The mostly American Israeli squad are not quite the underdog theyre made out to be, but for a few days in March they have made baseball a joy
A few years ago, at the Beijing Olympics, I covered a womens beach volleyball match between Georgia and Russia. It was a preliminary-round match that should have drawn little notice, except that just days before Russia had invaded Georgia, and for the handful of Georgians in the stands this volleyball match meant the world to them.
They screamed and shouted and stomped for every point. When the two-player Georgian team won, they pumped their fists in the air and danced in the stands. Later, they followed their victorious volleyball players around the surrounding plaza waving Georgian flags, chanting: Georgia! Georgia! Georgia!
Only the volleyball players werent really Georgian. They knew little about Georgia. In fact, they had barely been to Georgia. They were from Brazil. They spoke Portuguese and a tiny bit of English. There was nothing Georgian about them. They were there because the Georgian prime ministers wife wanted a beach volleyball team, and they wouldnt have made the Olympics any other way.
None of this mattered to the Georgians in the stands that day. They were desperate for any revenge against Russia, even if it came in the form of two Brazilian women wearing bikinis and diving through a sandpit in China.
Ive been thinking about the Georgian beach volleyball team during Israels march through the first round of the World Baseball Classic. Much like the Brazilian women playing beach volleyball for Georgia, the men playing baseball for Israel are not Israeli. Only two of the 36 players on Israels roster are actually from Israel. Most of them are fringe major-leaguers or career minor-leaguers, born and raised in the US. Their only true connection to Israel is that they fit into the loose definition of what qualifies for an Israeli player at the WBC: primarily that they are Jewish, or have a Jewish parent or grandparent.
The comparison between the Georgian beach volleyball players and the Israel baseball team is, of course, not perfect. Russias invasion of Georgia that year was a real act of war that agonized Georgias athletes in Beijing. Many wanted to go home to their families, only to be told that doing so would disqualify them from future Olympics. The WBC is a contrived attempt by Major League Baseball to inflate international interest in the game. It is played during spring training and has little connection to world events.
But much like the Georgians embraced their Brazilian volleyball team, baseball fans are enthralled with the story of an Israeli baseball team that isnt Israeli. And thats fine. Sometimes a good story is just that, a good story regardless of reality.
Israel went into the WBC as the longest of longshots. They are not a country with much of a baseball tradition. The most recent World Baseball Softball Confederation rankings had them at 41 just behind the baseball powers of Ukraine and Poland. Coming into the WBC their odds of winning the tournament were 200-1. Theyve often been a punchline in international baseball: even Israel has a baseball team? Now after beating South Korea, Taiwan and Holland this week, the team that couldnt is making the oddsmakers quiver.
And yet the Israel team at the WBC bears little resemblance to the worlds 41st-ranked team. Few of the Americans on this ragtag collection of professionals would be eligible to play for Israel in a tournament other than this. The Israeli team in the WBC is not the 41st best in the world. They are much, much better than that. They probably are not deep enough to survive the whole three-week tournament and make good on those 200-1 odds, but in small pool of single games played halfway around the world they are more than talented enough to upset the larger powers of South Korea and Taiwan.
They have zero connection to Israel. [It is] kind of a cute farce, an Israeli journalist friend messaged me on Facebook after Israel pounded Taiwan on Tuesday.
The whole WBC is a cute farce, and has been since it started in 2006. Its hard to take too seriously a world tournament played through spring training when most professional hitters are working on their timing, and when pitchers are trying to build their innings and reclaim the feel on their pitches. While some countries like Mexico and Japan have embraced the tournament the 2013 WBC drew better TV ratings in Japan than the previous years Olympics this is not a true world championship tournament. Many of the best players refuse to play, citing the risk of injury. Its really a series of competitive exhibitions hyped into being a baseball world cup.
But the WBC doesnt need Clayton Kershaw to be fun to watch. Much like the Olympics, where millions of viewers hold their breath watching a diver they had never heard of, superstars arent necessary to create a nationalistic fervor. A uniform, a flag and a team with a good backstory is usually enough to lock people to the television.
The Israeli team might not be very Israeli, nor the great underdog everyone believes them to be, but they are a still a great story. Its hard to hate a team whose mascot is Mensch on a Bench. While their top players, Sam Fuld and Ike Davis, have been established major-leaguers, they would not lead many big league lineups. Their catcher Ryan Lavarnway went to Yale and has kicked around the edges of the majors for many years. Their game 2 starter, Chris Baker, is a 27-year-old career minor-leaguer.
Israels wins still count as upsets even if they arent huge upsets.
So, yes, the Israeli baseball team might be a farce with their players having about as much connection to Israel as two Brazilian beach volleyball players had to Georgia in 2008, but for a few days in March they have made baseball a joy. Sometimes the truth doesnt need to ruin a good story.