They’re not Jewish for the jokes. Just for the baseball.
“On this team I can say the most random Seinfeld reference and everyone laughs and quotes the next line. It’s the only baseball team in the world that can do that,” says Cody Decker, one of the 28 players representing the early darlings of the World Baseball Classic: Team Israel, a cobbled-together, schmatta-tag bunch that would love to turn the leaflet of famous Jewish sports legends into, at the very least, a pamphlet.
With a pair of victories in its first two WBC games, Team Israel clinched a berth in the second round of the tournament, which was designed to grow international baseball in places like Israel, where the sport barely exists. Only one of its players carries an Israeli passport. Another pitches competitively in the Israel Association of Baseball. The rest are Americans whose Jewish ancestry allows them to adhere to tournament rules and play for the team, even if they haven’t seen a synagogue in years.
There is no Sandy Koufax among this tribe. There might not even be a Moe Berg. Considering invitations were turned down by the best Jewish players in the world – Ryan Braun, Joc Pederson, Ian Kinsler, Kevin Pillar and Alex Bregman would have made for a mighty lineup – one very well could call this the greatest miracle for Jews since the oil burned for eight days.
Team Israel sees something else. In 2009, a team from the Netherlands, where the sport is called “honkbal,” twice stunned the Dominican Republic. Four years later, Team Italy, comprised mostly of Americans, upset Mexico and Canada to advance. Now, in its first WBC, Israel has played spoiler. And with its final game in pool play at 4:30 a.m. ET Thursday against the Dutch team to determine which will emerge with the top seed before the second round begins in Tokyo on Sunday, Israeli baseball gets to show the world why it’s more than an oxymoron.
“It’s a large group of really talented ballplayers who all have been kicked around a lot in their career,” Decker says. “We don’t have a single star on this team. It’s all the role players who made the stars look good. Everyone on this team has been passed over – no pun intended on that one.”
During his down time as a scout for the Houston Astros, Alex Jacobs would play a guessing game: Jew or not a Jew? As the director of player personnel for Team Israel, Jacobs was in charge of filling out the team’s roster with the best available players. That meant starting with the obvious – “I would look for names that sounded like they could be Jewish,” Jacobs says – and graduating to more unconventional methods.
He scoured for players who married Jewish women. He called temples in the Dominican Republic and Colombia to inquire about Jewish congregants. He found out one Panamanian player wears a Star of David and considered reaching out to him. He trawled websites with pictures of gravestones. He sought certificates verifying bar mitzvah dates and Hebrew school report cards.
The standard for a non-national joining a WBC team is the ability to become a citizen, and Israel happens to have extremely lax laws when it comes to those with a Jewish connection. Married to a Jew, like Kansas City third baseman Mike Moustakas? You can get Israeli citizenship – and play for Team Israel. (Moustakas, coming off a torn ACL, couldn’t get insured.) Was one of your grandparents Jewish? Good enough, so long as there’s proof – like the gravestones. Are you more cultural Jew than religious? Cool. That covers pretty much the entire roster.
“There aren’t a whole lot of us in baseball,” Decker says. “Even if you aren’t very religious, you’re still a minority, and in the baseball world you’re practically a minority of a minority of a minority if you’re Jewish. It’s such a small percentage, it doesn’t calculate to a percent.”
Decker is right. According to a tally on Jewish Baseball News – a real website and not a subsidiary of The Onion – there are only eight Jews among 1,200 on teams’ 40-man rosters. About 60 populate the minor leagues, where there are around 6,000 players a year.
Jacobs got so desperate he started mining names of childhood friends for inspiration. He remembered one with the last name of Walsh, which prompted him to reach out via Facebook to Colin Walsh, a utilityman in the Atlanta Braves’ organization. Walsh, Jacobs said, was grateful for the contact and appreciated the opportunity. There was one problem.
“I’m all Irish,” Walsh said.
Jacobs’ roster, it turns out, was plenty serviceable. Eight players have spent time in the major leagues, including 15-year veteran Jason Marquis, the team’s top starter, and Decker, who has played Max Patkin to his teammates. On the ride to Brooklyn, where Israel needed to win a September qualifier to gain entry into the tournament, Decker started a trivia contest. He is the king of kibitzing, a one-liner here, a crack there, a pat on the back when needed. For good luck, he brought a Mensch on a Bench doll, the Jewish answer to the Elf on a Shelf. And unlike 2013, when Israel failed to advance despite owning the same record as the eventual qualifier, Spain, 2017 was a breeze: three wins by a combined score of 15-3.
The team was rewarded with more than a spot in the tournament. In early January, players flew to Israel, where they climbed Masada, toured Jerusalem and placed messages in the Western Wall. They went to the best field in the country, at a place called Baptist Village – because of course the best field in Israel is at a place called Baptist Village – and met with groups of children. The players maintained a text chain throughout the winter, the anticipation of the tournament building, the excitement overwhelming.
Decker, who signed a minor league deal with the Milwaukee Brewers in the offseason, reached out to a friend who runs a T-shirt-printing company and asked if he could do a play on the Brew Crew nickname of his new team. Three days later, the prototype was better than Decker could’ve imagined: a smiling man, wearing a beard, a tallis and high socks, swinging a bat, with one word above his hat and the other beneath his shoes: JEW CREW.
“This is the first time in my life, besides playing for the JCC when I was 14 years old in a basketball tournament, where you’re in a locker room full of players and coaches and trainers and they’re all Jewish,” pitcher Josh Zeid says. “You go in the lobby of the hotel, and everyone’s mothers are there, and they’re all talking to each other.”
Their cocktail of exhilaration and fear and elation and nerves boiled over during the first game of the tournament Monday at Gocheok Sky Dome. Israel scored a run in the second inning. Korea evened the game in the fifth. On it went, until the 10th, the same inning Zeid yielded a walk, hit a batter and surrendered a two-run single four years earlier in the loss that ended Israel’s tournament hopes. A two-out, two-strike infield single from Scott Burcham drove in the go-ahead run Monday, and Zeid came out for his third inning of work.
After spending two years with the Houston Astros, he had bounced around the last two seasons, even spending time in the independent Atlantic League. Nobody signed him this offseason. This, Zeid figured, might be his last shot. Which is why when Dae-ho Lee, who slugged 14 home runs in the major leagues last year, swung through a 97-mph fastball to end the game, Zeid yelled and pumped his fist and hugged his catcher and lost himself in this tournament that still lacks traction in the United States but is replete with meaning to so many others.
“I’ve been lucky enough to play in the major leagues,” Zeid says. “But that was the single biggest, most exciting moment of my baseball career.”
“You gonna do it?” Nate Freiman said.
“You bet your ass I’m gonna do it,” Decker said.
Freiman was Decker’s teammate in the minor leagues, so he knows the idiosyncrasies, the hilarities and the tendencies down pat. Which meant he understood every time his team gets a hit for the first time in a game, Decker unleashes a catchphrase that somehow manages not to get old. The first eight words are always the same. The last changes depending on the team, and Freiman wanted to know if Team Israel would get the pleasure of hearing it. Decker made sure, loud and clear:
“Nobody, and I mean nobody, no-hits the Jews!”
He did it when they beat Korea. He did it when they beat Taiwan, 15-7, in their second game. He’ll do it against the Netherlands, provided the WBC doesn’t see its first no-hitter. And he’ll do it in Japan, where Decker hopes another tradition – for every run scored, the players clap twice and let out a Ric Flair-style “Wooooo!” – will be bountiful.
Rooting them on won’t just be Jews across the world but those in the homeland as well. In a tweet Tuesday, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrote in Hebrew: “We are all with you!”
בהצלחה רבה לנבחרת ישראל בבייסבול שעושה מסע מדהים באליפות העולם שנערכת בימים אלה בדרום קוריאה. כולנו אתכם! pic.twitter.com/nx0VLTXwfT
— Benjamin Netanyahu (@netanyahu) March 7, 2017
So are the 800 or so kids in Israel signed up to play baseball regularly, and the hundreds in Beit Shemesh, a city west of Jerusalem, who were wearing Yankees and Red Sox and Mets jerseys but don’t have a viable field on which to play.
That, too, could change soon. If Israel wins the pool, it will receive $1 million in prize money, half of which goes to the players and the other half to the country’s federation. A second-place finish means $700,000. The more Israel wins, the more fields it can build. And the more fields it builds, the likelier the sport is to catch on.
“The goal is to not have to rely on the American Jews to play in the tournament,” Zeid says. “It’s a great rule for us to be allowed to do this, but we want the game to grow so large that the kids there are the guys.”
For now, the American Jews are happy to bask in the success. Scouts were buzzing about Zeid’s fastball velocity, and he and Freiman, among others, could parlay their WBC success into jobs with organizations once they return to the states. On Wednesday morning, as the team readied to go to a light workout, an elevator car filled up with players. By the sixth floor, it had exceeded maximum weight capacity. Jacobs volunteered to get off. No, said a man riding the elevator. He was happy to let Jacobs back in. Jacobs thanked Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven, the Dutch pitching coach, for the kindness and stepped right on.
The door closed. Everyone in the elevator side-eyed Jacobs.
“Who the [expletive] do you think you are, Alex?” joked Barry Weinberg, the team’s trainer.
“Pulling rank for Team Israel,” Jacobs said.
It’s easy to get caught up in the thrill. The underdogs are winning. The Mensch on a Bench has been upgraded to life-sized. The JEW CREW T-shirt is for sale, with Decker planning on donating all proceeds to the Jewish National Fund. As a wave of anti-Semitism frightens Jews across the United States and around the world, this tiny sliver of respite – this game that serves as equalizer and uniter – could last even longer than eight days.
“We’re out here playing for a nation of people who have fought and battled to be as great as they are,” Zeid says. “And we want them to believe we represent them the right way. I hope we’re doing that.”
No joke: They’re doing that and much more.
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