Opinion

The World Baseball Classic Highlights the Systemic Failure of Israeli Baseball

Of all the people on the squad, only one will come back to Israel to develop the sport.

Daniella Barta, the coach of the Jerusalem youth team, instructs one of the players during a baseball match between Modi'in and Jerusalem youth teams in Modi'in, March 10, 2017.
Daniella Barta, the coach of the Jerusalem youth team, instructs one of the players during a baseball match between Modi'in and Jerusalem youth teams in Modi'in, March 10, 2017. JACK GUEZ/AFP

One way or another, Team Israel’s majestic run at the World Baseball Classic will soon come to an end. Then the real work will begin: How can Israel translate the team’s success – on the field as athletes and off the field as mini-celebrities – to improving local baseball? Unfortunately, such a development is not imminent. Actually, it’s not even a high likelihood. The only ingredient Israeli baseball truly needs is dedicated coaches who go day in day out into the grind, teaching and exciting Israeli kids about baseball. A WBC title will not bring an avalanche of coaches, nor will other desired changes come as long as the assumption is that real Israelis are, almost by definition, inferior baseball players and coaches. Trust me, I have been there before – as a player, coach and official.

In preparation for the 2012 WBC qualifying round I pitched the last inning of Team Israel’s warm-up whamming of an obscure community college in Jupiter, Florida. After all, I was a symbolic afterthought, one of three token Israelis on that team. Indeed, some bad-ass infield combination turned a double play behind me to end the scoreless inning. Although I never saw actual tournament play, I still cherish that week in that clubhouse.

There were huge names associated with that team: former all-stars Brad Ausmus and Shawn Green, major league stars Gabe Kapler and Mark Loretta, and soon-to-be Los Angeles Dodgers centerfielder Joc Pederson. There was also some good media exposure. But baseball did not take off in Israel. At most, the modest operation that was already there was consolidated. I saw it firsthand as a player-coach on its mediocre amateur league and as a board member of the overseeing federation, the Israel Association of Baseball. Whatever improvements unfolded after 2012 were the works of a dedicated executive led by IAB president Peter Kurz and his hiring of a national director – the great Nate Fish. Both were involved in that 2012 team (and both are part of the 2017 staff). But rather than the hyped WBC experience, it was their hard work on the ground that kept Israel’s baseball alive.

So let’s start with the obvious difference between the 2012 team and this year’s: The current squad won their September qualifying pool in Jewish-friendly Brooklyn and advanced to the main tournament, where they played exceptionally well. This in turn brought significant exposure in both American, international and Israeli media. It will also bring financial benefits: the players and the federation are expected to split over $1 million in rewards, and this should bring the cash-strapped IAB some needed relief. 

The success and its exposure, however, has had some surprising challenges, mainly in Israel. Most Israeli media, and many in the street, were cynical of the maximal use of the "heritage rule" that the WBC employs: To represent a country a player need only be eligible for citizenship, rather than actual citizen. For the first round, Team Israel carried 28 active players, 26 of whom did not have Israeli citizenship. Of the two that carry Israeli passports, only one – the legendary Shlomo Lipetz – was born in Israel and is an actual product of the IAB program. But manager Jerry Weinstein dropped any pretense for even this modest symbolism of ties to Israel’s actual baseball program when he dropped Lipetz from the active roster between the first and second rounds. The only Israeli currently on the active roster is Dean Kremer, a California-born-and-raised legitimate Dodger minor-leaguer with low 90s fastball and a solid breaking ball who Weinstein consistently overlooks.

So now Team Israel carries no native Israelis; it is another reflection of a public relations disaster which the team was slow to recognize. But even the slow mobilization of media presence and surrogates cannot overcome a weak narrative the team chose to deploy: that this is indeed Israel’s team, that it reflects the success of the Israeli program, that the team’s makeup is basically what everybody does at the WBC, and that it obviously and imminently will improve baseball in Israel. 

Perhaps blurring the lines between Team Israel and the local program was a strategic decision. But the Israeli media – by default cynical, especially toward a sport they don’t understand and don’t value – cut right through it. Instead, it would have been wiser to publicly recognize that the team’s makeup is a suboptimal reality, that Israel’s invitation to this prestigious tournament was conditioned on fielding a competitive team of Americans, that the goal is to expand native Israeli presence on the roster, and that they are working diligently to make such a vision a reality.

Another hiccup relates to the heavy emphasis of the shared Jewish heritage. The players openly and collectively celebrate their Jewish identity. This, ironically, makes it much less Israeli. No other Israeli athletes purposefully cover their heads, not to mention overtly substitute their caps for kippot during the national anthem. This seems foreign to Israelis. Being Jewish in the peoplehood, tribal sense turned into a religious manifestation that raised more eyebrows than praise in Israel. What was once implied is now explicitly celebrated. Not less importantly, Israeli democracy is undergoing an attack by its most right-wing government ever. In Israel, diversity is not celebrated; it is degraded. Although non-Jews comprise more than 20 percent of Israeli society, on Team Israel there is not a single non-Jewish player, almost by definition. Obviously, Jewish ballplayers should never forfeit their identities, but some humility in the face of the ethnocentric onslaught in Israel would come in handy.

Branding mishaps aside, there is a greater, systemic failure here. Of all the people involved in the professional baseball side of the team, only one person will come back to Israel to develop the sport: Tal Erel, the up-and-coming Israeli catcher whose job is to warm up Team Israel’s mighty bullpen arms. Erel is ineligible to play in the tournament, which is the only reason Weinstein let him on the team in the first place. Worst still for young Israeli players who love heroes as much as their American counterparts, after he wraps up his IDF service within the year, he will most likely find his way onto a U.S. collegiate diamond. In short, within a few months following this tournament, no one will be on the ground to disseminate accumulated knowledge from that experience.

Which brings the onus back to the management. Can they leverage anything more than much-needed financial benefits toward developing Israeli baseball? In July, the real Israeli national team – the one made of Israeli citizens that is ranked 41st in the world – will take the field in Belgrade, Serbia, to battle other similarly skilled teams in Europe’s mediocre B pool. Lipetz will be there. So will Erel. (Perhaps Kremer too, if the Dodgers will be so kind.) Both are eligible to play on a team much more representative of Israel’s baseball program. It is safe to predict that Kurz and his few aides, full of memories of Brooklyn, Korea, Tokyo and the improbable Team Israel run, will sit in the stands mostly by themselves. Not one of the non-Israeli players of the great 2017 Team Israel – the WBC squad that shook the world – will be in Belgrade. Nor will they be in Tel Aviv, in Beit Shemsh or anywhere else in Israel.

Dan Rothem is an Israeli-born baseball player, coach and a member of the Israel Association of Baseball.