With Mirth and a Mensch, Israel Upsets South Korea in W.B.C.
Israel’s victory was all the more improbable given its roster of minor leaguers. The hope had been that once they qualified in September, the Israelis could persuade Jewish baseball stars like Ryan Braun, Ian Kinsler, Kevin Pillar and Joc Pederson to play for their ancestral homeland. But for various reasons, including the long distance to travel here, those players are either sitting out the tournament or playing for the United States, which is in a pool with Canada, Colombia and the Dominican Republic in Miami.
“If we had been in Miami, we might have had that dream outfield,” said Peter Kurz, the president of the Israel Association of Baseball, which helped assemble the team by, among other things, trying to determine who, in fact, was Jewish enough to play under W.B.C. rules. “But, you know, it’s a big schlep to get here.”
But what Israel lacks in baseball firepower, it makes up for in pluck and humor. And though the team would have drawn more support in South Florida, in some ways, South Korea — another nation with a history of fending off neighboring countries — is an appropriate place for Israel to make its debut in the tournament, which concludes on March 22 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.
The team has a David-versus-Goliath feel to it. With little homegrown talent — only about 800 people in Israel are registered baseball players — the roster is filled almost entirely with American Jews, many of them free agents and minor leaguers hoping to land jobs by impressing the scouts from the United States and Asia who are following the games closely.
Other than the former Mets first baseman Ike Davis, who played in only eight major league games last season, all with the Yankees, Israel has few power hitters. Instead, it will rely on the former All-Star Jason Marquis, who last pitched in 2015, and an array of relievers and scrappy position players like Fuld in an attempt to get past Taiwan, South Korea, and the strongest team in the group, the Netherlands, with the top two teams advancing to the second round in Tokyo.
“We have free agents, we have guys who have been kicked around a bit in their careers,” said Decker, whose professional career includes nine years in the minor leagues and 12 plate appearances without a hit for the San Diego Padres in 2015. “Under the radar is where we live.”
For many of the players, Judaism flew under the radar, too. The team includes only one native-born Israeli, Shlomo Lipetz, a 38-year-old sidearm pitcher who played college ball at the University of California, San Diego. One other player — Dean Kremer, a minor leaguer in the Los Angeles Dodgers system — has an Israeli passport. (The bullpen catcher and two of the coaches also have Israeli passports.)
But under the elastic rules of the tournament, players may represent a country if they are eligible to qualify for a passport or citizenship there. In Israel’s case, that means each player must prove he has at least one Jewish parent or grandparent, or has a spouse with a parent or grandparent who is Jewish.
This has helped Kurz and a team of scouts and executives cast a wide net in search of players. Ty Kelly, a utility man in the Mets’ farm system, has a Jewish mother, but went to Catholic high school and celebrated both Hanukkah and Christmas. On a tip from a fan, Kurz contacted Kelly’s minor league team in Las Vegas and confirmed that he was eligible to play for Israel.
Kelly was called up by the Mets in September, so he did not play for Israel in the qualifying round that month. But he traveled to Israel with his mother, Diane, and several future teammates in January, an eye-opening experience for someone who does not speak Hebrew and who had only a loose understanding of Judaism.
“I was a little skeptical how I should take it because I didn’t have a huge background growing up,” said Kelly, who joked that he could have also played for Ireland. But “everyone who is Jewish feels connected to Israel, and it was really emotional for a lot of guys seeing all the religious and historical sites,” especially the Western Wall, he said.
After Alex Katz, a left-handed pitcher in the White Sox organization who played at St. John’s, wrote on Twitter that he would play for Israel, Danny Burawa, another former St. John’s player, contacted him to ask how to join. Burawa, who has bounced around the Yankees and Braves organizations, made the team after he proved his mother was Jewish.
“It definitely has meaning to put on the uniform,” said Burawa, who grew up in a home on Long Island that was more Italian-American than Jewish. “For me, I want to honor my mom’s side of the family. It’s part of who I am.”
The dearth of well-known Jewish baseball stars has forced Israel to be creative. Alex Jacobs, a scout for the Houston Astros who also works as the director of player personnel for the Israelis, scoured minor league rosters for players with names that sounded Jewish. He and his colleagues, including Jonah Rosenthal, a scout with the Dodgers, then went on social media and called college coaches and anyone else who might confirm a player’s religious background.
When Alex Bregman, a top Astros prospect, was called up and could not play in the qualifiers in September, Jacobs started calling synagogues in Colombia, the Dominican Republic and Panama in search of potential players. Alas, spotty record-keeping prevented Israel from landing a replacement from Latin America. Still, Jacobs has enjoyed the hunt and the chance to give back.
“This is making up for me dropping out of Hebrew school,” he said, laughing.
Laughter has been a key ingredient in building team spirit, and nothing has unified the team as much as the Mensch on a Bench, a Jewish version of the Elf on the Shelf, a doll that is supposed to remind children to be nice so Santa Claus will bring them a lot of gifts. The team adopted the pint-size mensch, which means an honorable person, as its mascot during the qualifying round. The players put the mensch in the dugout during games and gave it a locker of its own.
“It is our little joke,” Decker said. “We decked him out pretty good, and he’s grown since then.”
The manufacturer took note and sent Decker a five-foot version of the mensch, as well as his female counterpart, Bubbe, or grandmother. The mensch was packed in a duffel bag and flown to Seoul, where he has watched over the team from the dugout, surrounded by bottles of Gatorade and gum wrappers, during practices and exhibition games.
Whether the mensch will provide enough luck to propel Israel to the second round is unclear. Team Israel will face Taiwan, perhaps the weakest team in Pool A, on Tuesday.
The Netherlands, with established stars like Xander Bogaerts of the Boston Red Sox, Didi Gregorius of the Yankees, Jurickson Profar of the Texas Rangers and Andrelton Simmons of the Los Angeles Angels, will be a tougher assignment for Israel on Thursday.
Still, the Israeli team’s presence on the world stage can only help popularize the sport back home. No one understands this as well as Lipetz, who played on some of the first youth league teams, which were often trounced in international tournaments, and who, years ago, had to struggle to watch games on television.
“Back then, to watch baseball, I had to stay up until midnight and adjust the antenna to get a signal from Lebanon,” said Lipetz, who grew up in Tel Aviv. “I’ve seen it from the ground up, but I’d argue, how up is up? It’s still a niche sport in Israel.”
But, he added, what is the point of playing if you can’t dream?
“Call me delusional,” he said. “In my head, if I get to face guys, I think I can get people out.”
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