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Barber: Santa Rosa's Gabe Cramer is Olympics-bound

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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.

When Team Israel assembled for the low-level Europe/Africa Olympic qualifiers the first week in July, Cramer was in the rotation.

To play in the WBC, he had been obliged to produce proof of his Jewishness. A letter from his rabbi and a bar mitzvah certificate did the trick. The Olympic push required a greater level of commitment. Cramer and his teammates, almost all of them American, had to apply for Israeli citizenship under that country’s Law of Return.

Cramer already had joint American/Canadian citizenship through his mother. But formally aligning himself with Israel gave him pause.

“Not because I necessarily disagree with Israel,” Cramer said, “but because I’m not as knowledgeable as I think you should be when you’re making a decision like that.”

He added, “There’s been no reason for me to regret my decision at all. But it made me think. It’s a politically charged country. It’s not like becoming a citizen of Canada.”

Cramer took the plunge, and on July 1 he found himself in Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria, for the European Championship B Pool. As Ken Rosenthal later wrote for the Athletic, “the field was dug into the side of a mountain, with goats and sheep in the distance and the right-field fence just 280 feet away.”

“We were told all these stories about what it was gonna be, and how bad some of the competition was gonna be, and the field was gonna have rocks,” Cramer said. “We showed up, and it was all true. I thought there’s no way these guys are telling the truth. There’s no way we’re sleeping in tiny little cots, with bugs in the room and barely any hot water. But it was all true. And it was just a comedy of errors — 15 guys packed into an eight-person Sprinter van to get to the game.”

Israel has always been assigned to Europe’s B Pool. Though American Jews have a long love affair with baseball, and despite the existence of the Israel Association of Baseball, the game has never really caught on there.

And yet Team Israel excelled in Bulgaria, setting up a best-of-three series with Lithuania for the right to advance to the A Pool. The series was held on enemy soil, in the smallish Lithuanian town of Utena, on a baseball field in the middle of a horse racing track. The Israelis swept.

Then came the B Pool and that solemn game against Germany.

Something remarkable occurred that day. Most of the fans attending the game were rooting hard for the Germans, of course. But some showed up dressed in black outfits bearing stars of David to lend support to the visitors.

“They were very apologetic. They were very gracious,” Cramer noted. “They said, ‘We just want you to enjoy your time here, and we want you to think kindly of us when you leave here, and know that we no longer feel any of those things that our ancestors felt.’”

Israel went 5-3 in the A Pool, despite resting some of their top pitchers after securing a berth in the official World Baseball Softball Confederation Europe/Africa Qualifier, the true Olympic springboard.

There, in Parma and Bologna, Italy, Israel would be playing against the best teams in Europe, facing competition comparable to Double- and Triple-A talent. The Israelis beat Spain, the Netherlands, Italy (Cramer pitched 3⅔ scoreless innings in that one) and South Africa in round-robin play, losing only to the Czech Republic.

In a three-time playoff, Israel lost to the Czechs again but drubbed South Africa 11-1 in the final game. Team Israel was going to Tokyo.

The Israelis will certainly be long shots again. The team includes four players with major-league experience, including Danny Valencia (who played eight MLB seasons, including two with the A’s in 2015-16) and Jeremy Bleich (who made brief appearances with Oakland the past two years). The remainder of the roster is filled out by current and former minor leaguers and college players.

Cramer can’t wait. Reinvented as a crafty location pitcher, he has rekindled his love of baseball. The experience with Team Israel also has drawn him closer than ever to Judaism. Cramer’s teammates in Europe were arrayed across the spectrum of orthodoxy. Some were new to the religion. Others kept kosher between games. A team trainer practiced shomer Shabbos, ruling out treatments between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday. Cramer was somewhere in the middle.

All of them, he said, left Italy more steeped in their Jewish heritage. Cramer, in fact, likes to say that the times he has felt the deepest connection to Judaism were playing ultimate Frisbee at Camp Newman and standing on a baseball field in Seoul.

“To me it just reinforced that there is something special about Judaism,” he said. “And not that it’s different, necessarily, from any other religion. But there is this unspoken bond, there is something larger at play, there is something very interesting about representing a people. And it made me incredibly proud to do it.”

Imagine the feeling next July 24, when Cramer joins his teammates, adopted countrymen and fellow Jews for the opening ceremony at Olympic Stadium in Tokyo. What can you say, except mazel tov.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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