Opinion |

At World Baseball Classic, I'm Rooting for 'Team Nice Jewish Boys'

The 'Israeli' team which has captured the imagination with three wins in three games has been recruited from the ranks of professional Jewish ballplayers in the United States.

Simon Spungin
Simon Spungin
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Israel's third base coach Pat Doyle, right, passes by his team mascot, The Mensch on the Bench, during at the first round game of the World Baseball Classic at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, March 9, 2017.
Israel's third base coach Pat Doyle, right, passes by his team mascot, The Mensch on the Bench, during at the first round game of the World Baseball Classic at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul, South Korea, Credit: Ahn Young-joon/AP
Simon Spungin
Simon Spungin

I am not a baseball fan.

I don't know a curveball from a gumball and I get confused between Babe Ruth and Dr. Ruth. I am, however, a sports fan and, as an Israeli sports fan, I follow the fortunes of athletes and teams representing the Jewish state.

Which is why I, like many of my friends and colleagues, am excited by the success of the Israeli national team at the World Baseball Classic, currently being played in South Korea.

Pitcher Josh Zeid of Israel celebrates victory against the Netherlands after their first round game of the World Baseball Classic at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul on March 9, 2017. Credit: JUNG YEON-JE/AFP

No sporting event is complete without its underdog and, according to ESPN, Israel is the biggest underdog in the tournament. Currently ranked 41st in the world, ESPN described the Israeli team as the "Jamaican bobsled team" of the World Baseball Classic – a reference to the team from the Caribbean nation which participated in the 1988 Winter Olympics, much to the amusement and delight of athletes from countries with a more established history of winter sports.

But there is one huge difference between the Jamaican bobsledders and the Israeli ballplayers. While all four members of the Jamaican team were born and bred on the tropical island, the vast majority of the Israeli team is as American as apple pie and fake news. In fact, the only player who was actually born in Israel is Shlomo Lipetz.

For at least 10 of the players, a specially organized Birthright trip earlier this year was the first time they had ever stepped foot on Israeli soil.

Sure, they're Jewish and, by Israeli law, they could become Israeli if they wanted to. But they're not. They are Americans and they have been brought in as ringers, plain and simple.

And, despite eagerly adopting the mantle of underdog, it's worth remembering that Israel has more players with Major League experience on its roster than any other team in the tournament.

Plenty of countries have fast-tracked citizenship requests from outstanding athletes, to allow them to represent them in international competitions. In the 1980s, the United Kingdom controversially expedited a naturalization request from South African runner Zola Budd, who otherwise would not have been able to complete in the Olympics because of the global boycott of the Apartheid regime.

But, as far as I am aware, no country has ever "adopted" an entire roster. Until now.

This newspaper has covered the activities of the Israel Association of Baseball for almost 20 years. It has reported with pride and admiration that more than 1,000 Israelis regularly don uniforms and take part in the American national pastime.

If, however, the only way for the national team to enjoy success is to recruit foreigners – and, yes, American Jews are foreigners, until such time as they take the plunge and move to Israel – then maybe it's not the kind of success we should be pursuing.

In many respects, these kinds of shortcuts to success are typical of Israel. Instead of freeing up money to pay for daycare centers for children, we reach out to the Jewish Diaspora to fund them. Instead of ensuring that the Health Ministry has the resources to operate a working fleet of ambulances, we go cap in hand to wealthy Jews overseas and promise to plaster their names on the side of the vehicles they pay for.

It would be great to see Team Nice Jewish Boys doing well at the World Baseball Classic. Jews everywhere can already take great pride in the team's achievements. But let's not fool ourselves into thinking that this is any way an "Israeli" achievement.

This article was amended on March 9.

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