Baseball is extremely popular in the United States, and has strong pockets of popularity throughout the world in places such as Latin America, Japan and South Korea. The World Baseball Classic, a three week Round-Robin style tournament that happens every four years, was created in response to the International Olympic Committee removing baseball from the Olympic Games in 2005.
Usually, teams from countries where there is a strong interest in baseball (see above) are the teams that succeed in the games. Japan, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and the United States are the only five teams to have participated in a championship game.
In the first round of the WBC, one team surprised many: Israel. They managed to go 3-0 in their first three games, defeating South Korea, the Netherlands and China, advancing to the second round. In the second round, they beat Cuba in their first game, but then lost to the Netherlands and Japan to succumb to elimination. They are currently the 41st ranked team in the World Baseball Classic, but managed to finish in a tie with the Dominican Republic, a team that had superstars like Jeurys Familia, Manny Machado, Starling Marte and Johnny Cueto, for fifth place.
Israel’s team was comprised of mediocre Major League players and career Minor Leaguers, whereas other teams boasted stars such as Xander Boegarts, Kenley Jansen, Chris Archer, Giancarlo Stanton and Carlos Correa. The most talented player on team Israel was arguably Scott Feldman, a 34-year old journeyman with a career 4.40 ERA. Feldman was not even born in Israel; he was born in Hawaii and went to high school and college in California.
Ike Davis, who signed a minor league contract with the Dodgers this offseason, hit third for the team. Josh Zeid, a minor league free agent, acted as their closer and starting pitcher, throwing 10 scoreless innings. Jason Marquis, who has not had a productive season in the majors since 2013, threw 9.2 innings and only allowed one run. Ryan Lavarnaway, a once heralded prospect, was tied for the team lead in hits. The opportunity to play for team Israel represents both a nod to a player’s heritage, and possibly a chance to show on a widely-watched platform that they still have enough talent to play in the major leagues again.
Israel’s recruiting practices were aggressive, targeting any Jewish-American baseball players who wanted to play for team Israel. In fact, the only Israeli-born player on the 36-man roster was Shlomo Lopez, a 37-year old reliever from Tel-Aviv. The roster was flown to Israel to visit and tour before the tournament. For many, it was the first time they had visited Israel. Cody Decker, a colorful personality, called it a “baseball Birthright trip” while speaking to The Jerusalem Post.
A strong showing like this year could help improve baseball’s popularity in Israel, potentially leading to future teams of players that actually were born and raised in the country. Team Israel was not able to convince MLB’s most talented Jewish-American baseball players to compete for Israel, as the potentially best player who could have played is infielder Ian Kinsler, who instead played for Team USA.
Players such as Kinsler, Alex Bregman, Jason Kipnis, and Joc Pederson could be tremendous additions to future teams from Israel, further increasing their viability in the tournament. Professional baseball has only been around in Israel for about 10 years, so the market there is severely underdeveloped.
Even more sustained success in the World Baseball Classic (and potentially the Olympics) could lead to more Israeli children going into baseball rather than other sports, producing more talent out of the country than ever seen before.