By Bill Simons
Since the 1871 debut of the National Association, the first circuit considered a major league by baseball historians, there have been teams with one, two, very occasionally three and even rarely four Jewish players with names reflective of their ethnic heritage. From Lip Pike who led the majors in home runs four times in the 1870s to contemporary Alex Bregman, cleanup hitter on the World Series champion Houston Astros, baseball has had a Jewish presence. Still, MLB has a modest rollcall of Jewish players: Team Israel is different. For an American Jewish baseball fan, it brings a visceral identification with Team Israel to hear broadcasters announcing a series of distinctively landsman names, amongst them Zack Weiss, Jakob Goldfarb, Dean Kremer, Jacob Steinmetz, Spencer Horwitz, Michael Wielansky, Bubby Rossman, Noah Mendlinger, Jake Fishman and Shlomo Lipetz.
Competing in the 2023 World Baseball Classic, Team Israel players enjoyed recognition and support from Jewish fans and teammates. Many of the players previously experienced playing on teams, particularly those located in small minor league towns where they were the only Jew on the roster and hence different from everyone else. Conversely, the first time they entered the Team Israel clubhouse, they felt an instant connection, a figurative embrace, as though they were at a Jewish summer camp reunion. A shared sensibility pervaded the team, extending from humor to politics.
Most Team Israel players come from comfortable, secular, suburban American middle-class backgrounds. Several are the children of interfaith marriages, but, for most of them, there is a need to come to terms with their Jewish backgrounds. One of the players invented a whimsical “who is the most Jewish” quiz game, featuring queries about bar mitzvahs, knowledge of Hebrew, synagogue attendance, kosher food, trips to Israel, dual citizenship and other ethnic markers. Team Israel conversations are animated, often punctuated by laughter. They debated “the Koufax curse,” which supposedly brings bad things to a Jew who plays ball on Yom Kippur. Despite the rise of antisemitism and schedule conflict with spring training, they chose to don the Israeli colors, topped by caps emblazoned with the Star of David, in the WBC. Numbers report deep and sometimes unexpected feelings while standing at attention for the pre-game rendition of “Hatikvah,” several donning yarmulkes.
Aspiring to evolve into baseball’s equivalent of soccer’s World Cup, the first World Baseball Classic was held in 2006. Some dreamed of a truly global World Series. Subsequent renditions took place in 2009, 2013 and 2017. In the 2017 World Baseball Classic, Team Israel, initially ranked 41st in the field, shocked opponents and experts with upset victories over powerful teams from Cuba, South Korea, Chinese Taipei and the Netherlands. After former MLB pitcher Jason Marquis, a Staten Island native, displayed mound mastery, the defeated Cubans derided Team Israel as a faux national team, comprised of American mercenaries.
For Jewish baseball enthusiasts, however, the 2017 WBC gifted them an epiphany equivalent to America’s Miracle on Ice triumph in the 1980 Winter Olympics. Team Israel has morphed into a baseball version of the Jamaica bobsled team. The momentum continued.
Israel was one of six nations to qualify for the baseball competition in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, ultimately postponed until 2021 due to Covid. Team Israel finished fifth in the Olympics and with a few breaks might have ranked higher.
And Israel was one of 20 nations selected for 2023 WBC competition. Team Israel boasted 14 players with major league experience, many recruited by general manager Peter Kurz, manager Ian Kinsler and San Francisco star Joc Pederson. A cadre of talented minor league prospects augmented the roster. Although rookie manager Kinsler, a former MLB All-Star second baseman, lacked previous experience at the helm, he was surrounded by great coaches, including his ex-Detroit Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, retired Red Sox great Kevin Youkilis, Nate Fish, who managed Team Israel with distinction in the fall 2021 European Championships, and veteran MLB manager Jerry Narron.
Team Israel possessed a special vibe. Nonetheless, the analytics told another story. A two-time All-Star, Pederson, the best position player on Team Israel, had his peak batting average in 2022, a modest .274. In contrast, José Altuve has a career batting average over .300, three batting championships and an MVP award while his Team Venezuela teammate Miguel Cabrera, a two-time MVP, has slugged over 500 career home runs. Team USA captain Mike Trout has won three MVP awards. Team Japan’s Shohei Ohtani, the 2021 AL MVP and a once in a lifetime talent, is a dominant pitcher and slugger. Moreover, Team Israel had the misfortune of placement in the strongest of the divisions, Pool D, and thus destined to play four Latinx powerhouse teams: Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic.
On paper, Team Israel entered the WBC as a decided underdog, David versus Goliath. But Israel manager Kinsler radiated a preternatural confidence and resolve shared by his players: “It’s not necessarily the best team that wins the game, it’s the team that plays the best that day. So, we have just as good a shot as anybody.”
Truth be told, Team Israel was a Jewish American team. No one on the final roster was an Israel-born sabra. Although 10 had acquired dual citizenship, WBC rules, unlike those of the Olympics, do not require that players obtain citizenship in the country they represent on the ballfield, only that they meet eligibility requirements for that country’s citizenship.
The proposals of the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to enervate the Israeli Supreme Court and abridge other democratic protections have brought the relationship between American Jews and Israel to its lowest ebb since the nation’s 1948 rebirth. The Jews of the Diaspora on Team Israel provide a reminder of the frayed, but still potent, ties between American and Israeli Jews. American Jews traveled from distant homes to watch Team Israel.
Finally, heightened anticipation met reality when teams Israel and Nicaragua met on Sunday, March 12.
To be continued.
Bill Simons is a professor emeritus at SUNY Oneonta where he continues to teach courses in American history. He is also the co-director of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.