It was the fifth inning of Team Israel’s second game in Bulgaria a few months ago along the unlikely path of qualifying for the Olympic games to be played in Japan when Zach Penprase found himself standing out at shortstop in tears. They were actual tears, this now 35-year-old previously “retired” Fargo-Moorhead infielder recalled from his home in Camarillo, Calif., this week.
“It was gratitude; frickin’ awesome,” Penprase unabashedly explained. And he was “back in love with baseball” once again.
Allow me to try to set up this story.
It is now 14 years since the Philadelphia Phillies drafted the 6-foot-2, pony-tailed infielder out of Mississippi Valley State University in a career that only progressed as far as Class A in the affiliated ranks and eight summers with the RedHawks that ended in 2015 with the proclamation of retirement.
But here was this supposedly “retired” player four years later with a team of mostly American-born Jewish athletes who had hardly even practiced together playing in Bulgaria, Lithuania, Germany and finally Italy where Team Israel became the first of six eventual countries to qualify for baseball’s return to the Olympics, which now have been pushed back by the unrelenting coronavirus to next summer. It is the first time ever Israel has won a berth in the baseball portion of the Olympics, and only the fourth time–and first since 1976–that the country has qualified in any team sport for the Games. The acknowledged baseball powerhouse known as Team USA has not yet earned a spot although two slots remain open.
Penprase is one of at least five former American Association players scheduled to be on the 24-man team, and I could not help but wonder if waiting another 12 months when he will be a not-so-young 36-year-old baseball player would change his plans. A laugh from the other end of the telephone line was all that was needed to establish a firm answer.
Penprase will have his own cheering section in Tokyo, starting with his Canadian wife Sheena, their 18-month-old daughter Vayda and his parents with his mother’s Jewish birth in Greece the qualifier in making this part-time baseball player, part-time instructor and full-time construction worker eligible for Team Israel.
He “hated” baseball for the first time back in 2008 because the Phillies had released him, but he somewhat reluctantly was persuaded to join Fargo-Moorhead, and spent a rare eight years there except for one 26-game stint in the Boston farm system. He was a F-M fan favorite, partly for his long hair, and in more than 700 games established all sorts of impressive milestones including stealing 278 bases, hitting .286 with a .370 on-base percentage, seven consecutive times playing at least 91 of the 100 games and a few trips to all-star games. He averaged more than 43 stolen bases over one five-year stretch. One record that will not be broken is for the 100 runs he scored in 93 games in 2009 when the RedHawks were in the Northern League which is now defunct.
The Moorpark, Calif., native admits he was somewhat depressed, disliking baseball and downright “angry the last couple of years” in the American Association, because his dream of playing in the major leagues had faded. He gradually got back into the sport by helping coach his brother’s high school team, giving baseball lessons and “a lot of visualization” such as dreaming of playing in Dodger Stadium.
“I get to be a player another year,” Penprase says now of the delay of the Olympics. “This will definitely be the icing on the cake.” No more hate of the game; definitely no retirement for now.
Oh That Grand Slam
One of Zach Penprase’s favorite memories from his American Association days came in a very early-season game in Laredo. It was the Lemurs ‘ first season (’12) and manager Pete Incaviglia elected to walk the hitter ahead of Penprase to load the bases even though Laredo only had a two-run lead.
The move likely was made, Penprase believes, since he was not considered much of a long-ball threat. His top home run season was only six dingers. First pitch. Grand slam.
He likely will tell that story again during the Olympics.
Five Set for Olympics
Five American Association grads seem set to play for Team Israel in next summer’s Olympics. Pitchers D. J. Sharabi and Joey Wagman were with Cleburne and Milwaukee, respectively, last season while Sioux Falls player-coach Mitch Glasser joins Zach Penprase on the team’s infield, which recently added longtime major league standout Ian Kinsler.
Outfielder Blake Gailen, a Los Angeles Dodgers farmhand, rounds out the group. He is still remembered for hitting a league-record .406 in 69 games for Lincoln in ’11, and was at Wichita three years earlier.
Previously the chief spokesman for Baseball Commissioners Bowie Kuhn and Peter Ueberroth, Bob Wirz has been writing extensively about Independent Baseball since 2003. He is a frequent contributor to this site, has a blog, www.IndyBaseballChatter.com, and a book about his life, “The Passion of Baseball”, is available at Amazon.com or at www.WirzandAssociates.com.