After three years in the Israeli military, three years at Cypress College, and another three years at Division II UC-San Diego, Alon Leichman still isn’t going to give up baseball.
The 27-year-old righthander is hoping to make the Israeli World Baseball Classic qualifying team, which competes in the fourth and final 2017 WBC qualifying tournament in Brooklyn on Sept. 22-25.
But with his final college season concluding this past May, Leichman is pursuing another avenue of baseball in the summer: coaching.
Leichman is joining Scott Pickler, the coach from his time at Cypress (Calif.) College, on the staff of the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox, one of the teams in the Cape Cod Baseball League.
And with his experience in Israel, it is neither a beginning or and end for Leichman. It is just a transition.
‘The Dominican Republic of Israel’
Leichman’s parents are from Michigan but moved to Israel in the 1970s, joining other fellow Americans who crossed the Atlantic in Kibbutz Gezer.
A 400-person community that’s just about halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Kibbutz Gezer is an oasis of baseball in a soccer-mad country.
Peter Kurz, the president of the Israel Association of Baseball who has known Leichman since he was nine, called the kibbutz “the Dominican Republic of Israel.”
In the southwest corner of the kibbutz sits a regulation-sized baseball field, which was built in 1983 and has been updated throughout the years.
“They go barefoot to the baseball field, and they play barefoot. It’s in their backyard there, and they’re on the field all the time,” Kurz said. “When you’re in a city, like Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, you have to get in a car, or travel a little bit. But there, the field is in their backyard.”
“It was really the only place around that had baseball,” Leichman said.
It is on this field, in which Alon’s father David was interviewed about for a 1992 story in the New York Times, where Leichman grew up playing baseball. And his passion for the game was evident early on to Shlomo Lipetz.
“As a young kid who had a real passion for baseball and wanted to spend all of my time on the field, I used to go there a lot,” Lipetz said. “He was one of those field rats who always was around the field and with the bigger boys who were playing.”
Leichman idolized Lipetz—10 years his senior—from an early age, and got to play under Lipetz when he made the 10-12 year-old national team at nine years old. It was there that Lipetz got to see Leichman’s potential.
“When you grow up in Israel, we had one TV station, and you were not exposed to any baseball at all,” Lipetz said. “The result is the mechanics are really poor, both from the lacking of proper coaching and the lack of any role models.
“More than anyone I ever knew in Israel, Alon really had better mechanics. He made everything look smooth and beautiful. Soft hands when catching the ball, a good swing—he had that kind of natural inclination from day one to have potential in baseball.”
Finding an American home
All Israeli citizens have to spend a minimum of three years in the Israeli army. Lipetz was able to get special recognition as an “Outstanding Athlete,” which allows athletes to keep training and representing Israel.
In the most popular sports in the country, such as soccer, 20 or more people can get the status. But baseball only gets one.
Lipetz got that recognition, and then made the journey to San Diego, where he played at a junior college and then transferred to Division II UC-San Diego. He became the second baseball player from Israel to play collegiately in America, joining Dan Rothem, who later played for Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic, under Brad Ausmus as manager.
“I came back each summer to play with the national team and interacting with the local players,” Lipetz said. “I think that caused a whole generation of local players to see what’s out there for anyone who wants to play ball after the army.”
Leichman took that to heart, playing on the national team’s youth teams well before his age would have dictated. By the time he was 18, he was on the Senior National team.
Leichman also got the “Outstanding Athlete” recognition from the Israeli army, and served for three years. Kurz remembers hearing that, on a routine day, Leichman would spend five or six hours doing army service, then work out on the baseball field for 10-12 hours.
During this time, he became the first Israeli to participate in the MLB European Academy in 2008. Through MLB’s Europe program, he met Pat Doyle, the global coordinator of MLB’s Envoy program in Europe and a longtime coach at San Joaquin Delta (Calif.) JC.
“He saw me play and, like a lot of people before him, said, ‘Once you’re done with the army, you should try to play in college. We got to get you to the States,’” Leichman said. “He actually came through and said, ‘I think junior college would be the best route, and I know a guy in California.’”
Doyle got Leichman connected with Pickler at Cypress, which is near some of Leichman’s family in Orange County. Leichman took leave from the army to take a college visit, Pickler said is “without a doubt” the furthest he’s had someone come to visit his school.
“For me, JC was the best way to go,” Leichman said. “I didn’t have great English and I figured I could start out by making the adjustment to the academic side better, since I don’t need to get accepted—I’m a dual citizen, I can just enroll in the school.”
Banged-up But Successful
Leichman earned the closer role in the fall before the 2011 season at Cypress, and went out to pitch in the very first game of the season. During that appearance, his elbow popped.
Tommy John surgery would be needed, ending his season. Leichman admits that the injury—his first ever—hit him hard.
“I saw that I could compete in America, which is something I didn’t know,” Leichman said. “Everyone said, ‘Oh, you should go, you should go,’ but I was going from facing 60-year-old guys that are almost like a Sunday-league environment—whoever wants to play can play. And then seeing that I can be pretty good out here. But all of a sudden, the elbow popped and (I’ve) got to get surgery.”
Leichman was confident that he was going to be able to fully recover from the surgery, but a ligament was needed for his surgery. The pain Leichman has felt after the surgery led him to believe that the ligament didn’t adapt well to his body.
Leichman still was able to pitch for Cypress, but pitched just 11 1/3 innings in 2012. Leichman got back into form with the Menlo Park Legends, a collegiate summer league team, earning First-Team All-Far West League honors with a 2.18 ERA in 53 2/3 innings.
He also made the Israel team that was in the 2013 WBC qualifying tournament, joining Lipetz and Rothem as the only true Israelis on the team. Leichman warmed up in the bullpen once, but did not appear in a game.
Leichman followed up that summer with his best collegiate year in 2013, finishing the year with a 1.42 ERA in 31 2/3 innings. In the California Community College Athletic Association State super regional four-team pod, the Chargers fought through the losers’ bracket to force a winner-take-all game for a berth to the state title. Pickler needed someone from his bullpen to start the game, and he didn’t hesitate to choose Leichman.
“He had the most courage of anybody, and he was the guy I had faith in giving the ball to, because he would compete,” Pickler said. “A couple of times in my 31 years, we’ve given the ball to a guy in a Game 5 that hasn’t started all year, and we’ve had pretty good luck with guys answering the call.
“But never did anybody go out and throw a shutout.”
Leichman got into some trouble early, loading the bases in the first inning and the third and making Pickler get someone warm in the bullpen. But Leichman escaped without giving up a run, and then made a deal with his coach.
“I was ready to take him out after 50 pitches,” Pickler said. “But he said, ‘I’m not coming out until I give up a run.’ I said, ‘That’s a good deal, I’ll do that.’ And he never gave up a run.”
Leichman cruised from then on, and finished the game with six hits allowed, four walks, four strikeouts, and a complete game shutout. The Chargers would sweep through the state tournament to win the CCCAA Championship, a run that Pickler believes was sparked by Leichman.
“What he did that day, the whole team really rallied around him,” Pickler said. “The idea that he wasn’t coming out until he gave up a run? That was awesome. I loved it.”
Leichman moved on to UC-San Diego after Cypress, but more pain sent him back to the doctor’s office. He sat out the 2014 season after a nerve transposition surgery, but was told that his elbow would still need Tommy John surgery.
“I said, ‘I can’t do that. I’m going to miss two seasons and then I’m done,’” Leichman said. “For the last two seasons at UC-San Diego, I’ve been throwing with an elbow that needs Tommy John.”
He says he’s been extremely conservative with his throwing, and tried to be as fluid as possible. But the pain hasn’t stopped him from pitching in games, throwing 53 1/3 innings in 2015 (going 7-2, 3.71) and a team-high 68 2/3 innings in 2016 (going 3-4, 3.41). He thinks it’s very obvious why he’s been able to keep pitching.
“I think my mechanics kept my arm alive,” Leichman said. “I’m dealing with a lot of pain, but I kept it alive.”
Moving on, but holding on
Leichman is currently working under Pickler as the pitching coach on the Y-D Red Sox, working with some of the country’s top returning college baseball players.
It’s a professional start of a career Leichman started back in Israel, when he coached some of the youth teams with the Israeli national team. He wants to continue to help his country develop baseball talent, with some high-reaching goals.
“I want to be a coach for as long as I can,” he says. “If I can come back to Israel in the future and help develop baseball—where we can send guys on a consistent basis to the States and hopefully get guys to the major leagues—if I can have an influence on that, with my knowledge and experience, and give back to Israel? That would be the ultimate goal.”
Pickler can see him developing into a great coach already, and he thinks Leichman’s attitude is infectious with whomever he’s around.
“He’s a great person—he gets life,” Pickler said. “He’s fun to be around, he sees through people, he’s way more mature than his years. Because he was such a competitor, he can tell me, ‘This guy’s a competitor in your bullpen,’ or, ‘This guy’s not as strong as this guy in a tight situation.’ Guys who have been there, like he has, understand that. There are guys who have good reads, and I think his reads are very good on people.”
But his playing career isn’t over yet. Leichman continues to throw bullpens in the Cape, keeping his arm as ready as needed to prepare for Israel’s World Baseball Classic qualifier. Pickler watched his last bullpen, and said, “He’s a competitor. He throws strikes, he changes speeds, keeps people off-balance, and he’s got a game plan.”
Kurz will help this year’s manager, Rockies coach and catching guru Jerry Weinstein, select the team. He talked about maintaining a balance between true Israelis and “heritage players,” which are the Jewish-American players who are able to play based on potential citizenship. But the main goal is to win the tournament.
Kurz pointed out that there is an Israeli player in pro ball now, as Dean Kremer was the first Israeli to be selected in the MLB Draft. Kremer is from Stockton, Calif., but his parents are Israelis who moved to the U.S. before he was born and they have citizenship. Kremer did not sign after being taken in the 38th round in 2015 by the Padres, but after a strong year at UNLV, he was taken by the Dodgers in the 14th round this year and signed.
But Kurz knows the reality of the talent discrepancy between true Israelis and heritage players.
“Dean might be the best Israeli passport holder playing baseball today, but he’s certainly well below the average level of potential heritage players that we have,” Kurz said. “It’s a tradeoff, but it’s very important to have true Israelis on the team. We’re going to have a few.
“And Alon is certainly one of the candidates.”
Lipetz joked that “as long as I can lift my arm above my shoulder, I’m game,” and Leichman feels the same way, saying his plan is, “to play until the national team tells me not to.” But Leichman gets even more joy out of getting to play with his coach and mentor Lipetz, who is still going after all these year.
“To see him in his mid-30s balling out is awesome. I was always looking up to him,” Leichman said. “If I could be to somebody else what he is to me? That’d be awesome.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Leichman lived with the Simon family in the summer of 2012 as he played for the Menlo Park Legends.