March 8, 2017, Updated March 9, 2017

Team Israel, Israel’s national baseball team, arrived at the World Baseball Classic in South Korea as the underdogs. But the ballplayers in blue-and-white uniforms came out swinging with a message that they deserve to be playing with the world’s best.

Team Israel, ranked 41st going into the tournament, stunned the sports world with wins over South Korea (No. 3 in the world) and Taiwan (No. 4 in the world).

“It’s a perfect start,” Israel Association of Baseball President Peter Kurz tells ISRAEL21c over a Skype call from Seoul today, March 8. “I feel incredible pride seeing Team Israel in their blue-and-white uniforms, with ‘Israel’ written across their chests and Israeli flags fluttering on the flagpole.

“To see my team, my guys on the same field as the world’s best, makes me extremely proud.”

While Kurz and other Israel Association of Baseball (IAB) backers had high hopes for Team Israel, odds put them as the underdog. But within 24 hours, Team Israel proved it could best the best.

“Nothing gives Israel more pride than being on the map in the most beloved sport in America,” Gil Hoffman, Jerusalem Post political correspondent and avid Cubs fan from Chicago, tells ISRAEL21c. The first two wins, he says, filled him with “pride as both an American and an Israeli.”

International and local media jumped on Team Israel’s story. A Google search of “Team Israel” in the news section, as of March 8, produced over seven million results.

“To have the international exposure is incredible,” Kurz tells ISRAEL21c as other reporters clamored to speak with him. “The New York Times followed us around for three days . . . Sports Illustrated, ESPN, ABC News, all the American media. It’s incredible.”

Team Israel has been referred to as David vs. Goliath and baseball’s Cinderella story. ESPN even equated them with the Jamaican bobsled team.

“The Jamaica bobsled team didn’t know how to bobsled. Certainly our guys know how to play baseball. So that’s the most ridiculous reference,” Kurz says, laughing. “The guys have major league experience; nobody is a major leaguer today but 11 guys have the major league experience. There’s one guy who is an all-star, two guys who were in the World Series.”

Kurz says that in the 2-1 game against hosts South Korea, “the guys didn’t buckle. They kept knocking on the door. They held off the other team. During the qualifiers, we knew we were good and going out with confidence is so much part of the game. As Yogi Berra says, ‘Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical.’ The mental state of this team is amazing.”

Baseball in Hebrew

For Kurz, a native New Yorker, the homerun of media interest was reaching the Israeli media.

“To see coverage from all the Hebrew broadcasters and written press is the most incredible thing,” Kurz says. “They don’t know there’s baseball in Israel. This is the most important thing about this whole tournament: to get the exposure in Israel.”

Team Israel report in Yediot Aharonot newspaper. Photo by Viva Sarah Press

The IAB currently has some 1,000 players and runs baseball camps to teach children how to work together while having fun. Kurz believes the latest exposure will double interest.

“Five years ago, we were in the qualifiers and we had a 25% increase in participation in our leagues. This time, if we don’t go up to 1,500 players or 2,000 players in a year or two years from now, I’ll be surprised.”

Kurz has been volunteering to develop the game of baseball in Israel for more than 15 years, serving eight years as IAB Secretary General, managing eight Israeli national teams overseas, and working as a coach and manager.

In June 2015, Israel senior national team player Dean Kremer became the first Israeli to ever be selected in the Major League Baseball draft.

Kurz hopes many more will follow that dream.

A Jewish team

The team’s mascot, Mensch on the Bench, is also attracting mega attention. The stuffed doll is the Jewish answer to the popular Christmas toy and story “Elf on the Shelf.”

“He’s a mascot, he’s a friend, he’s a teammate, he’s a borderline deity to our team… He brings a lot to the table,” Team Israel player Cody Decker told a news conference.

Decker and all but three of Team Israel’s 28 players are not Israeli.

According to WBC rules, anyone eligible to hold citizenship in a country can play for its national team. There are other teams with players who do not hold passports for the country for which they’re playing.

“For instance, Mike Piazza played for Team Italy because his grandparents were Italian,” said Kurz, who also is vice president of the European Baseball Federation.

“In the minor leagues and independent leagues there are a couple of hundred Jewish ballplayers from which we put together a team to compete very nicely with the top 20 teams in the world,” said Kurz.

For Team Israel’s fans, it doesn’t matter who is on the team as long as they’re playing with pride.

“The players love playing for Israel,” says Kurz. “A lot of them want to come and visit after the tournament or after they retire.”

But first, Team Israel will face Team Netherlands as it advances in the World Baseball Classic.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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