Why Israel’s baseball team is about more than balls and strikes

It took the Chicago Cubs 108 years to bring the World Series trophy home. They brought it home in the Jewish calendar year 5777. Maybe 5777 is the lucky year for another Cinderella team. Featuring the Mensch on the Bench as their mascot, the 34 players on Israel’s national baseball team have shocked the world (and bookmakers in Vegas) by beating more established and much higher seeded teams in the first round of the World Baseball Classic.

With a 4-1 record (and defeats of host team South Korea, Taiwan, the Netherlands, and Cuba), the Israeli team was handed their first defeat in a rematch against the Netherlands. Nonetheless, the kippah-wearing sluggers have garnered international attention as the tournament’s least-likely standouts. And they will continue to advance through the second round of play with a shot at making it to the championship round.

The players aren’t all Israeli. Most are actually Americans — Jewish boys, most of whom hover in the Double and Triple A minor leagues and who qualify to play for Israel because they qualify for immigration rights under the Law of Return. Even if they weren’t born in Haifa or Efrat or Beersheva, we can take pride in the Israeli team as our Jewish ambassadors, and we can hail their victories.

They have been featured in Sports Illustrated, USA Today, the Jerusalem Post and The New York Times. ESPN commentators even compared them to the “Jamaican bobsled team of the WBC.” Their new-found celebrity will not fade as they have already inspired young boys in Israel and around the world to pick up bats and gloves and to take a run around the bases.

This underdoggiest of underdog teams is making us proud in 5777. Why is this year’s team different from all other years? Because the success, so far, of Israel’s national team is the realization of the dreams of so many young boys, their fathers and their grandfathers — Little Leaguers who dreamed of being the next Sandy Koufax. The Israeli national team players have brought a bit of the great American pastime to friends around the world, demonstrating the very best that America and Israel have to offer on the field, with lessons to be taken off the field as well.

Sports figures throughout American history have held special significance in society. They have been among the best, and sometimes the worst, representatives of American grace, agility, temperament and charm. Some of baseball’s greats have been among our greatest citizen diplomats. We often refer to baseball as our national sport, but it is more than just a game. The history of baseball and its awesome players reflects who we are as a country — one that honors talent and recognizes heroes.

We have seen men like Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax and Roberto Clemente cement their places in the Baseball Hall of Fame because of their art and their souls. These citizen ambassadors have been champion athletes who have changed the way people see each other. Jackie Robinson represented America at a time of transition, baseball was the messenger that broke the color barrier. Roberto Clemente was a hero on and off the field, in Pittsburgh and around the world — he died tragically in a plane crash while delivering much-needed relief to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. And who can forget the moral stand Sandy Koufax took when he refused to pitch in a World Series game that was scheduled on Yom Kippur and was still selected as the Series MVP?

These men were the stuff of legends.

Now a new generation of legends and citizen diplomats is born, from Dylan Axelrod to Josh Zeid. We have watched these young men remove their ball caps for the playing of “Hatikvah,” the Israeli national anthem, to reveal blue skullcaps underneath demonstrating their ties not just to baseball, but to the faith that binds them as a team, and that binds them to us.

Jewish baseball fans in Chicago and Cleveland have no split allegiances in the latter part of 5777, at least not until the WBC final.

What will we do if our Israeli Boys of Summer have to play against the U.S. national team for the championship?

Let’s explore that option when we get to it. In the meantime, let’s revel in the miraculous year of 5777, the year of baseball in Israel, the newest staging area for recruitment of Major League ballplayers. Certainly Chicago Cubs General Manager Theo Epstein is taking note for his team’s run at the World Series in 5778.

Editor’s Note: Israel lost its game with Japan on March 15, ending its drive to the championship series. But the team has already qualified for WBC 2021.

Bonnie Glick is a nonprofit executive and veteran American diplomat and businesswoman. She lives in Bethesda.

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