Israel Baseball sounds like an oxymoron, but the underrated squad has overperformed in the past and could again in the WBC.
The Israel National Baseball team will be competing in the World Baseball Classic, which started on Wednesday. The term “Israel Baseball” sounds like the beginning of a joke, but the results on the field demand serious attention. A true underdog during the last tournament in 2017, the team in blue and white blew away all expectations by advancing to the second round. The impressive performance led to a berth in the Olympics, where they finished a respectable fifth out of six teams. Israel aims to pleasantly surprise again, but they have a tougher road ahead.
As the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea and the entrance to the Middle East, the beaches and deserts of Israel do not make the small state an ideal location for baseball. European influence makes soccer and basketball the popular sports of the country, and most Israelis don’t know the rules of baseball. Former executive Dan Duquette founded the Israel Baseball League in 2007, but the miraculous experiment only lasted one season.
That is why many people find a competitive national baseball team amusing. A country with only a handful of diamonds is playing in its second consecutive WBC. So where does Israel find enough players to field a team, let alone a good one? There is one obvious answer: American Jews. Since Jews can easily obtain Israeli citizenship, diasporic Jews fit the tournament’s qualifications. American Jews who aren’t good enough to play for Team USA are certainly good enough to play for Team Israel.
The Israel Association of Baseball has taken full advantage of the generous rules, though the 2017 team severely lacked talent relative to the competition. None of their players were on a 40-man roster at the time, though most had past experience in the majors or minors. A retired Jason Marquis was the staff ace. As a team without baseball culture and by far the lowest ranking of any participant (similar to the Czech Republic this year), Israel drew lots of media coverage. An ESPN profile called them “a ragtag bunch of MLB wannabes and has-beens,” which provided all the motivation the players needed. They also had a lovable mascot, the Mensch on a Bench, which would watch over the players in the dugout.
The players fully embraced what it means to represent the Holy Land on the world stage. During the national anthem, the team took off their caps to reveal kipot, symbolizing the inherent connection between Israel and Judaism.
Team Israel immediately stunned on the field by upsetting pool host South Korea in their opening match. Closer Josh Zeid pitched three shutout innings to get the win in extras. The team then preceded to race past Chinese Taipei and squeak by the Netherlands, sweeping group play. They then defeated Cuba before falling to Holland and Japan to end the run. Being one of the final six teams was a truly remarkable accomplishment.
Israel kept the strong performance going by winning 2019 Europe/Africa tournament, qualifying them for the Tokyo Olympics. The nation of 9 million went 0-2 in group play with losses to South Korea and the US but then easily handled Mexico to avoid last place. A one-run loss to the Dominican Republic ended any hopes of a medal, but coming in fifth was already worth celebrating.
Fortunately for Israel, they have far more talent this time around. Nine members of the roster played in MLB last season, led by All-Star outfielder Joc Pederson. Dean Kremer, one of the many minor leaguers from 2017, is now an established starter with the Orioles. Richard Bleier is a long-time middle reliever. Alex Dickerson has been a solid platoon bat for a while and joins Israel due to having a Jewish spouse. Garrett Stubbs will share time with team leader Ryan Lavarnway behind the plate. Third baseman Danny Valencia is one of the few holdovers from the Olympic squad.
The real difference maker is the number of prospects on the roster. Infielders Matt Mervis (Cubs) and Zack Gelof (A’s) turned heads with breakout 2022 campaigns. Pitcher Josh Wolf was part of Cleveland’s return for Francisco Lindor. The Diamondbacks drafted Jacob Steinmetz in the third round a couple years ago, making him the first Orthodox player to ever be drafted and then sign with an MLB team.
There are also some famous names on the coaching staff. Four-time All-Star Ian Kinsler is the manager, while former MLB manager Brad Ausmus is the bench coach, and plate discipline guru Kevin Youkilis is the hitting coach. Zeid is now a pitching coach in the minors and assumes the same role for Israel.
Unfortunately for Israel, they play in a much tougher pool in this edition. The loaded Pool D featured the DR, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. The Dominicans are tournament favorites behind an All-Star lineup and Cy Young winner Sandy Alcantara, while Puerto Rico and Venezuela carry many of their own stars. The opening match against qualifier Nicaragua is a must-win for Israel to have any chance.
While the Latin American teams will have passionate fan support in Miami, the high Jewish population in South Florida will give Israel a cheering section of their own. It is up to Cinderella to write her own story again, but isn’t that what the month of March is for anyway?
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