December 15, 2018

Team Israel aims for Hollywood ending in World Baseball Classic

Editor’s note: This article appears in the March 16, 2017 print issue of The Jewish Journal.

If Hollywood executives are looking for the next “Hoosiers” or “Mighty Ducks,” they might want to pay attention to Team Israel at this year’s World Baseball Classic.

The team ranked 41st in the world by the World Baseball Confederation jumped out to a 4-0 record in the 16-team tournament, which takes place every four years, beating several powerhouses known for producing Major League talent in the process. That includes unlikely wins against the world’s third-, fourth- and fifth-ranked teams in South Korea, Chinese Taipei and Cuba, respectively. 

Even after subsequently dropping a second-round game to the Netherlands in Japan, Israel had a real shot to advance to the championship round to be held March 20-22 in Los Angeles at Dodger Stadium. Standing in the way: Japan, the top-ranked team in the world. The teams were scheduled to play March 15, after the Journal went to press. (Israel could advance with a loss, but it would be difficult.)

A trip to Los Angeles for the final round would mean a homecoming for Ike Davis, an American-Jewish infielder currently playing for Team Israel, who signed a minor-league contract with the Dodgers in January.

Outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post as well as sports titan ESPN have been among those covering Team Israel’s unlikely rise.

“It’s essentially the Mighty Ducks, Hickory High [of “Hoosiers”] and the Jamaican bobsled team all rolled into one,” wrote ESPN senior writer Eddie Matz in a story. “In other words, it’s straight out of Central Casting for the role of ‘underdog team that stands absolutely no chance of winning but somehow goes on to win it all.’ ”

Nate Fish, who has been involved with the Israel Association of Baseball (IAB) for 10 years as its director, and the national team coach from 2013 until 2016, is now the team’s first-base coach. He told the Journal — via email from Tokyo, the site of Israel’s second-round games — that the success experienced by the team this year (the first time it has qualified for the tournament) has been overwhelming.

“It’s been a wild ride. This is by far the biggest thing we have accomplished,” he wrote. “We are trying to control our emotions during the games, but after games individually and as a group it can get emotional when [we] realize we just beat the number four ranked team in the world. Then we see the reaction from friends and family and online and it takes it to a whole other level when we see how many people are supporting us.”

While winning helps garner support, other factors in Israel’s Cinderella story have contributed too. The team has shirts that read “Jew Crew” and a mascot they call “Mensch on a Bench” — a life-size Chassidic doll wearing a black hat and a blue Star of David robe — that makes appearances in the dugout and in post-game press conferences.

“He’s a mascot, he’s a friend. He’s a teammate. He’s a borderline deity to our team,” Israel’s first-baseman Cody Decker said at a news conference after the team’s win over South Korea on March 6. “He brings a lot to the table.”

Despite long-shot odds, Fish said, his team has believed all along it can beat anybody. Still, he admitted in his March 14 email, that taking on Japan represented its tallest task yet.

“We do not view ourselves as underdogs,” he wrote. “In our coaches meeting we map out the games and usually say, ‘Okay, we can beat this team.’ But the further we go in the tournament the more that will change. At a certain point we will truly be underdogs. When we play Japan tomorrow is a good example.”

Israel’s team is made up of mostly American-born Jewish minor leaguers and men who have bounced around the majors. Thirty-eight-year-old pitcher Jason Marquis may be the best-known member of Israel’s pitching staff; he’s currently a free agent who has played for nine major league teams throughout his professional career. The team’s starting shortstop, Ty Kelly, is in the New York Mets’ farm system, but is also focused on a career as a screenwriter.

According to Fish, members of the team have their differences beyond coming from varying baseball backgrounds. However, the joint task of representing the Jewish state on a global stage is bringing them together and adding a layer of significance to the competition that transcends the diamond.

“We all have various levels of connection to Judaism and Israel, but when Hatikva plays before each game, the guys really feel connected and proud of what we are doing,” he wrote. “We know we are representing an entire nation and a group of people from around the world and we take that very seriously.”