The Israeli national baseball team was the darling of the 2017 World Baseball Classic. Israel won its first four games at that tournament, with three notable upsets, and advanced to the second round. A documentary detailed the players’ memorable journey and a stuffed mascot — the Mensch on a Bench — gained worldwide fame.
That team, which featured a handful of major league players, including Ryan Lavarnway, Ike Davis and Josh Zeid, finished sixth in the tournament and helped make playing for Israel more fashionable for eligible players.
Six years later, the team now boasts 14 players with major league experience. That group includes the All-Star outfielder Joc Pederson, who helped recruit more players, plus a bona fide Hebrew-speaking Israeli citizen with big league credentials, the right-handed pitcher Dean Kremer. The Mensch on a Bench is not expected back, however. This year’s team is all business.
“The last tournament was one of the highlights of my career, and I’ve played for 15 years,” Lavarnway, a catcher, said in a telephone interview. “This one coming up has been on my calendar since then.”
After that remarkable 2017 run, with wins over South Korea, the Netherlands and Cuba, Israel is back in the W.B.C. looking to build on its success. Once again, it faces a daunting challenge in the first round, after being dumped into a group that includes the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Puerto Rico, three teams with aspirations to win the whole event.
So, once again, Team Israel is relying on an old biblical parable to contextualize its looming confrontations.
“We’re coming together to have fun, enjoy being around each other, celebrate our heritage and live the David and Goliath story,” said Kevin Youkilis, Team Israel’s hitting instructor.
“We’re David as a team, and a lot of these guys were probably considered Davids at some point in their careers, and they defied the odds,” he said. “It’s been our story. We might as well live up to it.”
Youkilis joins Brad Ausmus, the former Tigers and Angels skipper, on Manager Ian Kinsler’s staff — three former big leaguers who are like most members of the team: American Jewish ballplayers, or players with Jewish backgrounds. In that way, Team Israel is like Team Italy and Great Britain — stocked with players who grew up in the United States, with very little on-the-ground experience in the countries they play for.
According to W.B.C. rules, players who are eligible to become citizens of a country may play for its team, even if they do not actually go through with attaining citizenship. The rules are fairly accommodating, in order for the events to field more teams in a sport that is highly regionalized. For the Olympics, and events like the European Championships, athletes must hold a valid passport of the country for which they are competing.
The state of Israel allows any Jewish person, or the children and grandchildren of Jewish people, to become citizens. So, applying that criteria to the roster construction, Team Israel is really more Team Jewish, and the stars of the 2017 team, like Sam Fuld, Ty Kelly, Nate Freiman and Davis, all fit that description.
But then there is Kremer, 27, who is a Hebrew-speaking Israeli citizen. He was in Class A ball when he made a cameo appearance for Israel in 2017, but he now has three seasons of major league experience with the Baltimore Orioles. Last year he went 8-7 with a 3.23 earned run average for Baltimore, including a rare shutout. He is Israel’s No. 1 starter.
Kremer was born and grew up in Stockton, Calif., the son of Israeli parents who emigrated to the U.S. He said teammates who are not aware of his background are sometimes surprised to hear him speaking Hebrew, Israel’s national language, on the phone. Kremer travels to Israel frequently and has family and friends there.
“It’s my home away from home,” he said. “If I dropped everything right now and went to live over there, I wouldn’t miss a beat. I’d just fit right in.”
In some cases, the experience of playing for Israel has led players to deeper connections with the country and their heritage. The 2018 documentary “Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel” detailed how members of the team, including Davis, Kelly, Lavarnway, Cody Decker and Zeid, who is now Israel’s pitching coach, were profoundly affected on a trip to Israel before the 2017 tournament.
“That was a life-changing trip for me,” Lavarnway said. “When you are on the ground there, you really understand what it’s all about.”
Lavarnway was so moved that he became a citizen in 2019 and played for Israel in the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. Israel went 1-4 in that tournament and finished fifth.
This tournament will be even tougher, especially with Israel competing in such a stacked group. The team’s first game is Sunday against Nicaragua in Miami. Nicaragua is ranked No. 17 by the World Baseball Softball Confederation, while Israel is ranked No. 20.
To prepare, players gathered in Jupiter, Fla. this week for their mini camp before heading to Miami. Among the group was Shlomo Lipetz, 44, a veteran pitcher from Tel Aviv, who inspired T-shirts with his likeness and the words, “Shlo Motion.” Lipetz is one of the earliest native players from Israel, a country that has only a handful of players and just a few fields. One day he hopes to see his country field a competitive team of true Israelis.
“It’s bittersweet,” he said, referring to the team’s heavy reliance on Americans. “But there is an old Hebrew saying: Do you want to be the tail of a fox or the head of a turtle? Does it take away an authenticity from a purely Israeli perspective? Of course it does. But they’ve helped us achieve new heights that we never would have achieved without them.”
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