Well, Team Israel has managed the unthinkable. Ranked 41st in the world and at 200-to-1 odds to win heading into the World Baseball Classic, they now boast a 4-1 record and are on the verge of the semifinals. But who makes up Team Israel and how did they become the darling child of the baseball world? Who knew Team Israel had a baseball team?
Team Israel’s roster is filled with minor leaguers, former major leaguers and baseball prospects that have failed to reach professional levels of baseball. The team comprises of mostly Jewish Americans and one Israeli-born player, 38-year-old pitcher Shlomo Lipetz. The best Jewish players, Ryan Braun, Kevin Pillar, Joc Pederson and Ian Kinsler, have opted to either play for the United States in the tournament, or not at all. Essentially, this “B” team has managed to beat baseball powerhouses such as South Korea and Cuba to win their group. Even the team mascot – Mensch on a Bench – is a humorous and self-aware mascot that pays homage to their situation at the World Baseball Classic.
Baseball in Israel has not been widely successful as a preferred sport. With seldom interest and a failed national baseball league, this team, made up of mostly American Jews has managed to bridge to help revitalize and introduce the sport to many Israelis. The country has three baseball-specific fields and about 1,000 active players, consisting of mainly North American immigrants to Israel. With this unimaginable run at the World Baseball Classic, popularity in the sport of baseball should see a rise and support in future years. In fact, Israel’s impressive run at this tournament and thereby winning their group, have all but guaranteed them a spot at the 2021 World Baseball Classic. The support even extends from Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who last week tweeted out his support for the team, despite the games not being broadcast on Israel’s sports channels.
Israel’s next game is against baseball powerhouse Japan, and if it can win this game, it stands a solid chance of making it to the semifinals. The semifinals would be played on U.S. soil, essentially becoming a home game for many of Team Israel’s Jewish Americans. Whatever the outcome on the field, Team Israel can come away from this tournament with a sense of pride and accomplishment, something that seemed like a far-fetched goal when they were playing qualifier games last October in Brooklyn. For many on the team, this tournament also represents hope for many of the minor and major league prospects hoping to get noticed by MLB teams.
We wish Team Israel the best of the luck and hope to see continued success at the World Baseball Classic.