By Ken Belson / New York Times News Service
TOKYO—When Peter Kurz, the president of the Israel Association of Baseball, left home two weeks ago to accompany Team Israel on its first trip to the World Baseball Classic, he packed two passports, a decision that was both practical and whimsical.
The team was going to start in South Korea and, if it advanced, would play the second round in Tokyo. If Israel finished first or second there, the team would head to the semifinals in Los Angeles. By using his American passport, Kurz could avoid having to get a visa to enter the United States with his Israeli passport.
But that assumed that Israel would get to the semifinals, which seemed improbable at the time. Israel’s team was ranked 41st in the world, and bookmakers said it was a 200-to-1 shot to win the tournament.
No wonder. The roster was filled with minor leaguers, former major leaguers and baseball misfires, all of them Americans with enough Jewish heritage to play for Team Israel.
Meanwhile, the best Jewish players, a small group that includes recognizable major leaguers like Ryan Braun, Kevin Pillar, Joc Pederson and Ian Kinsler, had opted to play for the United States in the tournament, or not at all.
So Team Israel would have to make do with what it had and take on teams that clearly seemed more talented.
And yet, a week into the tournament, Kurz and Team Israel are more than halfway to LA. The team, which has just one Israeli-born player, swept its three first-round games in Seoul—against the Netherlands, South Korea and Taiwan.
Then it was on to Tokyo, where, last Sunday, the minor miracle continued as Israel downed Cuba, 4-1, in the opening game of the second round. Starting pitcher Jason Marquis, a 38-year-old New York native with a 15-year major league career that came to a halt in 2015, lasted five and two-thirds innings and gave up just one run. Catcher Ryan Lavarnway, right fielder Zach Borenstein and left fielder Blake Gailen all knocked in runs.
Israel plays the Netherlands and Japan next, and if it can win one of those two games, it stands a solid chance of making it to the semifinals.
Its string of victories has turned Israel into the darling of the tournament and left baseball fans asking, as Paul Newman put it to Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: “Who are those guys?”
In this instance, those guys include Marquis; Sam Fuld and Ike Davis, whose big league careers went sideways; Cody Decker and Ty Kelly, who have bounced around the minor leagues; and a host of Class A and AA strivers who played last season for minor league teams with names like the Loons, the Nuts and the Tourists.
“I was disappointed we weren’t able to get our dream outfield,” Kurz said over sushi the night before Israel’s game against Cuba, referring to his inability to recruit Braun, Pillar and Pederson. And, he said, “it was a lot of hard work getting this team together.”
“But it’s been worth it,” he added.
Despite its unlikely pedigree, Team Israel has blended in an organic, if slightly peculiar, way. The players share a desire to impress the scouts on hand—no member of Team Israel is currently on a 40-man major league roster, although many would like to be — and to capably represent a country and a religion that many of them have only recently come to know.
What resulted has been a team a lot better than people expected, although the players themselves say they are not surprised by the victories they have now strung together.
“Once we won that first game against Korea, I knew we’d be OK,” said Kelly, who has played eight seasons in the minor leagues along with 39 games with the New York Mets last year, and has started at third base for Israel.
Decker, who has played in the outfield and as a designated hitter in this tournament and is another career minor leaguer, laughed when he saw the team’s insulting world ranking. “There’s no way I didn’t think we were going to LA.,” he said.
Whatever the outcome on the field, Team Israel has provided an awakening of sorts for the players, allowing Kelly and Decker and their teammates to explore their heritage. Kelly, whose mother is Jewish but who went to a Roman Catholic high school, saluted the Jewish holiday of Purim, which arrived this weekend, and can now say a few words in Hebrew. Decker, who was not religious growing up, has embraced Jewish humor more than anything.
After Decker turned the Mensch on a Bench, a Jewish version of the Elf on a Shelf, into a lucky charm at last year’s qualifying round in Brooklyn, the manufacturer sent him a 5-foot-tall version of the felt doll that is now everywhere the team is.
When it is not being hauled around in a duffel bag by the equipment manager, the Mensch hangs out in the locker room and watches batting practice from the dugout. On the flight from Seoul to Tokyo last Friday, it sat in its own seat with a bottle of red wine. (Flight attendants required that it wear a seat belt.)
The doll’s emergence has been a boon for Neal Hoffman, the creator of Moshe the Mensch, which appeared on Shark Tank, a TV show on which tycoons bet on new products. The tycoons passed on the doll. But thanks to Team Israel, Hoffman said, he is almost sold out of Mensches.
Like Team Israel, the Mensch has become a curiosity among Japanese and Korean reporters, who snap photos of the doll when it is in Israel’s dugout. Last Sunday several observant members of Team Israel’s staff stood next to the Mensch in the dugout and read from the Megillah, or the Book of Esther, to mark Purim, which celebrates a foiled plot to kill Jews in ancient Persia.
And Team Israel is starting to be celebrated in Israel itself, where soccer and basketball normally dominate. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu congratulated the team on Twitter, and at least some Israelis are staying up late to watch the games.
“My girlfriend said, ‘You’re famous in Israel,’ and I said, ‘What, are people watching?”’ said Alon Leichman, who grew up on a kibbutz about halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. He pitches on the far more obscure Israeli national team and is a coach with Team Israel.
People, understandably, are also making jokes. Hunter Atkins, a writer at The Houston Chronicle, wrote on Twitter than his cousin noted that the Chicago Cubs “only had to wait 108 years” to win a title and that the Jewish people had “been waiting over 5,000 years!”
Image credits: AP