Base­ball’s David up­sets the sport’s Go­liaths

The Jewish Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - BY MICHAEL CARL­SON

TAKE AWAY David’s rocks and sling. Give him a ball cov­ered in horse-hide with two seams and 108 dou­ble stitches. Move the ac­tion from the Val­ley of Elah to the Tokyo Dome. And re­place Go­liath’s javelin with a base­ball bat. What you have now is this year’s World Base­ball Clas­sic.

Two teams from Tokyo’s sec­on­dround of the tour­na­ment ad­vanced to the knock-out semi-fi­nals in Los An­ge­les next week. The con­tenders in­cluded the usual sus­pects: Ja­pan, Cuba, the Nether­lands. And Is­rael. Is­rael?

Base­ball’s Davids swept their firstround matches in Seoul, de­feat­ing South Korea, Chi­nese Taipei and the Dutch. They moved to Tokyo and beat the Cubans be­fore los­ing a re­match to the Nether­lands, set­ting up a do-or­die con­test Wednes­day with the Ja­panese hosts. Is­rael lost that match, but the ques­tion on the lips of the base­ball world, where Is­rael is ranked a lowly 41st, re­mained: “Who are these guys?”

Well, be­fore we get too ex­cited, they are not ac­tu­ally Is­raelis. Only one of the squad was born in Is­rael. The WBC was cre­ated by Amer­ica’s Ma­jor League Base­ball, aim­ing to bring the world’s best pro­fes­sion­als to­gether on one stage.

Play­ers can play for any coun­try in which they would be el­i­gi­ble for cit­i­zen­ship; thus “right of re­turn” opens up the Is­raeli team to Jewish Amer­i­cans. Which does not mean stars— apart from pitcher Ja­son Mar­quis, at 38 a vet­eran of 15 ma­jor league sea­sons. Man­ager Jerry We­in­stein, a coach for the Colorado Rock­ies, has deftly max­imised his use of Mr Mar­quis; pitch­ers are held to strict lim­its on pitches thrown and days worked, both to pre­vent a sin­gle thrower dom­i­nat­ing and to pro­tect valu­able arms for their pro­fes­sional sea­sons. As Mr Mar­quis goes, so goes Is­rael.

Most of Is­rael’s other play­ers are au­di­tion­ing. They come from the mi­nor leagues, like foot­ball’s lower di­vi­sions.

Take re­lief pitcher Josh Zeid, who nor­mally closes out a game after Mr Mar­quis or an­other starter gives the team a lead. Mr Zeid played last year for the New Bri­tain Bees in an in­de­pen­dent league, the equiv­a­lent of foot­ball’s semi-pro Con­fer­ence. But his fast­ball has been hit­ting 95 mph at the WBC, and he is hop­ing some­one will no­tice.

With Mr Mar­quis un­avail­able to start the cru­cial match with Ja­pan, Mr Zeid moved into the starter’s role, and hurled four in­nings with­out al­low­ing a run. After his de­par­ture, the walls caved in, to mix Bib­li­cal metaphors, and Is­rael lost 8-3.

Is­rael’s hit­ting was sup­plied by for­mer New York Met Is­sac “Ike” Davis and catcher Ryan Lavarn­way, a Yale-ed­u­cated vet­eran of nu­mer­ous big league clubs who was named Most Valu­able Player of the first round pool matches. Then there was 6ft 8in Nate Freiman. When he bat­ted against the 7ft 1in Dutch pitcher Loek Van Mill, we wit­nessed the first Go­liath ver­sus Go­liath con­test in base­ball his­tory.

Base­ball is not big in Is­rael — un­like bas­ket­ball, an­other Amer­i­can im­port, which is ar­guably the coun­try’s favourite sport. A highly-pub­li­cised pro­fes­sional league started in 2007 but lasted only one sea­son. The am­a­teur game is grow­ing, but still a long way be­hind even Europe’s best, Italy and Hol­land.

But Jewish play­ers have made a big im­pact on Amer­i­can base­ball. Slug­ger Hank Greenberg and pitcher Sandy Ko­ufax are in the Hall of Fame (along with short­stop Lou Boudreau, who through his Jewish mother would have been el­i­gi­ble for the World Base­ball Clas­sic). Al “Flip” Rosen, “The He­brew Ham­mer”, ought to be there too, as a player, man­ager and ex­ec­u­tive.

Jewish play­ers have also been among base­ball’s most mem­o­rable char­ac­ters. Mose Solomon signed a big con­tract with the 1920s New York Gi­ants, who hoped he would be­come be the Jewish Babe Ruth, one of their star play­ers. Mr Ruth was called “The Sul­tan of Swat”; Mr Solomon was nick­named the “Rabbi of Swat”. How­ever, his ca­reer in New York lasted just two games.

Catcher Moe Berg stayed in the ma­jor league for years. Ed­u­cated at Prince­ton, Mr Berg spoke seven lan­guages “but can’t hit in any of them” ac­cord­ing to a con­tem­po­rary. He could, how­ever, spy for his gov­ern­ment, first on a base­ball tour of Tokyo in 1937, and later dur­ing the Sec­ond World War.

Although base­ball, like cricket, high­lights the duel be­tween pitcher and hit­ter, some­times team spirit can pro­vide an X-fac­tor.

Is­rael adopted Neal Hoff­man’s chil­dren’s Chanukah book about Moshe, the “Men­sch on the Bench”, as a mas­cot. A life-size Moshe flew with them from Seoul to Tokyo, and sat in their dugout, a lit­eral men­sch on their bench. Though Is­rael’s Davids could not book Moshe a ticket to LA, they proved he was not the only men­sch in the dugout.

BASE­BALL IS­RAEL have been elim­i­nated from the World Base­ball Clas­sic after los­ing 8-3 to Ja­pan in the fi­nal quar­ter-fi­nal match in Tokyo.

The com­pe­ti­tion out­siders fin­ished third in the quar­ter-fi­nal group, ahead of Cuba, but be­hind Ja­pan and the Nether­lands who ad­vance to next week’s semi-fi­nals in Los An­ge­les.

True to form, Team Is­rael were plucky and im­pres­sive against the world’s top-ranked team in the Tokyo Dome. Tight pitch­ing by both sides saw the game dead­locked for nearly two hours, with Is­raeli pitcher Josh Zeid, ex­cel­lent through­out the tour­na­ment, keep­ing the Ja­panese big hit­ters at bay.

The sixth in­nings was the un­do­ing of Is­rael as sub­sti­tute pitcher Dy­lan Ax­el­rod was hit all over the park as the Ja­panese raced to a 5-0 lead.

More runs in the eighth and ninth in­nings gave the home team an unas­sail­able 8-0 lead.

But Is­rael ended the tour­na­ment with a flour­ish with star bats­men Ryan Lavarn­way, Zach Boren­stein and Ty Kelly scor­ing con­so­la­tion runs.

Is­rael were be go­ing home — or rather back to the US as all the play­ers are US Jews and only three have Is­raeli cit­i­zen­ship. But after a se­ries of four fairy­tale vic­to­ries over teams ranked in the world’s top 10 — Korea, Taipei, the Nether­lands (in the fi­nal 16 group stage) and Cuba in the first of three matches in the round robin last eight group, Is­rael ranked 41 could take much pride from its first ever World Base­ball Clas­sic ap­pear­ance.

PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES (S)

Is­rael cel­e­brates beat­ing Cuba on Sun­day

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