire WBC tournament. The right-hander entered in the fifth inning with none out and a runner on first base, and induced a fly out and a double-play grounder to end the frame.
Israel won the game, one of four victories that made national heroes of a team not really expected to do much in its first WBC appearance.
That experience left Cramer hungry for more. And while the shoulder injury had diminished his fastball (he used to throw consistently in the 94-95 mph range, and occasionally in the upper 90s, he says, but now sits between 88 and 91), he learned to work around that. MLB veterans Clay Buchholz and Kyle Lohse taught Cramer how to throw a cutter when they were all rehabbing together in Arizona in 2018. And Cramer has learned that the biggest factor in the health of his arm is now recovery time. His re-conversion to starting pitcher gives him time to do that.
“For the first time in two years from being hurt, baseball’s been really, really fun,” Cramer said.