The Major League Baseball season officially began in North America this week. Even if baseball is no longer truly America’s national pastime, “Opening Day” still has a magical ring to it for millions of fans. As these true fans know, the first pitch announces the real beginning of spring, accompanied by all the clichés of rebirth and hope springing eternal for one’s hometown heroes. It signals the return of the empowering inner-fan spirit, and the return of box scores to pore over as you sip the morning coffee. Such was the power of Opening Day when I was growing up in Syracuse, NY, during the early 1960s that a ticket to the Triple A Syracuse Chiefs’ Opening Day game enabled one to legally skip school to make it to the park in time for the first pitch.
This year, however, the baseball season began early. For the fourth time since its inception in 2006, hundreds of professional players from around the globe gathered for two weeks this past month to play in the World Baseball Classic, a 16-nation tournament loosely modeled on the quadrennial World Cup of football (soccer, that is, in American English). The WBC has been slow to catch on in the United States. Americans like their baseball delivered locally: It is difficult, to say the least, for a Yankee fan to cheer for a Red Sox player (and vice versa) just because he happens to be wearing a Team USA jersey. And American players have generally been reluctant to commit themselves to playing for a national team just weeks before their arduous, six-month regular season begins.
All that said, the high drama of many of this year’s WBC games, and the enthusiasm generated by the players and fans of so many of the other participating countries, appeared to stir the competitive juices and perhaps even some patriotic fervor among the American team—which won the tournament for the first time, defeating previously undefeated Puerto Rico in the final game. To the pleasure of the lords of Major League Baseball, the televised games enjoyed a significant increase in viewership.
Of all the feel-good stories that the WBC generated, perhaps the most unexpected was that of Team Israel, which won four straight games against traditional baseball powerhouses South Korea, Chinese Taipei, the Netherlands (which boasted three major league all-stars), and Cuba before losing its last two games in Japan, for an overall sixth place finish in the tournament. You heard that right: Israel, the team that an (ill-informed) ESPN writer characterized as the Jamaican bobsled team of the tournament. Israel, the country ranked 41st in the world by the World Baseball Softball Confederation, where it kept company with the likes of Lithuania, Poland, and Slovakia. Provincial Americans could be forgiven, perhaps, for wondering whether anyone even played baseball in Israel.
Yes, they do play in Israel—from little league upward. True, it’s a niche sport; there are not yet any teams of homegrown players that could survive even an inning against bona fide professionals. One of the goals of the WBC tournament has been to grow the game beyond its traditional enclaves, and judging from some of this years’ qualifiers it seems to be working: participating teams included Pakistan, Brazil, Great Britain, South Africa, the Philippines, and France, as well as Israel.
There is a catch (pun intended). In order to enable these teams to compete with the big boys, WBC eligibility rules don’t require a player to actually be a citizen of a team’s country but merely to have family ties to a citizen, or to be eligible to become one. Thanks to Israel’s Law of Return, which enables any Jew in the world to immigrate to Israel and immediately become a citizen (most easily understood as affirmative action for Jews), Israel was able to field a team made up almost entirely of American Jewish professional players, some with Major League experience. There were no Sandy Koufaxes or Hank Greenbergs among Israel’s squad; indeed, none of them were on Major League rosters at tournament time . However, as a team they showed considerable pluck, and the Jamaican bobsled jibe quickly gave way to comparisons to David and Goliath.
The Israeli media and the blogosphere eventually picked up the story as well. After all, this was a major international sports competition, and Israel is a country starved for athletic success. Its national team in football perpetually disappoints: The last time it qualified for the World Cup finals was 1970. It has never won more than two medals in any Olympic Games. But unbridled celebration was not to be expected, particularly since the sport itself is one of the few aspects of American culture that Israelis have not embraced. And one could hardly ignore the fact that there was only one player on the team who actually grew up in Israel, and only one more whose parents are Israeli. How were patriotic Israelis supposed to feel about this team of American Jews wearing Israeli national colors, talking (although not in Hebrew) about their pride as Jews and their excitement at the chance to represent the Jewish state on the world stage? The ensuing responses were a variation on an old Woody Allen joke: When asked what his religion was, he replied “Jewish, with an explanation.”
For more than half a century, Israel and American Jewry have been joined at the hip: Especially in the early decades after 1948, Israel provided American Jews with a source of pride and accomplishment, American Jewry provided Israel with much needed financial and political support. The bonds have frayed in recent years, partly as the memory of the Holocaust and Israel’s birth fade into history, and particularly among non-Orthodox and primarily liberal American Jews whose Jewish identity is often more attenuated. For those who do care about Israel’s future, many are distressed over the rightward turn of successive Israeli governments, and the current government’s overt embrace of the Republican Party in the United States. From the Israeli side, Israelis educated on the tenets of Zionism have tended to view their brethren in the Diaspora as not fulfilling their national duty by immigrating to Israel and actively participating in the struggle to build and maintain a viable state in a difficult neighborhood; perhaps they also harbor a touch of envy toward the American Jews’ more comfortable life.
So what does this have to do with baseball? Only that it was inevitable that the makeup of Team Israel would raise hackles in some Israeli quarters. For example, Israel’s controversial Minister of Sport and Culture was barely aware of the team’s success and made a point of stating that funding would be directed elsewhere. Some commentators went out of their way to emphasize how un-Israeli the team was, how the sport was not suitable to the Israeli palate, and how the expressions of solidarity with Israel and ethnic pride—ranging from the wearing of yarmulkes during the playing of the Israeli national anthem to the celebrated life-size “Mensch on the Bench” mascot—were just so much fluff.
Others were more generous in spirit, however—particularly as the team caught their attention by racking up victories. After all, this was a team whose whole was greater than the sum of its parts, competing successfully and with pride as Jews representing the State of Israel. Indeed, one couldn’t help but be impressed by the bonding that had occurred among everyone associated with the team itself, players, coaches, trainers and administrative staff, and the joy in their collective success. For those American and Israeli Jews who still recognize the supreme value in nurturing the relationship between them, the outcome was inspiring, as well as providing a welcome respite from the gloom and doom of the daily news. For the heads of the Israeli Association of Baseball, the local organization responsible for putting the team together, it was a vindication of years of effort. Most importantly for the future of the game in Israel, the team’s success had a financial aspect: Hundreds of thousands of dollars are now slated for injection into the cash-starved association for vital infrastructure development.
We Israeli baseball aficionados need it. Currently, there is only one regulation baseball field, with lights, and three such softball fields in the whole country. For nearly three decades, baseball and softball have remained essentially underground sports in Israel, played mostly by North American immigrants and their offspring, supplemented by immigrant Latin American Jews, a sprinkling of native Israelis, and a handful of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Devotees play and coach for the love of the game, sometimes on fields more suitable for sheep grazing than for sport. Over time, a certain level of play has been achieved, thanks in part to the generous assistance of American and European coaches. Youth, women, and men’s teams now participate annually in European tournaments, and a handful of Israeli players have gone on to play college baseball in the United States or in European leagues. And now the success of Team Israel in the 2017 WBC—and the publicity and the promised influx of funds along with it—has already had a positive effect on skeptical local authorities reluctant to allocate more resources for building local programs.
Is this the beginning of something big in baseball? Why not? Last year, the Chicago Cubs broke a 108 year World Series drought, proving again the truism espoused by the founder of modern Zionism: “If you will it, it is no dream.” Hopefully, this will soon be repeated on new fields of dreams in the Holy Land.