Ok so let me set the scene for you as I write this: it’s 11:45PM on a Saturday. I’m sitting on my couch in Brooklyn wearing my Team Israel hat, my fridge contains leftover Chinese food from earlier today. I’m throwing the Team Israel v Team Cuba game to my TV via the Chromecast. The location, hat, and fridge content asides are for those of you who doubt my Jewish baseball credentials.
This has been brewing for at least a few days now, probably since Team Israel went 3-0 in Pool A play in Seoul, and I really feel the need to get it down on “paper.” I went to Coney Island to watch the Great Britain v Israel game in September. It was right near my birthday so it was very easy to justify the trip regardless of the outcome, but I knew even before I got on the train that I was going to buy a Team Israel hat. The reasons for that were pretty simple: First of all, Team Israel is one of the only teams not phoning in their designs. In the qualifier pool were Great Britain, Brazil, Pakistan, and Israel. Israel were the only ones whose logo was more than a letter (or two in the case of Great Britain.) I respected the Pakistani team immensely, they were all home-grown talent from a country with no baseball culture to speak of, and that in and of itself made a strong case for a purchase, but at the end of the day I have to defer to the two-toned front design Team Israel went with.
I’m not sure who the favorite was from the qualifier pool, I assume it was between Brazil and Israel just because hey, at least Israel had people you had heard of on the team. Regardless of the favorites, Team Israel won that night and the stands were, while not sellout level, pretty full, almost entirely with Hasidic Jews wearing the same cap as me, breaking out into chants of “Ami Yisrael” when the opportunity struck. Separate from everything else, let me say seeing folks in the standard drab white-and-black uniform of the Brooklyn Hasid wearing their blue-and-white caps and cheering on a baseball game was enough to make the train ride and ticket price worth it.
I didn’t think much of it at the time. The WBC qualifiers were in town and it was a weird fringe baseball thing for me to do just to say I’d done it. But then Team Israel won again, and then again, and they were through to the WBC proper. And then they kept winning, going 3-0 in the Pool A play in South Korea. This run included a total upset of the South Korean team, a defeat of Taiwan, and another upset of the Netherlands team, whose entire infield is made up of legit major leaguers.
It was during this undefeated run through Pool A that I changed my Facebook cover picture to that of the Team Israel squad putting on yarmulkes during the playing of Hatikvah prior to a game against a squad of South Korean Army soldiers. And I think that’s when I realized why I cared so much about how this motley crew of minor leaguers, second-tier major leaguers looking for teams, and general also-rans did in a tournament that is a fringe interest even among baseball fans.
It’s because suddenly there was a photo of a team with Israel on their chest that wasn’t associated with tragedy, or with the lack of a willingness to even recognize the tragedy.
When you think of Israeli athletes, the only image that comes to mind is likely from the 1972 Olympics, and it’s not of an athlete. It’s of a terrorist standing on a balcony wearing a ski mask. If not that, it’s of Jim McKay informing the world that “They’re all gone,” referring to the deaths of the entire Israeli Olympic team.
Suddenly, here was something different. Here was Cody Decker hoisting a Mensch On A Bench over the scrum of Israeli players celebrating on the mound after making it out of the qualification pool.
Here was Josh Zeid pumping his fist after he struck out the last Korean batter with his 64th pitch in the first game of Pool A play.
Here was a team of American Jews (save for one Israeli relief pitcher) taking off their hats and putting on yarmulkes before they went out there and showed up teams they had (according to the rankings) no business beating.
I’m not going to pretend that I go to synagogue every weekend, or even any weekend that isn’t a high holy day. I’m not going to make an argument against how this is “Team American Jews” rather than Team Israel (although I will say it’s funny how nobody says this about Team Italia.) I’m only going to say that given the IOC’s refusal to honor those killed in 1972, and given the marked rise in anti-Semitic incidents even here in the US, it means something real to see Team Israel make this run.
It means something to have a photo of Jews playing sports be the one that comes up when you talk about a “Team Israel.”