Go, Team Israel! The World Baseball Classic is in Full Swing
As a sports fan from the West Coast now living in New York, I’m all too familiar with staying up late to watch my teams on TV. I’m used to long hours, the post-game adrenaline rush, and going to bed at 2:00 a.m. on a weeknight.
I’ve lost the same amount of sleep this week, but it’s been more special. I’ve spent the hours watching Team Israel compete in the World Baseball Classic.
The World Baseball Classic (WBC) is a tournament featuring teams from around the world. Like the Olympics and the World Cup, the WBC occurs every four years, featuring amateur and professional players. To be eligible for a team, a player must be eligible for citizenship in that country, so Team Israel is almost entirely made up of Jewish-American ballplayers.
Team Israel, with its life-sized “Mensch on a Bench” mascot, is all the rage right now after beating Korea 2-1 in a thrilling extra-innings game on Monday morning. They followed up by dominating Chinese Taipei Monday night, en route to becoming the first team in the tournament to clinch a spot in the quarterfinal round in Tokyo next week.
Baseball in Israel has roots stretching back four decades, when expats making aliyah brought baseball with them from America. In 2007, investors and baseball royalty founded the Israel Baseball League. Though it only survived the 2007 season, it brought professional baseball to Israel for the first time and helped elevate the game.
I was fortunate to be in Israel during the summer of 2007, freelancing for the Jerusalem Post, when I was invited to attend an IBL game being played on a kibbutz. The experience was surreal, something out of Field of Dreams: The baseball diamond was cut into an agriculture field, and children from the surrounding homes darted out to snare foul balls that flew into the open land. There were a few dozen people in attendance (which seemed fitting for a weekday game in Central Israel); at one point, a dog wandered near the infield.
It was one of the best baseball experiences of my life. The weather was hot, the drinks were cool, the game was decent, and baseball in Israel was alive. Everybody there was passionate about the sport and wanted baseball in Israel to succeed – and although it would all end after that season, I remember sitting in the stands, thinking how incredible it all was. I couldn’t wait to tell my grandfather, a Brooklyn Jew who grew up watching Hank Greenberg, and Sandy Koufax on his beloved Brooklyn Dodgers.
Baseball in Israel has grown immensely since 2007, but Team Israel has missed out on the international stage. It failed to qualify for the WBC in 2013, missing out in the final qualifier, before making it for the first time this year – and it hasn’t stopped winning.
If the first game was best described as, “Not by Might, and not by Power, but by Spirit alone…” then Monday night’s game was akin to the battle of the Israelites against Amalek, in which the Israelites gained ground whenever Moses had his arms raised – with the help of his brother Aaron, and his general Hur – and lost it when they were lowered. Israel was up 6-0, then 6-3, then 15-3, before finally winning 15-7.
Why does it matter? Well, first, everybody loves a Cinderella story, and coming into the WBC, Israel was ranked 42nd in the world (Korea was ranked third, and Chinese Taipei fourth).
But it’s more than that. As I watched the game virtually with my friend Andy, a baseball fan who produces a sports radio show in Phoenix, we both remarked how much our grandfathers would’ve loved seeing Jewish baseball players take on the world and win.
Josh Zeid, the minor-league pitcher who closed out game one against Korea, exclaimed after the win, "This has to be the top, top win as a team, I think in my career…nothing compares to this stage." This was a single game in the opening round, but for Zeid, helping Israel to victory was the greatest win of his career.
Perhaps the importance of this Team Israel run was best said by former MLB pitcher Joe Magrane, who’s doing color commentary for the Israel games. He remarked how important Team Israel is – what these young men are doing for their country, their culture, their people. And that’s what it all comes down to. That’s the reason this tournament is so special to Jewish fans everywhere, why it’s worth it to stay up late to root for our people.
This is more than a Cinderella story. The Jewish people have always been the little nation that did, and for all its problems, Israel is the little nation that could. Regardless of who takes home the medals, Israel – and all its fans – has already cemented itself as the winner of the 2017 edition of the World Baseball Classic.