It hardly mattered that few of the players representing Israel in the World Baseball Classic last month knew the Hebrew terms for balls and strikes. Nor did it cause concern that only two of them possessed Israeli citizenship.
What mattered was that the team, compromised mostly of American players of Jewish descent (persons who are eligible for Israeli citizenship could play for the team), willed and plucked its way to the second round of the international championship. In doing so, they captivated the baseball world and provided both Israeli and American fans with that most irresistible of all sports narratives: an underdog story.
Who were these guys? An compendium of has-beens and never-weres (only two of the team's players appeared on a Major League roster last year), Team Israel was ranked 41st in the world and tagged by ESPN as the "Jamaican bobsled team of the WBC." The ace of their pitching staff, 38-year-old Jason Marquis, hadn’t played organized baseball since June 2015. Catcher Ryan Lavarnway spent last season in the minor leagues with two different clubs, but as a Yale alumnus, he helped cement Team Israel’s place as the most educated squad in the WBC.
And yet they won—all three of their qualifying games, all three of their first round games, and a second round game against Cuba in the Tokyo Dome, witnessed by a visiting B'nai B'rith delegation waving Israeli flags and Purim groggers.
The players wore t-shirts that read "Jew Crew." During the pre-game playing of "HaTikvah," the Israeli national anthem, they would remove their game caps and don matching blue kippahs.
But what particularly captured the team ethos of cheekiness and unflappability was its designation of the kitschy life-sized doll "Mensch on a Bench" (the players called him Moshe) as the team's mascot. One player referred to Moshe as "a metaphysical presence" within the team.
They defeated more highly regarded squads from three different continents before succumbing to the Netherlands and Japan. What is also significant, though, is the fact that they competed on equal terms against teams who saw the matchup with Israel not as an opportunity to stoke Israel's political isolation—as is so often the case in international gatherings—but simply to play ball.
Israel's supporters view the Jewish state as blessedly unique, a source of intense pride. But what they want for Israel on the international stage is for it to be treated like any other country, subject to the same rules and standards. The WBC offered the Jewish community, and the world, a glimpse into a present and future in which Israel takes its rightful place among the nations and generates little controversy or backlash for doing so. No boycotts, no demonstrations, no extra security precautions. May the best team win.
Team Israel was a 200-1 underdog in 2017, but how can you not like their chances in the next WBC tournament, in 2021. 200-1? Feh. According to Mensch on a Bench creator Neal Hoffman, "We've faced worse."
Eric Fusfield, Esq. has been B’nai B’rith International’s director of legislative affairs since 2003 and deputy director of the B’nai B’rith International Center for Human Rights and Public Policy since 2007. He holds a B.A. from Columbia University in history; an M.St. in modern Jewish studies from Oxford University; and a J.D./M.A. from American University in law and international affairs. Click here to read more from Fusfield.
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