They call it Team Israel, but really, it’s Team Jew. You got a problem with that? Still, who would have thought this team would be undefeated in the World Baseball Classic tournament?After Thursday morning’s win over Netherlands, Israel is 3-0 and moving on together with the Netherlands to the next round, the quarterfinals being played in Tokyo next week. For Jews and Israelis, for philosemites and pro-Israel advocates, for baseball fans and casual observers – this is so much fun!On the one hand, it’s just baseball, a game. And baseball was never part of Israeli culture, so this has become a pretty cool outlier for American Jews living in Israel to experience, as well as for Jews rooting around the world. It shows Israel in a positive light, and how much positive play does Israel get other than being the Start-Up Nation? All the advances we’ve given the world, all we’ve done, gets lost in the politics. So for Jews of the Diaspora and the pro-Israel community, it’s a treat to watch this happy group of players doing so well, unencumbered by anything political.
Moreover, as Israel struggles to connect with a young Jewish generation in the Diaspora, this gives Jews living outside of Israel a positive connection to the country they may not otherwise have.Even for Israelis who have no clue what baseball is about – though they are surely learning about it this week – it is a source of pride hearing Hatikva being played at an international competition while the players all wear kipot, with thousands of people in the stadium standing in respect. And that is a huge win for the country.For American Jewry, the source of pride is even more overwhelming.It is showing to a world that doesn’t believe that Jews can play baseball that they actually DO.Oh, the players knew. They knew from the very beginning that they are talented professional athletes, the highest caliber players in the world – strong boys with strong arms and strong legs and perfect eyesight and speed and baseball savvy.Not all of them are boys, young minor leaguers coming up the ladder hoping to make it to the show.Some of these players are in fact in the twilight of their careers, old men in the baseball world.But they are tough, still among the very best professional players, physical specimens all. They got the swagger too, knowing they are better than their press clippings.The Israeli team is also a closeknit bunch, forged in the baptismal fire of winning the qualifier tournament in Brooklyn in September, after the bitter disappointment of losing the 2012 qualifier in a heartbreaking loss in 10 innings.But the camaraderie is not just the baseball. They have all also bought in as Jews – full-Jews, half-Jews, quarter-Jews – embracing their Jewish identity and identifying so publicly as a Jew, knowing they are representing both the country of Israel, the Jewish community worldwide, and baseball-loving Jews.Before this tournament, many of them never had anything to do with Jews, identified as a Jew, but they have completely bought into it now, like 28-year-old infielder Ty Kelly whose mother is Jewish, who was raised and identified as Catholic his whole life, but who is now feeling the other half of his heritage.“I always found it amazing that so many of these guys who had virtually no [Jewish] identity growing up, never celebrated Jewish holidays, embraced being known as a Jewish baseball player,” said Jonathan Mayo, a veteran reporter for MLB.com who is helping produce a documentary being made about the team by Jeremy Newberger called “Heading Home.”No one ever thinks of Jews as great baseball players – the reason we know the names of the only two Jews in the Hall of Fame, Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax, is because that’s what it is: just two names.So it’s also been fun watching how the media is covering Israel, framing stories about the team in the Jewish role of survival against the odds.Israel hasn’t received such positive press since the Six Day War. Or maybe earlier. The headline on Jeff Passon’s Yahoo column read: “How Israel’s WBC team engineered the greatest Jewish miracle since the oil burned for eight days.”And that was before Thursday’s contest.There also has been a good share of humor attached to Israel winning, with social media highlighting the geopolitical worldview of Israel: • They will have a tough battle in the next round, when they face Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq simultaneously.• They’re looking into a two-field solution.• Once again, Israel gets Americans to go to bat for them.• The losing teams will complain, and the BDS group will say that it wasn’t fair and demand Team Israel give back all of the runs they scored.For the players, this is serious work. All of them dream of becoming Major Leaguers, and many have a shot – 18 of the 28 players on the team are affiliated with one of 12 Major League organizations that are invested in their potential.Many of these guys are on the cusp of making it, and all are hoping for that lucky break that has eluded them.Add to that a chip on their shoulder – being Jewish. Not a chip, really, more an inner acknowledgment that they are different, a minority within a minority in the small world of professional baseball. These players use that awareness as a motivator, wearing their Jewish pride on T-shirts that read Jew Crew, or being accompanied by their stuffed teammate “Mensch on the Bench”, a media sensation.And it’s working.Who would have thought? The Jews were undefeated this week!!
Team Israel World Baseball Classic practicing (credit: ISRAEL ASSOCIATION OF BASEBALL)