Israel’s national baseball team looks to take opener from South Africa
Competing in a qualifying tournament for entry into next year’s World Baseball Classic, team Israel, comprised mostly of American Jews, prepares to play the series opener in southern Florida.
Israel makes its first-ever appearance at a World Baseball Classic qualifying tournament on Wednesday, when it will take on South Africa in Jupiter, Florida. Given their talent, the blue and white will be a huge disappointment if they fail to qualify.
Israel is part of Qualifying Group 1 with South Africa, Spain and France. Three other qualifiers will be held between September and November. Two teams from each qualification bracket play in the championship round in San Francisco in March.
Historically, South Africa has had a strong squad, winning the gold medal in the All-Africa Games in 2003. They have a strong middle infield, with prospects Anthony Phillips (Seattle Mariners ) and Gift Ngoepe (Pittsburgh Pirates ) leading the way.
The Spanish have never taken part in the Classic. But the Spanish professional league is probably the most popular destination for Europe players, so the Spaniards have plenty of experience against top-tier players.
The French have the least talent among Group 1 squads. In their most recent tournament appearance, the 2010 European Baseball Championship, they finished sixth behind Italy, Netherlands, Germany, Greece and Sweden.
Israel comes in with high expectations and plenty of fan support. One advantage is its pool of players. According to World Baseball Classic rules, a player is eligible to appear for a country if he is qualified for citizenship or holds a passport.
This usually means the player has a parent born in a certain country. For Israel, any player with at least one Jewish grandparent - qualifying him for citizenship under the Law of Return - is eligible for the team. So the roster is loaded with minor league talent.
As a result, only a handful of bona fide Israelis have made the squad: Dan Rotem, the first Israeli to play college baseball in the United States on a scholarship; Alon Leichman; and Shlomo Lipetz.
The most recognizable name in the lineup is 39-year-old Shawn Green, the two-time MLB All-Star with a .282 lifetime batting average, 328 home runs and 1,071 RBIs. Green also has a very strong arm from right field.
The other player on the team with Major League experience is 37-year-old Gabe Kapler, who won a World Series in 2004 with the Boston Red Sox.
If Israel qualifies, the team could be even more exciting in the championships. Kevin Youkilis of the Chicago White Sox said he would play for Israel if it reaches the next stage, while other eligible Major Leaguers include Ryan Braun, Ian Kinsler, Ike Davis and Jason Marquis.
Red, white and blue, and white
Israel's maiden voyage to the global baseball stage will have a very American flavor.
Just three players on the Israeli team are Israeli-born and raised. The 25 others are Jewish Americans playing in the minor leagues, mostly in Double A, although Josh Satin has played a handful of games for the New York Mets the past two seasons.
"I feel very good about our chances," Brad Ausmus, a former MLB All-Star catcher and the manager of the Israeli team, told Reuters in a telephone interview. "I feel good about the team we have."
Joining Ausmus, whose mother is Jewish, in steering the Israeli team are former major leaguers Shawn Green and Gabe Kapler, who will serve as player-coaches.
"I hope that in 20, 30 years from now, teams will be represented by players born and raised in their countries," said Ausmus, who retired in 2010 after an 18-year MLB career with the San Diego Padres, Detroit Tigers, Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers.
When asked whether baseball could become popular in Israel, Ausmus said: "Maybe in 25 years it will be. It certainly takes time and you need a long vision. You need to teach kids, and if you develop a love for the game, you hope it grows exponentially with each generation."