Mensch on the bench (and the mound too)

May 13, 2020
Two Spiders expect to compete for Team Israel at the Tokyo Olympics, now slated for 2021. Pitcher Jonathan de Marte, '15 & GC'17, and assistant baseball coach Nate Mulberg are part of a team full of American expats writing an unlikely, joyful new chapter in Israeli sports history.
By David Driver

After graduating from Richmond in 2017, Spider pitcher Jonathan de Marte (at left) signed to pitch professionally for an independent baseball team in the Frontier League. He was with the team again the following year in Normal, Illinois, when his manager, Billy Horn, approached him about playing in a winter league.

But de Marte, who grew up in a Jewish home in suburban New York, had a larger vision that went beyond his own individual career.

“My immediate response was I wanted to play for Israel,” de Marte recalls. “He told me, ‘I am friends with Gabe Kapler and will see what I can do.’ The next day Kapler got back to me.”

Kapler, a former big leaguer and now the manager of the San Francisco Giants, had been a coach with Team Israel in 2012. Soon after, de Marte heard from Eric Holtz, the manager of Team Israel, who contacted him about the possibility of joining the team. Both were from Westchester County near New York City, and de Marte played against the Holtz’s oldest son as an amateur.

“I followed his entire career,” Holtz said. “I assumed he was Italian with that last name. He wants the ball every time.”

That contact put into motion de Marte’s role helping the Israel national team qualify for the 2020 Olympics in Japan this summer.

“I literally started the process the next day. There was a lot of paperwork,” said de Marte, who had to become an Israeli citizen to join the team. “In the fall of 2018, I made my first trip to Israel. I went back to Israel to get citizenship, myself and nine other guys (on the team). Some of those guys are still on the team.”

He is a member of Team Israel along with Nate Mulberg (right), an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator for the Spiders under head coach Tracy Woodson.

“I think it is a great opportunity for both of them,” said Woodson, who as a player won a World Series ring with the Dodgers in 1988.

Mulberg, a former standout at Division III Rochester, is part of the coaching staff for Israel. Mulberg also connected with Holtz to find a spot on Team Israel.

“It is one of those stories of right place at the right time and doing the right thing,” Mulberg said. “I really didn’t have an ulterior motive or special agenda in my interactions with people other than trying to do the right thing.”

Being part of the historic team goes beyond the diamond. While playing for Richmond, de Marte remembers watching Israel in the World Baseball Classic on television while the Spiders were in Texas for games in 2017. He watched the games with his mother and told her he would love to be part of Team Israel.

“A lot of us have similarities from the religion and growing up in a Jewish household,” de Marte said. “I have always been proud of being Jewish.”

On the mound for Team Israel in the 2019 European Championships in September 2019, the 6-foot-1 de Marte went 1-0 with an ERA of 0.00 in three outings and recorded the win over Germany.

“Beating Germany was incredible,” de Marte said. “One of the best games of my life. The last time a team (from Israel) was in Germany was in 1972. Obviously that game meant a lot more than a baseball game. Everyone knows what happened in 1972. That win was like a championship in its own.”

A lot of us have similarities from the religion and growing up in a Jewish household. I have always been proud of being Jewish.
Photograph by Margo Sugarman

Then at the Africa/Europe 2020 Olympic qualifier in Italy later that month, he again did not allow a run over four innings out of the bullpen while recording seven strikeouts with one hit and no walks allowed.

“With every single win we were one step closer to the Olympics,” he recalls. “We have the horses to do this. I got the win against Italy. That put us one win from the Olympics. We lost to the Czech Republic and came back and beat South Africa to qualify for the Olympics.”

The team became the first Israeli team to qualify for the Olympics since 1972, when a Palestine terrorist group killed 11 members of the Israel Olympic team and a West German police officer during the Munich games.

Woodson said the Spiders followed the games overseas in which de Marte pitched. Some players from the 2019 Richmond squad had been de Marte’s teammates.

Both Mulberg and de Marte grew up knowing about Jewish baseball heroes such as Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax. Greenberg hit 331 homers in the majors between 1930 and 1947 and was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1956. Koufax, the best pitcher of his generation while with the Brooklyn and then the Los Angeles Dodgers, refused to pitch in the first game of the 1965 World Series since it fell on Yom Kippur. Koufax was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1972 — six years after winning 27 games in his last season in the major leagues.

Despite the legacy of Greenberg and Koufax — and recent Jewish big leaguer Shawn Green and others — Israel has very little history with baseball at the international level. It has been decades since Greenberg and Koufax played, so current Israeli fans may need a primer: The current webpage of the Israel Baseball Association has a link to “What is baseball?”

Mulberg, though, knew that Jewish baseball history.

“I grew up in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. There are a lot of Jewish people in that area,” Mulberg said. “I grew up in a conservative household and went to Hebrew school several days a week. My mom and sister keep kosher; I don’t. I went to Jewish summer camp. Baseball and Judaism were the two biggest influences growing up.”

Mulberg remembers hearing about Ron Blomberg, a Jewish player in the 1970s for the New York Yankees and a member of the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.

He told his father about Blomberg, and they had the former big leaguer come to a Jewish book festival in Cherry Hill and were able to spend time with him when Mulberg was a high school freshman in 2006–07.

In high school, Mulberg almost went with a U.S. team to Israel to take part in the Maccabiah Games. Among his teammates was Max Fried, who made his major league debut in 2017 with the Atlanta Braves.

“I got very sick with mono right before we left. I didn’t get to go. The team won gold,” Mulberg recalls. “My dream was always to play Division I, but it was not in the cards. I did not have the size or speed or strength they look for.”

a collage showing Jonathan DeMarte and Nate Mulberg, with images representing University of Richmond baseball, Japan, and Israeli baseballHe also wanted strong academics. He found them at the University of Rochester, which was nationally ranked in baseball just before he got there. Mulberg was a four-year starter there and after graduating in 2014 knew he wanted to get into coaching.

He was an assistant at Division III Franklin & Marshall in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and then at Division I Bucknell of the Patriot League in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.

“There I was introduced to Holtz, whose son had played at Bucknell,” Mulberg said.

Holtz was named Team Israel manager in 2018 just after Mulberg had finished the spring season with the Spiders. Holtz wanted to know if Mulberg knew of any players he would suggest for Team Israel — and Mulberg told Holtz about de Marte.

Then Mulberg became part of Team Israel as well. “We had an instant connection there. He identified with my story,” Mulberg said of Holtz. “He felt very sad I didn’t get to go to Israel. That was a very painful part of when I was in high school, my junior year.”

These days Mulberg also is involved with Go4theGoal, a nonprofit with a mission to help better the lives of children with cancer.

Woodson said communication is Mulberg’s strength as a coach. “He knows how to connect with people. People trust him. That is a great thing to have,” said Woodson.

There was more good news for de Marte in late February when he signed a minor league contract with the Chicago Cubs and reported to spring training in Arizona. He hoped to begin the season at the Double-A level, with assurances from the Cubs that they wanted him to be part of the Olympics even it meant missing minor league action.

It was his first contract with an affiliated team after playing in three independent leagues: Frontier, Atlantic and Canadian-American Association.

During spring training, de Marte worked out with several Cubs with Major League experience, including Kyle Hendricks, Ben Zobrist, and Javier Baez.

“Just seeing the way they carry themselves and go about their business every day, you know they know they are among the best there are,” de Marte said.

But then he was also teammates on Team Israel with several big leaguers, including Danny Valencia, who last played in the majors with the Baltimore Orioles in 2018.

Being with the Israeli national team goes beyond baseball, de Marte said. “You feel the connection and the common denominator.”

David Driver has covered the Atlantic 10 Conference and professional baseball for 25 years and is the sports editor of the Daily News-Record in Harrisonburg, Virginia.