They arrived together in Japan as the toasts of the first round of the 2017 World Baseball Classic. Team Israel, a squad not many expected to qualify for this tournament, pulled off three upsets in South Korea to make an improbable run into the second round.
They team took a big step toward going even further than that on Sunday with a 4-1 victory over Cuba in the second-round opener.
The only people surprised were those outside the Israeli clubhouse. Inside, a group of mostly American players bound by the Jewish heritage have formed a tight-knit unit that is playing for each other, for Israel and for the chance to defy even more expectations and reach the championship round.
“I think it’s been pretty easy for us to come together,” said Sam Fuld, an outfielder with eight years of MLB experience, said Saturday. “We’ve all gotten to know each other at various points in the process, as early as 2012 (during qualifying for the 2013 WBC), and a lot of guys got to know each other in Brooklyn in September of last year (during qualifying).
“And yet we still have two new guys (pitchers Brad Goldberg and Jared Radnich, who joined for the second round) who probably don’t know half of us that showed up (Saturday), and yet we’ve welcomed them in. I think it’s easier to welcome them; we share this bond, all being Jewish, that we’re in a bit of a minority when we play in the United States. It’s a fraternity, and I think we’re a close-knit bunch in large part because of that, because we have this common bond. That makes it easier and more enjoyable to play for each other.”
In the first round, Israel beat South Korea 2-1 then topped Taiwan 15-7. Israel then claimed first place in its pool with a 4-2 victory over the Netherlands. That sent the team to Japan with a perfect record, one that remained spotless after Sunday’s win over Cuba.
“I’m not going to say something stupid like we’ve scored more runs than everybody else, but that’s a good reason why we’re 4-0,” manager Jerry Weinstein joked after Sunday’s win. “The fact of the matter is that we’ve pitched extremely well, we’ve had timely hitting and we’ve played great defense.”
The bond the team has formed was strengthened by an unsuccessful qualifying campaign in 2012. In 2016, Israel won a group featuring Brazil, Great Britain and Pakistan to qualify for the WBC for the first time. That’s helped them as they’ve made their run through their first four games.
“We’re not surprised,” pitcher Jason Marquis said after the win over Cuba on Sunday. “I think it’s a great story for people back home who follow the game who are in our shoes of being of Jewish heritage to look up to players like us who may not have otherwise had that opportunity.”
In addition to faith, Team Israel mostly shares a nationality — just not Israeli. Of the 36 players on the final roster — including both active and designated pool players — 35 are American.
Shlomo Lipetz, a 38-year-old pitcher who also serves as a vice president for City Winery in New York City, is the only member of the squad born in Israel. Dean Kremer, a California native, has dual Israeli-American citizenship.
The rules for the WBC state a player only needs to be eligible for citizenship in the nation for which he competes. Because of this, and Israel’s Law of Return, which gives Jewish people the right to gain citizenship, players with Jewish heritage are able to compete for the team.
“Hopefully in 8 to 10 years, an Israeli will be sitting up here and everybody playing will be Israeli,” Weinstein said. “That’s what we’re trying to do, grow the game in Israel. I think that by playing in this and doing well, we’ve heightened people’s awareness.”
The manager said that while the team is somewhat unique in terms of the national makeup, it’s no different than squads competing with homegrown players.
“As far as the character of our team, this is no different than the character of the Japanese team or the Dutch team or the Cuban team,” he said. “I know that there’s a national perspective on players from Japan playing for Japan. It’s a little bit different when they’re American Jewish players playing for Israel. But we are truly playing for Israel.
“On the mentality of the team, our guys come to the ballpark everyday for one another. Just like the Japanese team does, or the Dutch team does, or the Cuban team does. We play for one another. Certainly, we play for Israel as well, just as the Japanese play for Japan.”