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Baseball Fever in Israel
Israel Team Stands for National Anthem in Seoul, South Korea (Courtesy: Israel Baseball Association)

Baseball Fever in Israel

Israel beats Cuba in World Baseball Championship Tournament

Many Israelis got a jolt of national pride when Israel upset fifth-ranked Cuba in the World Baseball Championship, beating them by 4-1. Israel stands at 4-0 overall in the series, one step closer to the tournament’s semi-finals.

Going into the tournament, Israel was given 200 to 1 of winning. Israel is the lowest ranked team to make it out of the qualifying rounds and the only team from the Middle East.

“People didn’t know we were here,” Israel baseball’s team manager, Jerry Weinstein told The Media Line, speaking from Tokyo. This is the first time in World Baseball Championship history Israel has advanced out of qualifications.

Weinstein said the team does not consider themselves to be underdogs. “We feel we can compete in this tournament,” Weinstein said, “Our team is built for this kind of play.”

He said Israel’s roster has a lot of pitchers and a strong dynamic, with all the players getting along and working toward a shared goal according to Weinstein.

“I don’t think it’s something many saw coming,” Regional Director of Jerusalem for Israel Association of Baseball, Danielle Barta told The Media Line.

Baseball is barely known in Israel, where kids on recess all play soccer. It’s been given a boost by American immigrants to Israel who have fond memories of rooting for their local baseball teams.

“It’s amazingly exciting,” said Israel baseball fan Arnie Draiman, who lives in Jerusalem. He has been waking up at 5 am to live stream the games on his computer. A Jerusalem bar favored by many Americans, Mike’s Place, is streaming a game later this week, and even promised an “alcohol-free environment” along with free refills on soda, to encourage parents to bring their children.

The Israeli team only has one Israeli-born player, Shlomo Lipetz, from Tel Aviv. The rest of the team comes from the United States. This has led some critics to question whether the team is really “Israeli.”

Manager Weinstein says the critics are mistaken. According to the World Baseball Championship eligibility criteria, an athlete who is not a citizen of the country they are playing for can represent a team if they are eligible for the citizenship or obtaining a passport in the country. It doesn’t matter if members of the team have never set foot on Israeli soil, they can still represent the country if they meet the criteria.

In Israel, all Jews are eligible for automatic citizenship under the Law of Return, making all Jewish Americans theoretically eligible to play on the Israeli baseball team.

“The reality is that this is an Israeli team,” Weinstein said, “We all are connected to Israel through our Jewishness.”

From the sidelines, fans like Draiman say they aren’t bothered by the lack of Israelis on the roster. “One day we will have enough home-grown players,” Draiman told The Media Line.

Weinstein said regardless of who makes the team, it is still having a positive impact on the community, both in recruiting more American’s to play Israel baseball and developing the Israel Association of Baseball’s reach at home.

The money the team makes as they advance through the tournament will go back, in part, to help fund the Israel Association of Baseball and provide more resources such as coaches, fields, and equipment to help spread the sport around the country.

Outside of money, Israel’s players are making changes at a grass-root level, with the children who are just learning to throw a pitch and swing at bat. “My players in Jerusalem really look up to the players,” Barta said.

Barta told The Media Line that in January ten players from the Israeli team, some of whom had never been to Israel, came to Jerusalem and met with the Israel Association of Baseball. Barta said the nationality of the players doesn’t make them any less of a role model for Israeli youth and fans because they all have “pride in their sport, pride in Israel and pride in their Jewish heritage.”

Later this week, Israel plays the Netherlands (for a second time) and Japan, both in the Tokyo Dome in Japan.

Israel plays the Netherlands on Monday, and Japan on Wednesday, both in the Tokyo Dome in Japan. The top two teams from each pool will go on to the semi-finals and the championship will be at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles later this month.

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