The Chosen Nine: A Look at Team Israel's Improbable WBC Run
If you’re a part of the crowd who chooses to look past the World Baseball Classic every fourth March, you’re not alone.
It’s a fledgling tournament during spring training, that many big stars choose to skip rather than represent their nation’s colors.
Noah Syndergaard of the Mets recently voiced his view on the competition by saying, “No one made the Hall of Fame playing in the WBC.” He’s not wrong.
This year, though, there’s becoming a big reason to watch, especially for those of you who really appreciate a good underdog story: Team Israel.
Team Israel is a slight misnomer, to begin with. The team is mostly comprised of American players with Jewish roots, such as parents or grandparents who are Jewish.
The rules for qualification to represent a country in WBC is that you must be eligible to be a citizen of the country in order to play for them.
Anyone who is Jewish, or has a Jewish parent or grandparent are eligible the moment they touch down in Israel. That means that any baseball player who is Jewish or has Jewish roots can play for team Israel.
There are a handful of players in the MLB who could play for Team Israel, such as Joc Pederson, Alex Bregman, Ian Kinsler, Ryan Braun, and Kevin Pillar. None of them are on the roster.
This led to the team as we know it. A motley crew of mostly minor leaguers, with a few names that have had cups of coffee in the bigs, and a couple who have seen extended time in the majors, with Ike Davis and Jason Marquis headlining the group.
They came in ranked 41st in the world rankings (next team up in the WBC was Venezuela at 19th), and Vegas has them at 200-1 long shots of winning the tourney. But that hasn’t discouraged these guys. They’ve had quite the journey just to make it here.
5 years ago, Israel lost a heartbreaker in the final qualifying game to Spain in extra innings, keeping them from the 2013 WBC. Since then, they’ve gotten back together, and in September of 2016, they outlasted Brazil, Pakistan, and Great Britain in a tournament in Brooklyn, winning all 3 games and qualifying for their spot in the tournament.
As mentioned before, the team is mostly made up of Jewish Americans, many of whom have never seen Israel before. So they got together with MLB writer Jonathan Mayo and a film crew, and went on a trip to Israel, to get to know the country and people they are representing.
Wearing his hat featuring the Star of David on it, infielder and developing cult leader Cody Decker mentioned in a press conference during the trip how the team was blown away by the support they’ve had over their journey, and that they know they’re playing for a higher cause.
Fast forward to this week in Seoul, South Korea, and they are standing along the first base line, donning yarmulkes during the Israeli national anthem.
There’s a large stuffed toy sitting in the dugout, the now famous Mensch on a Bench (Decker calls it the team’s Jobu, leaving offerings in his locker of Manischewitz and gefilte fish).
Most of their supporters are either asleep or waking up at an ungodly hour to watch their Chosen Nine take the field against the host nation for their group, South Korea.
4 hours later, in the top of the 10th, Scott Burcham drove in the eventually winning run, and Josh Zeid closed the door on the Koreans, shocking the baseball world.
Just 12 hours later, the team was back on the field against another strong team, Chinese Taipei, and jumped all over them for four runs in the first, and never looking back, coasting to a 15-7 winning tally.
Highlights included home runs by Ryan Lavarnway and Nate Freiman (both with MLB experience), and a squeeze bunt by Scott Burcham that inexplicably scored 3 runs after the Taiwanese pitcher Chen-Hua Lin fielded the ball and threw it to a vacant first base. It seemed like there was some divine intervention aiding the team.
I was lucky enough to have personally attended two of the three games in Brooklyn last September. The atmosphere behind the team was electric. The fans were hanging on every single pitch, and some didn’t even sit down for most of the games. They were rooting for more than just a team paid to be there. They were rooting on a team that chose to represent a nation and a people.
In baseball, there is no higher cause than that.
The biblical Children of Israel experienced many miracles in their journey back to the promised land. Now, the baseball team of Israel is perhaps writing their own miracle tale. It’s up to you to tune in.