Photo: Margo Sugarman

Zach Penprase was once done with baseball.

After playing professional baseball over a 10-year period, Penprase, a former SWAC All-Conference infielder at Mississippi Valley State, retired in 2015 to work in the construction business and start a family with his wife and young daughter.

“I felt it in my gut that I was just done,” Penprase said. “I started a family. Started a real-life, I guess.”

That was until he received a message from the Israeli Association of Baseball asking him to compete for a spot on the Israel national team ahead of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan.

There was initial hesitancy at first considering Penprase didn’t have the desire to play and embraced no longer being on the baseball grind.

“My wife was like, ‘What are you talking about, this is the Olympics,'” he said. “I was like, ‘Oh s— I guess you’re right.'”

Penprase picked up a ball and glove and got to work getting his body in shape to play once again. But first — if he wanted to be part of the team — it would require Penprase to become an Israeli citizen.

Penprase’s family ties connect him to his mother, who is Jewish and his great-grandfather, Reuben Eliahu Israel, the last Chief Rabbi of Rhodes, an area that is now associated with Greece.

Though he’d only traveled to Israel a few times during the course of his life, Penprase was able to secure citizenship and became one of several Olympians representing multiple nationalities.

“I have some Jewish heritage and that’s how I’m connected there,” he said. “And then so when you’re kind of going through that process and represent a country which you’ve only been to a few times … it is strange. But also you feel a deep connection like, ‘Wow this country went out of their way to make an effort to allow me to represent their country.'”

The former Delta Devil came out of retirement to help Israel win 17 games during 2019 qualifying tournaments in Bulgaria and Italy.

During the team’s unlikely underdog run through the European circuit, Penprase tallied 12 RBI in 21 games.

“Coming out of retirement and now being in the Olympics as a baseball player again, it’s just almost unbelievable, I guess,” he said. “But I don’t even know if there’s a word that can describe how it feels to be here.”

Penprase and Israel will open the six-team tournament on Thursday against South Korea.

“You’re walking around and everybody is trying to be their best, and they’re trying to be the top in the world,” he said. “Everyone’s trying to win a Gold medal. You’re surrounded by people that are just trying to be their best at all times. So yeah, it’s an amazing experience.”

Every Olympian has an origin story — usually an unlikely beginning that vaulted them to the biggest athletic stage in the world.

For Penprase, born in southern California, it was his journey to Mississippi Valley State that helped propel his baseball career and cultural transformation.

Not heavily recruited out of Moorpark High School, Penprase was spotted in an online video posted to a recruiting site by then-head coach Doug Shanks.

After flying to Itta Bena and visiting the campus, Penprase fell in love with his new surroundings in the deep south.

“I was like, I’m coming here, like, I’m coming,” he said. “There’s just no other offer and the schedule was amazing being able to play Mississippi State, Alabama, and then also experiencing what a historically Black college was like.”

Penprase said he fit right in almost immediately, hosting parties for students and athletes and developing bonds with teammates who mostly did not look like him.

“It was just so cool for me to be able to leave home and just experience something totally different but also play good level baseball,” he said.

On the field, Penprase excelled, earning All-SWAC honors twice and leading the country in stolen bases in 2006.

Penprase, who is white, also learned how the dynamics of race and racism were both eye-opening and complicated.

“I learned that I didn’t know (anything). Honestly, I learned that racism was real,” he said. “I remember we got into fights with white dudes because we went to a Black school. Learning that type of stuff, I realized we had a lot of work to do.”

Then there were friendships, the trips with Black teammates to their hometowns, to local hangout spots to uncover all cultural experiences previously unknown to him.

“I found that I just loved that kind of stuff. It was like the best time of my life,” Penprase said.


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