Last updated April 4th 2017
For years, rooting for Team Israel meant cheering for the country’s national soccer, basketball or Olympic teams. But this month, thanks to their surprising success at the World Baseball Classic (WBC), when sports fans talk about Team Israel, they mean baseball.
Played every four years since 2006, The World Baseball Classic (WBC) is an international baseball tournament modeled after the FIFA World Cup. Professional players from the major leagues around the world, including Major League Baseball (MLB), also take part.
This year was the first time Israel had qualified for the tournament.
Odds of Israel winning: 200 – 1
Before this year’s WBC began, American Sports network ESPN considered Team Israel, ranked 41st in the world, to be the biggest underdog in the 16 team tournament. They even went so far as referring to them as the “Jamaican bobsled team of the WBC”. Israel’s odds to win the WBC were set at 200-1, before the tournament started. But, as Team Israel began to win games at the WBC, the team’s scrappy performance began being described as “a Cinderella story” and a “David vs. Goliath tale”.
In the first round of the WBC, Israel stunned the baseball world by winning Pool A with a 3-0 record to advance to the last eight. Team Israel, which is built around MLB-affiliated Jewish Americans, defeated South Korea, Chinese Taipei and then the Netherlands in Seoul before surprising Cuba in its first game in the last eight in Tokyo, to improve their overall record to 4-0.
However, a 12-2 loss to the Netherlands on Monday complicated Israel’s situation. On Wednesday, in a must-win game for Israel, Japan and Israel were tied at 0-0 for five innings until the Japanese team scored five runs in the sixth inning, a deficit which the Israeli team was not able to come back from. The 8-3 defeat to Japan sealed Team Israel’s fate and ended their hopes of advancing to the final round of the WBC in Los Angeles.
On the positive side, the top three from each pool automatically qualify for the 2021 WBC, so thanks to their success this year, Team Israel has already locked up a spot to compete in the next WBC in 2021.
Team Israel: Jewish players from all over the world
Under WBC rules, any player eligible to be a citizen of a country is entitled to play for that country’s baseball team, even if the player has not obtained citizenship. Israel’s Law of Return gives anyone with a Jewish parent or grandparent, or who is married to a Jew, the right to return to Israel and to be an Israeli citizen. The WBC rules thus allow non-Israeli citizens of Jewish heritage to play for Team Israel.
“We had to hunt far and wide and find the best guys who could potentially be eligible,” Peter Kurz, president of the Israel Association of Baseball, told USA Today Sports. Many of the players have had some major-league experience, with virtually all being Americans of Jewish heritage.
Israel’s roster included 20 MLB-affiliated minor leaguers, making up 86 percent of the team, more than any other team in the qualifiers, even before including recent Major Leaguers Craig Breslow (an 11-year MLB veteran), Ike Davis, Sam Fuld, Josh Satin, catcher Ryan Lavarnway, former 15-year MLB veteran All Star pitcher Jason Marquis, Cody Decker, Nate Freiman, and Josh Zeid.
The team’s oldest player was pitcher Shlomo Lipetz, 37, who grew up in Israel and lives in New York. Lipetz is also the only player on the team with no MLB affiliation. Team Israel’s youngest player was pitcher Dean Kremer, 20, a Californian drafted by the Dodgers whose parents are Israeli expatriates.
A visit to Israel
“Playing for Israel is the last thing I thought I would be doing,” Ty Kelly, a utility player in the New York Mets farm system, said in an interview. “And there is nothing I would rather be doing. It really does have a deep meaning.”
Kelly was part of a group of players to visit Israel in January on a promotional tour aimed at increasing baseball awareness and boosting the number of players from its current level of around 1,000.
“When we went to Israel we saw the pride they have in their country,” Kelly said. “To be able to give the people another outlet to express that pride, by supporting a team in a sport that Israel has never been known for, it just feels really cool.”
Mascot: The Mensch on the Bench
Cody Decker brought the team’s mascot with him to Asia from the United States for the WBC. The mascot is “Mensch on the Bench”, a five-foot-tall plush stuffed toy that looks a bit like a rabbi or Hasidic Jew with a long beard and mustache who is wearing a tallit (prayer shawl) and holding a candle.”Mensch”, in Yiddish, means a person of integrity or honor.
Decker said he tried getting the mascot a first-class ticket, but that didn’t work, so he was put in a duffel bag and checked. The mascot proved to be a big hit, and the team takes him everywhere they go. He has his own locker, sits on Team Israel’s bench in the dugout during every game, and even sat alongside Decker at a press conference in South Korea.
“He’s a mascot, he’s a friend, he’s a teammate, he’s a borderline deity to our team,” Decker explained in a recent interview. “He brings a lot to the table. He had his own locker, and we even gave him offerings: Manischewitz, gelt, and gefilte fish.”
Team Israel’s Manager Jerry Weinstein added: “He’s on the team. Everybody brings something to the team, and certainly The Mensch is a unifying factor for the ball club.” Pitcher Gabe Cramer added: “The Mensch on the Bench is … a symbol we can rally around as a team. We are proud to be Jewish, but we know how to make and take a joke, something Jews have a long history of doing. The Mensch is a great way to have fun in the dugout while reminding us of why we’re here and who we’re representing.”
Making a difference in Israel
Team Isreal’s manager Weinstein is also hopeful that the team’s display will help the growth of baseball in Israel.
“My hope is that by virtue of playing in the World Baseball Championship and doing well it heightens awareness worldwide, but especially in Israel, so it can get more government support, build fields, hire staff,” he said.
“There’s a lot of American Jews that follow baseball and maybe they will sign up to support and donate money so that we can grow the program in Israel so the next time a manager sits in front of you, he’ll be talking about Israeli national players playing in the WBC. Not a group of American Jewish players who are identifying or connected to Israel. But players that were born in the State of Israel and compete in this tournament.”
Inspiring Jewish-American kids to play ball
“I think that there are Jewish kids in the United States that maybe wouldn’t play baseball, but as a result of seeing this Jewish team, who are made up mostly of Americans, they will,” he said. “I think everybody has recognized what they have done and I think that will inspire all young kids, but especially young Israelis and young Jewish kids in the United States.”
Photos and Video: WBC Israel