Israel baseball success causes excitement, bafflement

Joe Dyke
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Israel's baseball team celebrate their victory against the Netherlands after their first round game of the World Baseball Classic at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul on March 9, 2017

Ask most Israelis where their nearest baseball field is and you will likely receive a shrug -- there are just a couple in the country and only around 1,000 people play.

And yet for the past week the country's unlikely victories at the World Baseball Classic (WBC), as well as the team's striking mascot, have captured Israeli and international media attention.

"In the United States we have become the darling of the WBC," Israel Association of Baseball (IAB) secretary general Margo Sugarman told AFP.

"We are doing things that literally the whole world is talking about."

In their first ever tournament they shocked big hitters South Korea in Seoul Monday, followed by victories against Chinese Taipei and the Netherlands to qualify for the next stage.

For the media, Sugarman says, "it is the David and Goliath, the Cinderella story," although the team see it differently.

"We knew we were good," she said.

"The people that said Israel had very little chance of winning were not the people within our organisation."

Most of the team do not usually play in Israel but are American Jews.

The WBC is based on a country's eligibility for citizenship, and Israeli law allows nationality for anyone with Jewish heritage.

Only two of the team are actually Israeli citizens, with Jewish former major league stars like Ike Davis joining those from minor leagues.

- Mensch on the Bench -

Sugarman admitted there have been "some nasty comments," but is quick to rubbish the notion that it is an American team -- pointing out many other teams also have Americans of various descents.

"The tournament is set up that way, to encourage smaller nations," she said.

Emphasising the team's Jewish identity is the Mensch on the Bench mascot -- a smiling lifesize doll of an Orthodox Jew.

It has, Sugarman said, become more "famous than any single player, which is good as they are a team."

The second question on the IAB's website is "What is Baseball?" and Sugarman is quick to admit the country's interest in the game is still in its early stages, with only around 1,000 players of all ages.

The IAB has been up and running for three decades, but Israel only attempted to send a team to the WBC the previous time it took place four years ago, narrowly missing the ticket.

While there has been a lot of Israeli newspaper coverage, the success has hardly caused a frenzy.

The tournament isn't even shown on Israeli television.

Danielle Barta, a coach for a Jerusalem youth team, has taken to watching it on sites illustrated by stick men -- with agonising waits for the result of every ball.

In the central Israeli city of Modiin, home to many Israelis who immigrated from North America, the local youth baseball team play on a football field.

The language of the game is English, with many of the children adopting the twang of their parents and coaches.

- Mighty Cuba beckon -

Despite this, coach David Edery hopes the country's international success can help the game win wider appeal.

"A lot of my friends who haven't really been aware of the sport before have seen the stories in the Israeli media," he told AFP.

"So it has definitely been able to reach out to the casual fan as well as the more hardcore fan."

Having qualified through their first group, Team Israel now face a second, tougher one with Cuba on Sunday followed by the Netherlands again on Monday and Japan on Wednesday.

Asaf Rothem, Channel 5 sports commentator and a former national team player, said the team may have reached their limit.

"Cuba and Japan are powerhouses of baseball in the world outside of America," he said. "Japan is the second best league and Cuba is also very talented."

But Sugarman isn't so pessimistic, and hopes either way change will come.

"By generating interest and getting more people involved, maybe in four years instead of having two Israelis in the team we will have six or seven."