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June 18, 2012 11:21 am

Take Me Out to the Ballgame: Israel and the World Baseball Classic

avatar by Yossi Goldstein

Israeli team manager Brad Ausmus (left) with Israeli President Shimon Peres (center) and Dan Shapiro (right), the U.S. Ambassador to Israel. Photo: US Embassy in Tel Aviv.

After many years of conflict with its neighbors, and the disparaging discontent it has garnered within the international community, Israel is about to set out for another battle of sorts.

This fight won’t be waged in a courtroom. It won’t be settled at the UN General Assembly either. It will culminate on the baseball diamond.

The Israeli national baseball team is a short time away from the biggest tournament it has ever participated in – the World Baseball Classic. Israel has come a long way to reach the point of being able to compete among the world baseball powerhouses such as the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Puerto Rico and the United States.

Though the sport is not new to the state of Israel, it certainly hasn’t taken on in the same popularity as soccer and other international sports.

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“The World Baseball Classic’s exposure won’t change the mentality here for baseball overnight,” explained Team Israel manager, and former MLB All-Star, Brad Ausmus. “It’s a chipping-away process.”

However, the idea that Israel has been able to draw national interest in this ‘niche sport,’ is nothing to throw to the wayside.

“The reaction here has been nothing short of phenomenal,” Israel Association of Baseball President, Haim Katz, wrote in an e-mail.  “Both the Hebrew and English press are regularly reporting on Team Israel and giving us prime time coverage.”

“Brad recently came for a short visit and met with Shimon Peres and the US Ambassador, Dan Shapiro. That Mr. Peres met Israel’s national baseball coach is almost the equivalent of Barack Obama meeting the US national dominos team manager; all this for a team without a roster.”

Ausmus shared a similar sentiment, but offered a different take.

“Ideally, the WBC will help baseball grow in Israel, where the sport is in its infancy,” the former catcher noted.

However, all of the positive energy I gathered while talking to Ausmus doesn’t come without hardships.

“Putting the team together is my biggest challenge,” admitted the Team Israel manager. “I’m choosing players based essentially upon scouting reports and statistics. There’s only a short time for the players I’m putting together to prepare before going into the five-day double-elimination tournament. We’re going to have to learn how to click on all cylinders right out of the gate.”

That will certainly be a tall task for a team of varied personalities from all different backgrounds, who have never played together as a cohesive unit.

However, win or lose, the qualifying tournament for the WBC bodes well for the exposure of Jewish athletes to youngsters worldwide. Jewish youths will now have the ability to look up to athletes to whom they can relate.

“Jews and baseball are well connected dating back to the days of [Hank] Greenberg and [Sandy] Koufax,” explained Andrew Gershman, author of the forthcoming book Modern Day Maccabees. “Today, players such as Kevin Youkilis, and Ike Davis, among others, are proving that you can combine brains and brawn on the baseball field.”

The tournament invitation itself will likely prove positive to the worldview of Israel; a nation that’s had its fair share of bloodshed since its inception as a modern state. This competition will show the world public that Israel is just another Western democracy.

“Playing baseball for Israel has more to do with promoting Israel as a ‘normal’ country with western values than anything else,” said Gershman. “It’s a nation where sports are a part of life just like everywhere else in the world.”

Mums the word when it comes to verbalizing player commitments. And who could be blamed for not wanting to talk. After all, it’s like being caught between a rock and a hard place for a Jewish athlete to decide between representing his birth country or, his country of heritage, Israel.

The reason for such silence varies.

It could be that a current professional player doesn’t want to face ridicule for turning down the opportunity to play for Joe Torre’s Team USA club, by publicly stating his commitment to the Israeli squad and Ausmus.

“A player will only play for Israel if playing for the US is not an option,” Gershman postulated. “Players such as Ian Kinsler, who has played for the US in the past, are waiting to make their decision based on Team USA.”

Or, the reason could simply be due to the timing of the tournament games.

“The qualifying round was originally scheduled for November,” stated Ausmus. “However, there is talk that the tournament will take place in September, which would preclude major leaguers, as they still have MLB team commitments. As such, I’m going to keep the names to myself at this point in time.”

The two other former Major Leaguers who will participate alongside Ausmus as Israeli team coaches are former MLB all-Star Shawn Green, and former world series winner, Gabe Kapler.

What places a first-year WBC nation like Israel into the unique position of having more than a fighting chance to advance, pardon the pun, is its ability to tap into the wide pool of soundly seasoned baseball players who are eligible to carry an Israeli passport.

According to WBC rules, a player needs only to qualify for citizenship in order to represent the specific nation. Under Israel’s Law of Return – having one Jewish grandparent or being married to someone with at least one Jewish grandparent – Team Israel not only stands as a chance to be one of the four teams out of the 16-team pool to qualify for the WBC tournament in March, 2013, but Israel may actually give some of the traditionally strong baseball nations a run for their money.

Think Mike Piazza when he wore Italy’s colors; Andrew Jones with The Netherlands.

“American born professionals with Jewish heritage, both at major and minor league levels will make up the largest portion of the team,” admitted Ausmus. “Every player – or his agent – at the major league level has either been contacted by Gabe, Shawn, or myself.  I will say that nobody we’ve spoken to has expressly said that he ‘won’t play for Team Israel.'”

Ausmus himself has resembled a diplomat of late. Between traveling to Israel, and acting as a foreign ambassador for the sport he loves so much, there isn’t a lot that gets by the Ivy League graduate.

“My visit to Israel was wonderful. Between meeting the Israeli President and taking in a few baseball games, where I had the opportunity to see how much love there is for this game, I’m optimistic that baseball can become a popular sport in Israel.”

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