Keith Strudler: The Mensch Without A Medal

Mar 15, 2017

All dreams eventually come to an end. And such was the case this morning for Team Israel, or more specifically the national team from Israel that competed in the World Baseball Classic, the self-ordained World Championships of baseball. The Classic was founded in 2006, and perhaps took on slightly greater prominence once the sport was removed from the Olympics after 2008, making this event the most visible international championship among baseball playing nations – of which there are surprisingly few, at least compared to truly global sports like soccer or track and field.

It would be a good bet that the United States would win the gold in a tournament like this. A good bet, but a losing one, since the US hasn’t won a single medal in any of the three prior events. Their highest finish was fourth in 2009. Meanwhile, Japan won twice, and the Dominican won most recently. Both are in contention this year, nearing the semifinals of the 16 nation event.

One team that was in contention until earlier this morning was the baseball powerhouse of Israel. The land of milk and honey and curve balls went 3-0 in their four team, first round pool. This landed them in the second round, where they’d need to be in the top two of four to advance to the semifinals – and literally one win from a medal. Sadly, with today’s loss to Japan, they won’t make that final trip to Los Angeles.

That said, a whole lot of them will make the trip to the US, although maybe not LA. That because, as some of you may know, the rules of the tournament say that to be on Team Israel you need not be an Israeli citizen, but rather simply eligible for Israeli citizenship. And by Israel’s “Law of Return,” that includes anyone with a Jewish parent, grandparent or spouse. It’s literally one step from letting anyone that’s ever gone to Katz’s Deli compete.

Needless to say, this changed the calculus for the Israelis, and I use that term loosely, as the team only has one Israeli born player. Most are from the US, and 20 play for a Major League affiliated minor league team. A few have actually played in the big show, and most all aspire to. So it’s not an all-star team, but it’s not JCC rec league either. The team does have an all-star mascot, called “The Mensch on the Bench,” fully donned in a tallis and headgear. This despite the fact that I’m guessing half the team wouldn’t know a Seder Plate from a Frisbee.

Now the world’s most successful Jewish American baseball players – including those in the majors – are either playing for the US or not at all. So it’s entirely reasonable to assume that most of these Jewish Americans joined team Israel simply for the chance to play – not for some inherent love of country, the myth upon which all international sporting festivals are built. This isn’t a new phenomenon. For example, the 2004 Greek Olympic Team was filled with American athletes with Greek lineage who somehow found a Greek passport before the Athens Olympics – when Greece was given entry into the entire battery of sports. But those deals were made on family origin – like a Greek grandparent. Baseball’s Team Israel is built on religion, as loose as those ties seem to be. It’s all part of the complicated relationship between Judaism and Israel, a relationship that’s increasingly strained by American assimilation and the tense politics of the Middle East.

This Israeli team, as such, raises two questions – one practical, the other emotive. Logistically speaking, is it fair to allow anyone who’s ever watched a Woody Allen film to play for Team Israel? For lack of seeming imprecise, I say why not. The World Baseball Classic determines the greatest baseball nation on the planet about as well as battle of the bands establishes musical genius. Too many players skip, it’s not a huge priority for others – the list goes on. So the most important things this event can do is spread the game globally and make for interesting matchups. Team Israel helps on both fronts.

Secondly, and perhaps more challenging, is whether we should construct sports teams based on religion. Let’s say, for example, that we also had a Muslim team, or a Christian team. How might these squads be received across the globe? International games like the Olympics have long served as wars without guns, even if globalism has, at least until recently, diminished that concept. A holy war, on the other hand – even a sports one – feels a little too real.

Now I don’t think that’s the intent of the World Baseball Classic or Israel, who honestly are probably just looking for any loophole to field a competitive team for the first time ever. That was the dream, not something more demonstrative or symbolic. But as of this morning, that dream, like all dreams, finally came to an end.

Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

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