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Israel clinches berth in World Baseball Classic quarterfinals
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March 8, 2017 15:40
Netherlands’ victory guarantees advancement for blue-and-white at World Baseball Classic
Team Israel World Baseball Classic practicing (credit: ISRAEL ASSOCIATION OF BASEBALL)

Israel advanced to the lasteight of the World Baseball Classic without even playing on Wednesday.

The Netherlands’ narrow 6-5 win over Chinese Taipei in Seoul secured Israel’s progress, with both the blue-and-white and the Dutch owning a 2-0 record after two games. Chinese Taipei and South Korea are at 0-2 and have been eliminated.



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First place in Pool A will be decided when Israel faces the Netherlands on Thursday, but both teams are into the quarterfinals.

Israel claimed a 2-1 win in 10 innings against host South Korea in its opener before beating Chinese Taipei 15-7 on Tuesday.

The top two teams in the pool advance to second round Pool E, which will also include two sides from Pool B, which is being contested between Japan, Cuba, Australia and China. Pool E will be played in Tokyo, Japan, with the top two to then progress to the semifinals at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.

Pool E play gets under way on Sunday, with Israel’s seeding and schedule depending on the result of Thursday’s contest between Israel and the Netherlands.

A greater purpose for Team Israel participants

Alex Bregman’s 1-for-32 slump to start his career unnerved fans in Houston last season, but it inspired hope in Israel.

Bregman was one of fewer than 70 players of Jewish descent to play professional baseball in 2016, according to Jewish Baseball News. Peter Kurz, President of the Israel Association of Baseball, had expected Bregman to uplift Team Israel for the World Baseball Classic qualifiers last September and, after it advanced, star on the global stage.

“He expressed his desire to play for us,” Kurz said in reference to a phone conversation he had with Bregman last July.

Weeks later, the Astros promoted Bregman, baseball’s top-ranked prospect, and he nearly went hitless through his first eight games.

“This is good for us,” Kurz thought then. He speculated the Astros would demote Bregman back to the minors, which would make him available to Israel for the qualifiers the next month.

Instead, Bregman, at 22 years old, solidified his spot at third base in the majors. He batted .291 with 52 hits, eight homers, 13 doubles and 34 RBIs in his final 169 at-bats – to the detriment of Israel.

His rally earned him an invitation from Team USA , with which he had played four times as a teenager and in college. It was an offer he would not refuse.

“I am disappointed because I think we could have had a much better team,” Kurz said.

Whiffing on a player like Bregman is common for Israel. The team comes up short on resources, pedigree and convenience compared with the advantages of playing for Team USA or staying in spring training.

Israel debuted in the WBC during the 2013 qualifiers and was to meet South Korea in its first tournament game Monday. It has lost All-Star recruits like Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun and Detroit Tigers second baseman Ian Kinsler before to Team USA , which flaunts alumni like former Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, who inspired a young Bregman to wear No. 2.

As a top seed, Team USA gets to play Round 1 in Miami and, if it advances, Round 2 in San Diego, which are easy trips for American players. Israel ranks 41st in the world. It had to fly to Seoul and now will fly to Tokyo.

“A lot of these guys didn’t want to schlep 15 hours on a flight,” Kurz said.

Some players prefer to make impressions in spring training, like Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Joc Pederson, who played for Israel in the 2013 qualifiers but, according to Kurz, declined the latest invitation so he could pursue a regular- season starting role.

Tournament victories and exposure from the upcoming telecasts could entice better players in the future, but Israel is getting by on its wits. The team assembled more players who have made the majors than its first-round opponents: Chinese Taipei, South Korea and the Netherlands.

Kurz extols Alex Jacobs, an Astros scout who received permission from the club to work part-time for Team Israel as its director of player personnel. Jacobs scoured minor league rosters for recruits, enlisted players who did not know they could join Israel just for having Jewish ancestry, and compiled major league-quality scouting reports on WBC competition in the qualifiers.

“He picked the wrong team,” Jacobs said half-jokingly about Bregman. “He’s missing out on a fantastic opportunity.

“The bonding in the clubhouse is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. You’re representing a country, a heritage, something bigger than a baseball game.”

Left with little more than a prayer that Bregman might play for Israel, Jacobs filled out the roster by scanning farm systems for players with last names that seemed Jewish.

Israel offers citizenship to anyone who is a Jew, which the country qualifies as: the child or grandchild of a Jew, or the spouse of a child or grandchild of a Jew. Team Israel abides by the same laws for its players.

Jacobs contacted Scotty Burcham, a shortstop in the Colorado Rockies organization, on Facebook after seeing photos of his mother.

“She kind of looks Jewish, and she’s from New York, so let’s just ask,” Jacobs figured. “Next thing you know, he was a big member of our club.”

Shlomo Lipetz, a pitcher, is the only Israeli on the roster. The other players valued the chance to compete in the most or possibly last meaningful games of their careers.

Josh Zeid is one of eight team members who played in the 2013 qualifiers. He lost the elimination game against Spain in the 10th inning. In addition to wanting “redemption” in 2017, Zeid reveres competing with a team that, unlike any other in the WBC, represents more than a territory.

“I’ve always been a proud Jewish person first and then, secondly, a very proud Jewish baseball player,” he said. “How many chances do you get to play with 25 Jewish baseball players – aside from your Jewish Community Center team?” When it comes to Judaism – a topic hard to separate from discussions about Israel – the team associates it with camaraderie, not zealotry.

“It’s heritage,” Kurz said. “It’s not really religion.

Ten players proved that during a weeklong trip to Israel in January.

New York Mets utility player Ty Kelly brought his mom. Freeagent outfielder Sam Fuld brought his dad.

“Growing up in the States, I’d never really seen anything like that -- the intensity of the religion,” first baseman Ike Davis said.

“You don’t understand until you go there.”

Davis, once a star first baseman for the Mets now signed to a minor league contract with the Dodgers, said he sacrificed a chunk of spring training that “might benefit me more” because he committed to Israel. He considered Jerusalem a bucket list item, but a career in baseball had not afforded him the time off. He said this experience with the team “enlightened” him to “how much it means to have a place to call home: Israel.”

Israelis expressed even more appreciation. The team attended the groundbreaking of a ball field in front of hundreds of kids in Beit Shemesh, a village west of Jerusalem.

A rabbi there did not understand English or baseball, but Zeid said the man’s excitement made everyone laugh together.

“He put a baseball in the earth and hoped a baseball field would grow from it,” Zeid said. “In America it’s like, here’s a million dollars, and that’s it. There, it’s like, let’s bury a baseball and see what happens. There’s more of a spiritual way things happen. That was different for us.”

From holy to humorous, the unforgettable experiences went unknown to Bregman. Davis understands the choice. He played for Team USA before turning pro.

“It’s hard to pass up,” Davis said. “It’s a lot higher-profile and definitely looked upon as a better chance of winning, too. I get why the honor of playing for the US is a really big deal.”

But as much as the US matters to Davis, he discovered how much a player like him means to Israel.

“We’re playing for more of a cause for why Israel is so important to the Jewish race,” Davis said.

Country. Cause. Heritage. Home. They are a matter of perspective.

Jacobs simplified the debate for Bregman: “He’s not going to have as much fun with Team USA as with Team Israel.”

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