March 12, 2017

Israel continues to shine at World Baseball Classic

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Though they don't come from a baseball nation, Team Israel is making a lot of noise at this year's World Baseball Classic, using a familiar strategy.

When Peter Kurz, president of the Israel Association of Baseball, left home to embark on the nation’s inaugural appearance in the World Baseball Classic, he packed two passports: the team was going to start in South Korea and, if it advanced, would play the second round in Japan.

If Israel finished second or third in Tokyo, they would proceed to the semifinals, which are being played in Los Angeles.

But that attitude assumed Israel would reach the semifinals, which, to some, seemed a bit improbable at the time. Israel’s team was assigned a world ranking of No. 41, and bookmakers placed their odds at 200-to-1 that they would win the tournament. And no wonder. The roster was filled with career minor leaguers, former major leaguers and a few baseball misfits.

This while the best Jewish baseball players — Ryan Bruan, Joc Pederson and Kevin Pillar — opted to play for the United States, or not at all. Israel would square off against the other nations and their talent-packed rosters, including some major league stars.

And now, two weeks after the tournament began, Israel remains undefeated and on the fast track to Los Angeles. The team, which has just one Israeli-born player and two dozen American Jews of varying religious awareness, swept all five games it played in Seoul in the first round, including two exhibition contests and meaningful games against the Netherlands, South Korea and Taiwan.

Israel looked as comfortable Sunday in Tokyo as they had in Seoul, beating Cuba 4-1 in the opening game of the second round. Starting pitcher Jason Marquis lasted five and two-third innings, giving up four hits and just one run, and catcher Ryan Lavarnway, right fielder Zach Borenstein and left fielder Blake Gailen all drove in runs.

Israel next plays the Netherlands and then Japan, and it must win at least one of those games to have a chance of making it to the semifinals.

The string of victories have turned Israel into the unsung hero and darling of this year’s World Baseball Classic. Fans and analysts alike have found themselves asking after each game, “who are those guys?”

Moshe the Mensch, the team’s five-foot-tall doll and good-luck charm, on the bench during the game. Manager Jerry Weinstein is at left. Credit Shizuo Kambayashi/Associated Press

“Those guys” include the aforementioned Marquis, a 15-year major league veteran who last pitched in 2015; Sam Fuld and Ike Davis, whose big league careers went sideways; Cody Decker and Ty Kelly, who have bounced around the minor leagues; and a host of Single A and Double A stringers.

“I was disappointed we weren’t able to get our dream outfield,” Kurz said the night before Israel’s game against Cuba. “It was a lot of hard work getting this team together, but it’s been worth it.”

Despite their unique construction, Team Israel has blended together an eclectic mix of talent, with the ultimate goal, many believe, of attracting attention from scouts — none of the players are on a 40-man major league roster. But more importantly, Team Israel represents a country and a religion many of the players have only just come to know. Israel is the furthest thing from a baseball powerhouse, so most of the world has only just now begun to even notice the team.

For the players, however, an unknown roster wasn’t going to stop them from playing baseball.

“Once we won that first game against Korea, I knew we’d be O.K.,” Kelly, who spent eight seasons in the minors and played 39 games with the Mets last season and third base for Team Israel, told The New York Times. 

The same goes for Decker, who admittedly laughed when he saw Israel’s world ranking.“There’s no way I didn’t think we were going to L.A.” he said.

Whatever the outcome on the field, Team Israel has provided its players with an awakening of sorts, allowing Jews by name only, such as Kelly and Decker, to further explore their heritage. Kelly, whose mother is Jewish but went to a Roman Catholic high school, has learned how to say “Happy Purim” and a few words in Hebrew. Decker, who was not religious growing up, has embraced Jewish humor more than anything.

Decker infamously turned the Mensch on a Bench, the Jewish alternative to Elf on a Shelf, into the team’s lucky charm during last year’s qualifying round in Brooklyn. The manufacturer sent him a five-foot tall version of the doll that is now everywhere. When not being hauled around town in a giant duffel bag, the Mensch hangs out in the locker room, watches batting practice from the dugout, and even flies on the team’s charter — on the flight from Seoul to Tokyo, he sat in his own seat and enjoyed a bottle of red wine.

Neal Hoffman, the doll’s creator, has seen an influx of interest in Moshe the Mensch, which has since made an appearance on “Shark Tank.” Because of Team Israel, Hoffman said that he was almost sold out of Mensches because “any Jewish person is inspired by a team full of Jews beating 200-to-1 odds.”

“Who would have thought ‘Shark Tank’ would be the second most exciting thing to happen to Moshe,” Hoffman added.

Just like Team Israel, Mensch has become an extreme curiosity among the Japanese and Korean media, who are constantly snapping photos of Mensch while he’s inside the dugout. On Sunday, several observant members of Team Israel’s staff stood next to the Mensch in the dugout and read from the Megilla, or the Book of Esther, to celebrate Purim, which celebrates a foiled plot to kill the Jews in ancient Persia.

The holiday is a celebration of deliverance, and in many ways, this year’s tournament has served to deliver the sport of baseball to Israel, where soccer and basketball are by far the most popular sports nationally. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu congratulated the team on Twitter, something that could lead to more support for the sport. Israelis are staying up late to watch the games, happy to see their country get some positive publicity.

“My girlfriend said, ‘you’re famous in Israel,’ and I said, what, are people watching?” said Alon Leichman, a Team Israel coach who grew up about halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and pitches on the far more obscure Israeli national team.

Though their odds of beating teams such as the United States and the Dominican Republic are considered slim, the World Baseball Classic has already helped the cause of developing baseball in Israel. So far, the team has earned $1 million for their Pool A victory in Seoul, and stands to earn hundreds of thousands of more dollars if they advance to the semifinals. Half of the money will be split among the players and the other half would go to Kurz’s association to pay the coaches and cover expenses related to the tournament. The remainder could be used to build more facilities in Israel, where the only regulation-size field must be rented from Baptists. Money is still needed to finish construction of other fields, including one in Beit Shemesh.

“I would say when the prime minister recognizes the national baseball team playing in the W.B.C., that’s a good sign and maybe we get a little bit more government money to run our programs, now that we’ve heightened his awareness,” Israel’s manager, Jerry Weinstein, said last week.

Information from The New York Times contributed to this report.

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