Monday’s World Baseball Classic quarterfinal matchup between Team Israel and powerhouse Netherlands, slated for 12 P.M. Israel time (6 A.M. EST), could be the Moneyball game of the 2017 tournament.
"Moneyball: The Art of Winning at an Unfair Game" tells the tale of the fiscally-challenged 2002 Oakland A's. The team finagled the system, making it to the playoffs in a league where the heavy-hitters put nearly three times more into player salaries.
How did they manage it? A's manager Billy Beane sliced and diced baseball statistics differently from the norm, believing he could identify undervalued players and pick them off the draft and trades, patching together a team of players overlooked by scouts in the wealthier organizations.
Israel seems to have taken a page from Beane's book. Ranked 41 going into the World Baseball Classic, it has surprised everyone by sweeping its bracket in the first round with a team that doesn’t have any household names.
Or any “real” Israelis. Israeli Shlomo Lipetz was on the Israel roster in the September qualifier. California-native Dean Kremer holds an Israeli passport as his parents are expats.
The latest victory took place on Sunday, when Team Israel defeated powerhouse Cuba 4-1 in the opening game of the quarterfinal round. Israel – Team Cinderella to many - was in the tournament for the first time. It had never qualified before, and so expectations were low. Before the Cuba stunner, the team beat third-ranked South Korea, fourth-ranked Chinese Taipei and ninth-ranked Netherlands.
ESPN has described Team Israel as the "Jamaican bobsled team" of the World Baseball Classic – a reference to the Caribbean team which managed to qualify for the 1988 Winter Olympics, competing against nations far more familiar with snow.
Israel has risen to success by embracing tournament rules that allow any player who is eligible for citizenship to represent a country. These rules helped Israel cobble together a team from Jewish American baseball players since the Law of Return grants citizenship to any Jew who requests it. Ten of the Israeli team’s players have at least some professional experience in the major leagues, much higher than many of the higher ranked teams in the tournament. The rest of the roster has played in the minors, some with long careers. (Israel's local league boasts just 1,000 regular players and one regulation diamond.)
Outfielder Sam Fuld pointed out to filmmakers making a documentary about Team Israel called Heading Home, that "it's 28 really good baseball players, guys who have played professionally, all of us."
Israel manager Jerry Weinstein rebuffed critics who have called Team Israel really a second Team U.S.A. After Sunday's win over Cuba, Weinstein asserted to reporters that "the attitude in our clubhouse is we are representing Israel. We are not the Junior Varsity team for Team U.S.A. We are Team Israel, and make no mistake about that."
The Dutch threat
Not everyone has taken advantage of the rules to include players with U.S. experience. Cuba, a baseball powerhouse with three Olympic gold medals, actually refused to allow any players who had defected to play ball in the American major leagues, to represent Cuba in this international tournament. The island nation's entire roster plays in its own Serie Nacional league.
But others, like the Netherlands - have plenty of pros. Sports Illustrated maintained that the Dutch national team "boasts arguably the most talented infield in the entire tournament."
The Dutch talent pool includes not just players who have seen the inside of a major league locker room for a moment, but players like Red Sox starting shortstop and 2016 All-Star Xander Boegarts. Beogarts also earned his second shortstop Silver Slugger award for 2016. Boegarts was born in Aruba, an island off the coast of Venezuela, but a member of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, granting Boegarts Dutch citizenship.
New York Yankee Didi Gregorious was, in fact, born in Amsterdam and grew up in Curaçao, one of the former Netherlands Antilles, which were dissolved in 2010. Curacao is still associated with the Kingdom of the Netherlands as a constituent country.
Relief pitcher Kenley Jansen was also born in Curaçao. A 2016 All-Star, Jansen recently resigned with the Los Angeles Dodgers on an $80 million, five-year contract.
Another Curaçao native, Jurickson Profar made the Texas Rangers' 40-man roster in 2016. Usually playing second base or shortstop, Profar has demonstrated infield flexibility, playing both first and third base as well.
Beyond its superstars, the rest of the Netherlands roster is comprised of lesser-known players, most of who play in Dutch national baseball leagues.
On Sunday, as Israel was celebrating its stunning victory over Cuba, the Dutch were licking their wounds after an extra-innings loss to Japan in the evening. When the two Moneyball teams face off on Monday, the seasoned players on both sides may not all be native sons of the countries they are representing - but they will all be hungry for a win.
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