Baseball, devotees of the pastime claim, is America’s most Jewish sport. Some even argue today is baseball’s Jewish golden age. But while it’s true that the Jewish presence in Major League Baseball has mushroomed in recent years — whether measured by players (there are about a dozen of them), owners, or managers — the sport has not exactly taken off in Israel.
Or has it?
The leaders of the Israel Association of Baseball would like to think that it has.
On Wednesday, the IAB announced that Brad Ausmus, a former All-Star catcher, is going to coach Israel’s national team in the World Baseball Classic (WBC) tournament in 2013. The qualifiers are in the fall and Ausmus has undertaken the considerable task of recruiting an A-list team of Jewish-American MLB players to help represent Israel — without pay.
Under WBC rules, anyone who is eligible for Israeli citizenship — meaning they have a Jewish grandparent — can play for the Israeli team, even if they do not have actual citizenship.
Ausmus, a three-time Gold Glove Award winner and 1999 All-Star player, said he has already been in touch with most, if not all, of the Jewish major leaguers to find out if they’d be interested in a spot on the Israeli team. “So far, no one has turned me down,” boasted Ausmus, teasingly, at a press conference Wednesday where he formally announced his role as coach of the Israeli team. “In fact, players are starting to contact us.”
Former major leaguers Shawn Green and Gabe Kapler have already committed themselves as players/coaches.
Other heavy-hitter options include the Milwaukee Brewers’ Ryan Braun, Ian Kinsler and Scott Feldman of the Texas Rangers, Sam Fuld of the Tampa Bay Rays, and Kevin Youkilis (yes, the one who just married quarterback Tom Brady’s sister!) of the Boston Red Sox. The other players will likely include a number of former major leaguers, Division One college players, and minor leaguers.
With the possibility of snatching up recently retired pros and eager minor leaguers, Israel’s team, consisting of mainly American-Jewish players plus a few Israelis, might just be headed for a home run.
‘We have a very good chance of being great,’ said Ausmus, a three-time Gold Glove Award winner and 1999 All-Star player
“It’s really the start of something,” explained Ausmus, “and I think we have a really good chance at this. Everyone I’ve talked to has at least expressed interest in the idea,” he added.
The date of the WBC qualifiers has not been confirmed yet. This poses a problem for Israel, as it does for other national teams, because often players won’t commit to a team for the WBC while their pro season is still going on. For example, with baseball playoffs running through late fall, the likes of Kinsler and Feldman would probably be no-goes for the qualifiers since their team, the Rangers, will almost definitely be playing in the post-season.
Although that doesn’t preclude the players from playing for Israel during the WBC, they won’t be able to lend support to the team during the qualifying rounds.
Yet Ausmus sounded confident. “We have a very good chance of being great,” he said.
What’s in it for them?
Coaching the Israeli team at the WBC is a good opportunity for Ausmus — it gives him a hand at forming and managing his own team.
Ausmus is currently a special assistant to the San Diego Padres and has long been considered a natural manager by sports experts. He is also an Ivy Leaguer who studied at Dartmouth University and was voted one of the 10 smartest athletes in America a few years ago.
Another reason Ausmus is drawn to the idea of coaching the Israeli team is his heritage: Ausmus’s maternal grandparents were Jewish.
“It’s actually my mother who got me into baseball,” explained Ausmus. “My mother is the one who signed me up for Little League and always made sure I went to practice… And my grandfather instilled the love of baseball in me. He drove me to Fenway Park, he always kept track of my batting stats… so for me it’s a tradition I associate with my Jewish roots.”
Other players, he claimed, have expressed an interest in connecting to their ancestral homeland as well.
“I don’t think that I’ll even need to sell the idea,” said Ausmus, speaking to the fact that there is an audience of players who are keen to play for Israel, at least if dates and schedules work out. “If I approach them and they don’t seem eager, then I’ll leave it — it means they aren’t excited about it, and that’s not what we’re looking for.”
He said that by being involved with the Padres, he’s still in the loop and takes the chance to speak to players in person if they happen to be playing a game in San Diego. Otherwise, he also speaks to their agents.
Can baseball make it big in Israel?
“We are hoping this [the World Baseball Classic tournament] brings attention to baseball here at home,” said Haim Katz, president of IAB.
Other players, Ausmus claimed, have expressed an interest in connecting to their ancestral homeland
The IAB is banking on Ausmus’s prestige and Israel’s qualifying chance at the WBC to help boost the image of baseball in Israel. Today, more than 1,000 people are involved with the IAB — and the organization is pushing for greater involvement from the American Jewish community.
The Israel Baseball League was a short-lived national league in 2007. “The first Israel Baseball League game drew 30,000 people,” recalled Peter Kurz, secretary-general of the IAB, “but the next one only brought 30 or so people out.” Now, the IAB is looking for something more stable and broadly visible in Israeli society. It is most eager for coaches and practice space, which is why it is fundraising for a $3 million stadium in the affluent, Anglo-heavy Ra’anana.
The prospect of American-Jewish major leaguers playing under the Israeli flag arouses a sense of pride mixed with nostalgia for some Israelis with American roots. “I’ve wondered if this was going to happen a few years ago, so it’s kind of exciting to hear that it’s in the works,” said Jay Radzinski, a Tel Aviv resident originally from Detroit.
Yet, the question is: Will baseball really become a beloved Israeli sport or will it forever be considered a pastime of former Americans and foreigners?
Ira Noveck, a Tel Aviv resident originally from New York by way of France, said that his son plays baseball through the IAB and said that a lot of the kids are neither Americans nor children of American parents.
“They just like the game… I think that’s why they play,” said Noveck.
Noveck’s son, Isaac, 10, said that most of his friends don’t really know anything about baseball but that more and more of them are starting to like it. “They are curious about it because I play it a lot, and I love it,” he said.
“These kids here are starting [to play] at a really early age… and that’s smart,” Noveck added. “The IAB is really well organized and I’m always impressed how many kids come out,” he added.
If Ausmus is right, and baseball is a game that is passed down from generation to generation, like traditions, then Israel may very well be on its way up.