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Israel’s Baseball Team Is Ready to Rock Coney Island—and Maybe Shock the World

There are plenty of reasons to be excited to watch the Israeli baseball team, a hodgepodge of mostly Jewish-American players who will bring serious clout to Brooklyn’s World Baseball Classic qualifying tournament this week

Darren Garnick
September 21, 2016
Running The Bases / Facebook
The Israel Baseball Team huddles at practice in Coney Island, Brooklyn, Septemer 20, 2016. Running The Bases / Facebook
Running The Bases / Facebook
The Israel Baseball Team huddles at practice in Coney Island, Brooklyn, Septemer 20, 2016. Running The Bases / Facebook

Every four years, if you want to see the Israeli flag waving at the Summer Olympics, your best bet is a brief cameo at the opening and closing ceremonies. The sports where Israelis have taken home medals—judo, sailing and canoeing—don’t get any prime time respect. But there’s another quadrennial international sporting event where you’ll see a dizzying amount of Stars of David: the World Baseball Classic. The qualifying tournament for the last spot in the event begins this week in Coney Island, Brooklyn, and features Israel, alongside Great Britain, Pakistan, and Brazil.

Never mind that most citizens of all four of those nations have no idea how to play baseball, or even care enough to be a fan. The WBC is about spreading the game to new places. Decades before Japan started exporting players to the U.S., Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig did a barnstorming tour there to stir up interest. You have to start somewhere.

To add diversity to the tournament, the WBC has a loose heritage rule that allows nations to recruit players who have a parent from that country or who qualify for citizenship. Factor in Israel’s Law of Return and 26 of 28 players on the roster are Jewish Americans, most with major league or minor league experience. Israel will be fielding three players with World Series rings. The other teams in this weekend’s showdown have none.

On the surface, this staffing tactic is reminiscent of what Simpsons tycoon Monty Burns did to put together his company softball team, as he hired MLB All-Stars Don Mattingly, Wade Boggs, and Ken Griffey Jr. to work at his nuclear power plant, and stacked his line-up. But the heritage rule works in every nation’s favor. In 2017, the Netherlands, which doesn’t have an abundance of baseball diamonds amongst their tulip fields, will be able to field top MLB stars from their Caribbean territories: Aruba’s Xander Bogaerts (Red Sox) and Curacao’s Jonathan Schoop (Orioles) and Jurickson Profar (Rangers). Ten years ago, Hall of Fame catcher Mike Piazza (Dodgers/Mets) played for Italy because of his family ancestry.

Among those suiting up for Team Israel on Thursday night are:

— A pitcher and catcher for the 2013 World Champion Boston Red Sox, who also both played baseball at Yale University (Craig Breslow and Ryan Lavarnway)

— The San Diego Padres Minor League Home Run King better known for documenting clubhouse pranks on YouTube (Cody Decker)

— An All-Star pitcher for the Colorado Rockies and one of the few ballplayers to appear in both a Little League World Series and a Major League one (Jason Marquis)

— A former Mets first baseman who slugged 32 homers in 2012 (Isaac “Ike” Davis)

— The 6-foot-8-inch son of a Hebrew school teacher and all-time homer leader at Duke University (Nate Freiman)

An IDF veteran who logged an 0.98 ERA as a relief pitcher for the Netanya Tigers in the now-defunct Israel Baseball League (Shlomo Lipetz)

— A coach who was a college teammate of Jewish MLB star Kevin Youkilis at the University of Cincinnati (Nate Fish)

— A former Houston Astros reliever and current New York Mets farmhand who saved a game for Team Israel against Spain in the 2013 World Baseball Classic (Josh Zeid)

The New York Jewish Week called this roster “The Greatest Jewish Team Ever,” a hyperbolic label that might even need a boost when active Major Leaguers such as Ian Kinsler (Tigers), Ryan Braun (Brewers), Danny Valencia (A’s), and Alex Bregman (Astros) are eligible to play next March.

“Being part of this team is a real trip,” said Team Israel coach Nate Fish, who calls himself the “King of Jewish Baseball” and played third base for the Tel Aviv Lightning in 2007 in the Israel Baseball League. “It’s awesome to be part of an all Jewish team. Most of these guys never had a Jewish teammate or at the most played with only one other guy. So we’ve been quizzing each other: How Jewish are you? Did you have a bar mitzvah? Are both parents Jewish? Then we assign a ‘J-Score’ between 1 and 10. We’ve been ranking guys throughout the week!”

Although Fish estimates only a handful of Team Israel players have visited Israel, he expects the World Baseball Classic to inspire many future trips. Two of Team Israel’s minor league pitchers recently participated in Birthright programs. St. Louis Cardinals farmhand Corey Baker, who pitches for the Double-A Springfield Cardinals, recalled his December 2015 Birthright experience as first being motivated by “the opportunity to get a free trip” with college roommate Jonah Rosenthal, now a scout with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“Friends told me it was an awesome time,” Baker said. “Maybe that was a shallow reason to go, but I soon felt an instant connection with the other people on the trip. You’re there for just 10 days, but you quickly go from complete strangers to friends. You feel a bond over being Jewish. I feel the same way about this baseball team. We’re very close.”

Oakland A’s farmhand Joey Wagman, a pitcher for the Single-A Stockton Ports, credits his January 2015 Birthright experience for strengthening his desire to play for Team Israel. “I have friends there,” he said. “I’m still in touch with some of the soldiers who hung out with us on our trip. It means so much more now to see ‘Israel’ across my uniform. We’re not just playing for ourselves, we’re playing for a whole country and our people. So we want to make them proud.”

“I also want the world to know there are some Jewish baseball players out there,” Wagman adds. “I think many people don’t associate Jewish people with being too athletic. We’re trying to let the world know that we are—and we’re going to start turning some heads.”

Because Pakistan has no diplomatic relations with Israel, the big question this weekend is will the teams even play if the bracket forces them together?

Politics is not supposed to impact the World Baseball Classic, but it’s not supposed to tarnish the Olympics either. This summer in Rio, a Saudi judo fighter forfeited a match in the first round to avoid later facing an Israeli opponent.

International relations aside, Pakistan is the clear underdog in the double-elimination tournament—the team fields no MLB-affiliated talent—and is hoping its dominant cricket skills translate well to baseball. And here’s a reality check for fans watching these games from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem sports bars: Without its Jewish-American cousins, Israel would be in the same boat.

Darren Garnick is a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker.