It is safe to say that no Israel national team in recent memory has made as many headlines worldwide as the country’s baseball roster.
The team’s unexpected success at the World Baseball Classic has turned the blue-and-white players into the darlings of the tournament.
After all, how can you not fall for a group of unheralded players beating the odds while a mascot named the “Mensch on a Bench” watches from the sidelines? The story continued to gather pace with every Israel win, and there were four in a row to start the tournament.
After winning Pool A with a perfect 3-0 record, Israel opened the last eight with another surprise victory, beating traditional baseball powerhouse Cuba 4-1.
The 12-2 loss to the Netherlands on Monday did little to dampen the excitement around the team and there will be more eyes than anyone could have predicted following the story of the tournament as Israel targets another upset and a place in the semifinals in Los Angeles when it faces Japan in their final Pool E game on Wednesday.
But while the baseball world – or at least the part of it keeping an eye on the WBC during the MLB’s spring training – will be watching with added interest on Wednesday, in Israel, the game will barely cause a ripple.
Everyone likes a winner, and the success of the team has certainly generated more interest in baseball in Israel than ever before.
But other than the country’s small baseball loving public, the vast majority of which originally hails from North America, the game against Japan will be watched by very few people.
Stories in the international press have spoken about how the team is “taking Israel by storm,” using Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s supportive tweet as evidence.
That couldn’t be any further from the truth.
Rather than uniting and exciting as national teams often do, Team Israel has caused a stir, to an extent that there is a sense of resentment towards its audacity at claiming to represent Israel.
You may be asking yourself, what could have this committed group of players possibly done to deserve such treatment? Well, two things.
They play the wrong sport and they are not Israelis.
The competition’s eligibility rules permit a player to represent a nation as long as he is qualified for citizenship or to hold a passport under the laws of that nation, allowing Israel to benefit from a large pool of American-Jewish players who could become citizens per the Law of Return.
Of the extended roster’s 35 players (including the designated pitcher pool), only two are Israeli citizens, which is quite understandably a contentious issue.
But would there be similar criticism had FIFA for example used similar rules for its World Cup and Israel would have fielded a successful team of Jews? Not a chance.
The blue-and-white baseball team is an easy target, playing a sport few Israelis understand and even fewer actually care about.
Even after its stunning start to the WBC, Israel’s loss to the Netherlands was only deemed important enough to appear as the last item on channel Sport5’s news program on Monday, Israel’s equivalent of ESPN’s Sportscenter.
After brief highlights, the discussion quickly shifted towards whether Israelis feel part of this team.
Baseball even made the front page of the sports section of popular daily Yedioth Ahronoth on Monday, likely for the first time ever. But rather than analyzing the team’s performance on the field or the interest it has generated worldwide, much of the centerfold focused on whether the side truly represents Israel.
On the face of it, the answer has to be no.
How can it be if almost none of the players are actually citizens of the country? But taking such an approach, one which perhaps comes naturally to Israelis who have lived in the country their entire lives, is missing the big picture.
Prime Minister’s Office director-general and former Israel Team member Eli Groner put it well.
“For those who think that the State of Israel only exists for Israelis, this is no big deal. For those who understand that Israel is the homeland for all Jews worldwide, this is one of the greatest athletic sources of pride in our nation’s history,” Groner said.
It is much easier to nitpick about the actual “Jewishness” of the players on the roster and make fun of the fact that many have never even visited Israel than to understand what it means to be Jewish abroad and the numerous number of ways in which people choose to connect with their heritage, tradition, religion – call it what you like.
Israel manager Jerry Weinstein clearly gets it.
“We’re representing Israel. Our guys qualify under the heritage rules. I think if you ask anyone in our clubhouse, we’re representing Israel,” said Weinstein on Sunday in response to a Cuban reporter questioning whether his team is really a “United States 2” or “United States 3” team rather than an Israel team. “We’re not a JV team for the US. We’re Team Israel. Make no mistake.”
Weinstein also noted earlier in the tournament that the success of the side has had a positive effect not only in Israel, but in the United States as well.
“There are a lot of Jewish people in the United States that are very closely following this event,” he said.
First baseman Nate Frieman echoed the sentiment.
“To be able, as Americans, to represent Israel, which in turn represents the worldwide group of Jewish people, is something extremely special,” he explained. “We hope that this jump starts the program in Israel, and that someday there are Israelis playing on this team.”
For all the attention it has received across the world, the national baseball team is fighting a losing battle at home.
Winning helps, but it will never be enough to bridge the gap between the thinking of many native Israelis and the Diaspora.
If the side’s unlikely run at the World Baseball Classic helps in any way towards that cause, you can chalk that up as another victory for Team Israel.
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