Why We Loved Team Israel
OpinionEditor’s Notebook

Why We Loved Team Israel

Even if those weren’t our sons or friends playing for Team Israel in the WBC, they could have been. And for a few weeks in March they were.

Michael Jacobs

Atlanta Jewish Times Editor Michael Jacobs is on his second stint leading the AJT's editorial operations. He previously served as managing editor from 2005 to 2008.

The Mensch on a Bench helps Team Israel celebrate its first-round success in the World Baseball Classic.
The Mensch on a Bench helps Team Israel celebrate its first-round success in the World Baseball Classic.

The AJT usually doesn’t get much readership from sports stories, and I’m always worried about shifting space, time and effort from the local news we do best to the Israel news that often comes to us secondhand.

So it might have seemed strange that we devoted considerable resources to covering the surprising six-game, nine-day, Far Eastern adventure of Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic.

Fortunately, the liberal WBC rules require that players only be eligible for citizenship in the countries they represent and don’t stipulate that players live in those nations or speak their languages. Israel was thus able to build a team of Jewish Americans (not necessarily halachically Jewish at that); only one player with Israeli citizenship, U.S.-born Los Angeles Dodgers minor-league pitcher Dean Kremer, took the field.

Still, Associate Editor David R. Cohen and I did our best, within the limits of constraints related to getting the weekly newspaper out, to provide live coverage and quick recaps of Israel’s wins (2-1 over South Korea, 15-7 over Taiwan, 4-2 over the Netherlands and 4-1 over Cuba) and losses (12-2 to the Netherlands and 8-3 to Japan).

We did some of it on Twitter, which was great for interacting with fans around the world, and some on our new website, which has a live-blogging function that we’re just learning to use.

We localized the Team Israel story as much as possible by highlighting four players with past ties to the Braves:

  • Pitcher Jason Marquis, who emerged as the staff ace despite being out of baseball for almost two years.
  • Catcher Ryan Lavarnway, who was the MVP of Israel’s three-game sweep of its first-round pool and was the team’s best position player throughout the tournament.
  • First baseman Nate Freiman, who provided a powerful bat in the middle of the lineup and was part of what likely was the tallest hitter-pitcher matchup in pro baseball history when the 6-foot-8 Freiman drew a walk from 7-foot-1 Dutchman Loek van Mil.
  • Relief pitcher Danny Burawa, who had one good inning against Taiwan in the first round and one nightmarish inning against the Netherlands in the second round.

Unless you’re a diehard Braves fan, you might not remember any of them in Atlanta other than Marquis, who was part of playoff teams from 2000 to 2003 and had 40 of his career 318 starting appearances with the Braves.

Lavarnway played 27 games for Atlanta in 2015 and 38 for the Gwinnett Braves in 2015 and 2016. Burawa was a September call-up in 2015 and appeared in 12 games but was back in the Braves’ minor-league system last year and was released in June. Freiman, signed in December 2015 to a minor-league deal and invited to spring training, was traded to the Nationals before the 2016 season.

So, no, Team Israel wasn’t a local story. It also wasn’t much of an Israel story. Baseball has barely made a dent in Israel, and I have no reason to think any Israelis other than American olim even noticed their national team was playing.

But it was a quintessential story of the Jewish Diaspora in America.

While threats against Jewish community centers and vandalism at Jewish cemeteries were shaking our comfort level in American society and while we were celebrating our unlikely survival as a threatened minority in ancient Persia, a team representative of us — Americans with varying levels of observance but a shared belief in Israel — made the most of a rare chance to compete against major-league stars on a world stage.

None of the players on Team Israel was even under consideration for the U.S. team, which does have Jewish infielders Ian Kinsler and Alex Bregman. Lacking a single active major-leaguer, Team Israel shouldn’t have won a game; it went 4-2.

We took pride in their accomplishments and joy in their life-size Mensch on a Bench because we’ve never seen a team in an open international competition composed of people so much like us. Even if those weren’t our sons or friends on the field, they could have been. And for a couple of weeks of March mania, they were.

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