Last night in Seoul, South Korea, Team Israel beat Chinese Taipei in the World Baseball Classic. Now, you probably haven’t heard about this tournament, let alone the fact that Israel is fielding a national team in it—but you should.
Take yesterday evening’s showdown: It was essentially the Six Day War of baseball games. Coming into the competition, Israel was ranked 41st and had qualified to participate in the tournament for only the first time in the country’s history. Chinese Taipei (Taiwan), by contrast, was ranked 4th overall, and was making their fourth appearance in the Classic. But Israel jumped out to a 4-0 lead in the first inning and never looked back, ultimately cruising to an easy 15-7 win.
You might not care about baseball. You might not care about the World Baseball Classic. But if you are not following Team Israel’s improbable run, you are missing out on what may well be the greatest Jewish sports drama of the 21st century. Here’s why:
1. The Odds
Team Israel was never even supposed to be here. It ranked 41st overall coming into the Classic. The next best squad in the competition, Colombia, ranked 19th. Yet Israel qualified. Of course, once in, the team was never supposed to win. But in the span of 12 hours yesterday, Team Israel bested first South Korea (ranked 3rd) and then Chinese Taipei (ranked 4th). It will now face its greatest test tomorrow, the Netherlands, a team loaded with Major League stars liked Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts, Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius, and Dodgers pitcher Kenley Jansen. Even if Israel loses, though, the team is likely to advance to the second round.
2. The Players
One of the reasons Team Israel was never expected to go anywhere was that Major League Baseball’s top talent declined to play for it. Though numerous big leaguers and All-Stars are participating in the Classic, and though the Jewish roots of many of them would have allowed them to play for Team Israel, every active player opted out. Some big Jewish names like Houston’s Alex Bregman and Detroit’s Ian Kinsler chose to play for Team USA, 2-1 favorites to win the entire tournament.
So instead, Team Israel turned to a motley crew of career minor leaguers, early stage prospects, and rehabbing and retired role players to hoist its standard. For example, last night’s dominant starter, with 4 and 2/3 shutout innings, was Cardinals Double-A pitcher Corey Baker. The offense was propelled by an early home run from old Red Sox hand Ryan Lavarnway—who last played in the majors in 2015—and three hits from former Met Ike Davis. Tampa Rays outfielder Sam Fuld hit a stand-up triple off the top of the wall. Single-A Rockies infielder Scott Burcham improbably scored three runners with a suicide squeeze bunt. No, really:
And of course, with names like Katz, Borenstein, Fuld, and Cramer, the team gives your local kosher little league a run for its money. Israel’s unlikely alliance of the unheralded has made its team far more compelling than many of its flashier competitors with their marquee names. While traditional Major Leaguers tend to float above the WBC fray, merely cameoing before heading back to Spring Training with their real clubs, Team Israel’s players have brought an infectious enthusiasm and sense of mission to the tournament, which may be the biggest stage any of them will play on this year. They’ve hyped the team on social media and held press conferences where they’ve embraced their role as representatives of the Jewish people. In one particularly poignant gesture, before every game during Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem, the players have taken off their caps and donned yarmulkes:
3. The Manager
This is Team Israel’s manager, Rockies minor league coach Jerry Weinstein, who has ably maneuvered the team through the tournament’s byzantine rules about player usage and pitch counts:
4. The Swag
Jews may not be known for their aptitude in athletics, but few have ever looked so good trying as this year’s Team Israel. The squad’s overhauled uniforms feature Israeli flag armbands along with iconic Star of David caps ($35):
Then there’s the team’s must-have “Jew Crew” t-shirt, featuring a Hasid swinging for the fences, sported here by Team Israel first baseman Cody Decker:
— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) March 7, 2017
5. The Mascot
The face of the Team Israel franchise is, I kid you not, a giant stuffed Semite called “Mensch on the Bench.” A take-off on the decidedly un-Jewish “Elf on the Shelf,” the Mensch was purchased online in September by infielder Cody Decker who felt that the team needed an avatar.
The life-size Mensch now not only sits on the actual bench in the team’s dugout, but has its own locker—where players leave it offerings of Manischewitz and gefilte fish—and appears at team press conferences.
Where does he go between games, when there is no bench? “He is everywhere and nowhere all at once,” Decker told ESPN. “His actual location is irrelevant because he exists in higher metaphysical planes. But he’s always near.”
Team Israel mascot Mensch on the Bench is also an expert photobomber: pic.twitter.com/hlQhPeQz1K
— (((Yair Rosenberg))) (@Yair_Rosenberg) March 7, 2017
Team Israel’s next game will be on Wednesday at 10:30pm against the Netherlands. Tune in to watch on MLB Network, or follow along with the updated online play-by-play at MLB.com. Rest assured, here at Tablet, we’ll be covering and live-tweeting it like it’s Game 7 of the World Series.