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36 Mensches on a Bench

Thanks to the World Baseball Classic’s relaxed eligibility rules and Israel’s unique citizenship requirements, a team of mostly American Jews has gone 2–0 while representing a country many of them have never even been to. The players don’t seem to have a problem with it — and neither do their fans.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

At face value, Israel beating South Korea in the opening game of the 2017 World Baseball Classic is one of the biggest upsets in the history of international sports. It was Israel’s first game in any major baseball tournament. The program has never even qualified for the 12-team European Baseball Championship. There is only one full-size baseball field in Israel, built by American Baptists in the early 2000s, and there’s never been an Israeli-born major leaguer.

Meanwhile, South Korea is, historically, one of the best international baseball teams. It has won Olympic gold and finished lower than third only once in the first three WBCs. Plus, they were playing in Seoul, where baseball crowds exude a different kind of electricity than American ones.

Except Israel’s 2–1 victory is not as big of an underdog story as it might seem. Sure, South Korea was favored, but thanks to a loophole inside a loophole, it didn’t lose to a team of Israelis. It lost to a team of American Jews. Only one player on the roster was born in Israel, and before a January trip few had ever even been to the country.

Now, with Monday night’s 15–7 win over Chinese Taipei, Israel is likely to advance to the second stage of tournament play, with a chance to qualify for the final round in Los Angeles. The longer they go, the more fans they’ll add to the ones they’ve already picked up since their journey began in 2012.

As it turns out, the best way to promote baseball in Israel might be to not have Israelis on the national team.

Peter Kurz, the president of the Israel Association of Baseball, noted the distinction between this Israeli team and most Israeli teams.

“The team is clearly the most impressive Jewish baseball team ever assembled,” Kurz said in a statement. “And we are very proud that they will be representing our country.”

Baseball is not a big deal in Israel. In a nation of 8 million, about a thousand Israelis play baseball. In 2007, American investors attempted to start an Israeli professional league, primarily using imported players. It didn’t work.

Most of the time, the Israeli baseball team is composed exclusively of Israeli citizens. And most of the time, it just isn’t very good. That’s why Israel is 41st in the World Baseball Softball Confederation rankings, lower than any of the other 27 teams that will play in or attempted to qualify for the WBC. For comparison, Pakistan, which lost its two WBC qualifying-round games by a combined 24 runs, is ranked 23rd.

Only two players on the current team have participated in non-WBC tournaments for Israel: Dean Kremer, a California-born Dodgers farmhand with Israeli parents, and Shlomo Lipetz, an Israeli-born 38-year-old pitcher who works as a vice president of programming for New York’s City Winery. Kremer pitched an inning in the qualifying tournament in Brooklyn last September; Lipetz’s services weren’t needed. The other 34 players on the provisional roster don’t have Israeli citizenship, but they’re eligible due to the WBC’s extremely lax rules.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The WBC was created by MLB and first staged in 2006 in part to help foster the game’s international development. But the league also must hope that the tournament grows into another Incredibly Lucrative International Sporting Event.

Eleven years in, it’s not clear if the event has been a success in either avenue. In fact, there’s speculation that this will be the last WBC. There’s no good time to hold the tournament; in March players aren’t quite ready for high-level baseball, and in November they’re checked out. The organizers chose March, which means players might be more worried about getting ready for the MLB season than winning games for a team that doesn’t pay them. But the biggest problem is there just aren’t that many good baseball countries.

To boost the field, the WBC cut some corners. While virtually every international tournament requires athletes to be citizens of the nation they represent, the WBC only requires players to be eligible to become a citizen of the country they want to represent.

This uniquely affects Israel because of the nation’s Law of Return, which states that any Jew born anywhere can move to Israel and become a citizen. That extends to people with Jewish parents or grandparents or a person married to a Jew.

The Israeli association just had to prove to the WBC’s organizing committee that a given player was Jewish, which, it turns out, is an awkward thing to prove. Jewish Baseball News reports that Kurz had to find evidence of family bar mitzvahs, bris certificates — yes, they exist — and in one case, a family tombstone with a Star of David.

Team Israel isn’t the only team to benefit from the eligibility rules. In the qualifying round, Israel played against a Brazilian team led by Dante Bichette’s American sons (their mom is Brazilian) and a Great Britain team with 10 Bahamian players (their parents were born in the Bahamas when it was technically still a British colony). American-born Chicago Cubs star Anthony Rizzo played for Italy in 2013. Johnny Damon played for Team USA in 2006 and then tried to help Thailand qualify in 2012, something he was able to do on account of his Thai-born mother.

Israel clearly benefits the most, though. It didn’t add a player or two or 10: It added an entire team.

Team Israel has a mascot.

“It’s a mensch … on a bench … and we put it on a bench,” said infielder Cody Decker during the qualifiers back in September. “It’s a mensch on a bench on a bench. It’s like Inception.”

Decker already owned one Mensch on a Bench, but didn’t have time to fetch it from his home in between the end of his minor league season and the training camp for the WBC qualifying round in September, so he had one rush-delivered. It sat on the bench in Brooklyn as the team beat squads from Brazil and Great Britain, and Decker vowed to bring the game-used good luck charm to South Korea.

The makers of the Mensch on a Bench noticed, and sent Decker a life-size, de-benched version. He used his enormous inanimate pal to drive in carpool lanes en route to Milwaukee Brewers spring training in Arizona, and then brought the big guy to Seoul, where he sat in the team’s dugout.

Decker’s running out of chances to be a major leaguer. He can clearly hit minor league pitching, with 173 career dingers in the minors. But he’s 30, and teams don’t want a great 30-year-old minor league hitter. He has just 11 career major league at-bats, with zero hits.

Although he’s a journeyman in America, with Team Israel, Decker is something closer to a star.

“[When I get] requests to sign cards, I’d say 50 percent of them mention Team Israel,” he told The Jerusalem Post. “Honest to God truth. It’s an outrageous amount of people.”

He probably should be spending his March in Arizona, trying to convince the powers that be that he’s worth a major league shot — but so should pretty much everyone on Israel’s roster.

Baseball history is rich with actual mensches on benches. From the moment I expressed any interest in sports, my Jewish relatives told me about Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax. At some point, my parents bought me a deck of cards featuring every Jewish major leaguer in history. But despite Kurz’s claims, this certainly isn’t the best Jewish baseball team that could be assembled.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

While major leaguers weren’t available for the September qualifiers, the team had the option to add players before the main tournament. It could have chosen Ryan Braun, whose father is Israeli; Danny Valencia, who is Jewish Cuban (yes, we exist, and “Jewban” is an acceptable abbreviation); or Joc Pederson, who played for Team Israel in 2012 WBC qualifiers, among others.

However, none of them ended up on the roster. In fact, they’re left with a squad containing zero players currently on MLB 40-man rosters. Two players who were eligible for Team Israel, Ian Kinsler and Alex Bregman, were selected for the considerably more exclusive and more talented Team USA squad. Team Israel’s best hitter is probably Ike Davis, who hit 32 homers for the Mets in 2012 but got cut by the Yankees after just eight games last year. Their ace is Jason Marquis, who hasn’t played in the majors since 2015.

Many of the team’s current players competed on a 2012 team that attempted to qualify for the 2013 WBC. They beat Spain and South Africa, but then had to play Spain again to win their pool, and lost in extra innings.

The team’s manager, Jerry Weinstein, a bespectacled baseball lifer currently managing the Double-A Hartford Yard Goats, recalled a turning point in this year’s training camp. Josh Zeid, the pitcher who took the loss in that game, spoke to the team, and revealed that what he’d thought might be a trivial part of his career had turned out to be a pivotal experience.

“He’s pitched in the big leagues and been in pro baseball for [eight years],” Weinstein said during qualifiers. “He says, ‘For four years, this has been eating at me, and I’m so happy to be back.’ I don’t think anybody was on the fence after that little meeting.”

Four years later, in September of last year, Israel made the WBC though the qualifier held in Brooklyn. And the location wasn’t an accident; it was there because organizers knew New York had a reasonably sized Jewish community. James Pearce, MLB vice president of international events and the World Baseball Classic, told me they were conscious not to put Israel’s games on Friday night or Saturday afternoon because potential fans might be observing the sabbath. Israel was essentially playing home games, in front of a crowd waving Israeli flags, chanting — Am Yisrael, Am Yisrael, Am Yisrael Chai — and eating from a Kosher-certified food stand.

Over and over, Weinstein and the players cite a statistic that youth participation in baseball in Israel has grown 40 percent since the 2012 WBC qualifying attempt. Ten players visited Israel in January and participated in breaking ground on Israel’s fourth baseball field.

“[Baseball in Israel is] a very fledgling program,” Weinstein says. “We need fields, we need more participants, we need more coaches over there.”

With Monday’s win over Chinese Taipei, the Israeli team is on a track to continue this growth. The win ensures it will avoid a last-place finish in its group, which hypothetically means it has clinched a spot in the 2021 WBC. Of course, there’s no guarantee there will be a 2021 WBC.

In Brooklyn, I got as close as I could to the team as “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem, played. I’d say I watched them sing, but I didn’t really see or hear any of them singing. First-base coach Nate Fish said that while the team practiced the anthem, the goal was just to get them to the point where they could “at least pretend they knew the words.”

Still, they experience the song in a unique way. After they take their baseball caps off for the anthem — a sign of respect — they put on yarmulkes — a different, much older sign of respect.

Most Israeli athletes don’t put on yarmulkes for anthems: The soccer team doesn’t do it, the basketball team doesn’t, nor did the only Israeli ever to win an Olympic gold medal. It’s not a national custom because the yarmulke is a religious garment, an anthem isn’t a prayer, and not every Israeli citizen (or athlete) is Jewish. But the one thing that unites this team is their religion.

“I haven’t played past elementary school with more than three Jewish kids on a team,” Decker said. “It’s kind of fun. We’ve got this very personal thing we all have in common.”

Is it ideal that Israel’s being represented only by athletes with Jewish ancestry — and that most of them aren’t Israeli? Certainly not, but based on the claims of Weinstein and the crowds in Brooklyn, this team is having a bigger grassroots impact than a team of Israeli citizens that would never qualify in the first place.

If one of the goals of the WBC is to increase interest in the sport around the globe, the Israeli team is doing its part. A group of Americans mumbling along to another nation’s song might not be the picture in the mind of baseball utopians. But it’s not the Utopian Baseball Classic. For now, this is what the world of baseball looks like.