Israel’s unlikely path to World Baseball Classic – USA TODAY
The written history of Israeli baseball would be a pretty small book, but as the World Baseball Classic gets ready to begin on Monday the tournament’s biggest underdog is motivated to provide one of its best story lines.
Team Israel will take part in the 16-team field for the first time and is not expected to last too long, having been placed with South Korea, Taiwan and the Netherlands in Pool A with a squad that does not include a player currently on the 40-man roster of a major-league team.
However, remarkable upsets are part of what we love about the game, and if the Israel team can display the same level of resiliency that it took just to put the group together, then it could have a fighting chance.
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“We had to hunt far and wide and find the best guys who could potentially be eligible,” Peter Kurz, president of the Israel Association of Baseball, told USA TODAY Sports. Eight of the players have had some major-league experience, with virtually all being Americans of Jewish heritage.
Kurz scoured the country, using a baseball blog that charts the progress of Jewish players and relying on word of mouth. WBC regulations dictate that a player can participate if they are eligible to apply for citizenship of that country. Israeli law allows all Jews to receive automatic citizenship.
Once Kurz had his list of candidates, a widespread collection of information began, with faxes and emails sent to WBC chiefs including parental birth certificates, evidence of bar and bat mitzvahs or anything else needed to verify the authenticity of the squad’s claim to Israeli eligibility.
“In some cases it was easy,” Kurz said. “In others, we had elderly family members trying to track down documents. It was a process.”
Then, the team had to actually do the business of qualifying, having lost in the final preliminary stage ahead of the 2013 tournament. There was no mistake this time, with Israel outlasting Brazil, Pakistan and Great Britain to reach the final field.
“Playing for Israel is the last thing I thought I would be doing,” Ty Kelly, a utility player in the New York Mets farm system, said. “And there is nothing I would rather be doing. It really does have a deep meaning.”
Kelly was part of a group of players to visit Israel in January on a promotional tour aimed at increasing baseball awareness and boosting the number of players from its current level of around 1,000.
“When we went to Israel we saw the pride they have in their country,” Kelly added. “To be able to give the people another outlet to express that pride, by supporting a team in a sport that Israel has never been known for, it just feels really cool.”
The sport’s national governing body has made moves to ensure the sport is integrated across different ethnicities and is confident that the positive coverage provided by the WBC will give an extra boost.
While Israel is considered the biggest long shot out of the 16 teams, it has some names that will be familiar to baseball followers, including 2009 All-Star pitcher Jason Marquis and Ike Davis, who hit 32 homers for the Mets in 2012.
Ryan Lavarnway, a catcher in the Oakland A’s system, insisted no team will have a closer bond than Israel.
“In America as a Jew are you a minority but especially in the game of baseball,” Lavarnway told the BBC. “We have so much shared experience and understanding that hardship road of the ups and downs of baseball. It has really bonded us as a team.”