In breakthrough, Team Israel to boast current MLBers on World Baseball Classic slate

Fully half of team could be made up of top athletes from professional baseball, a development that could position it to far exceed its record in past international competitions

In this Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020 photo, Danny Valencia throws a ball during Israel's national baseball team practice, in Tel Aviv (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
In this Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020 photo, Danny Valencia throws a ball during Israel's national baseball team practice, in Tel Aviv (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

JTA — For the first time, players currently on Major League Baseball rosters are joining Team Israel in next year’s World Baseball Classic — and there could be a lot of them.

As many as 12 current Major Leaguers could be playing for Israel in the event, set for Miami in March. They include Baltimore Orioles Israeli-born pitcher Dean Kremer, New York Yankees outfielder Harrison Bader and San Francisco Giants outfielder Joc Pederson, who team leaders say is working to get his fellow ballplayers to sign on.

All together, fully half of Israel’s team could be made up of athletes from the upper echelon of professional baseball, a revolutionary development that could position Team Israel to far exceed its record in past international competitions.

“It should be interesting next year, with how loaded the other teams are,” said Bubby Rossman, who committed to the team before making his major league debut with the Philadelphia Phillies in July. “If [manager] Ian Kinsler can get the major leaguers, I feel we can compete with the other teams in our division.”

Rossman’s story is an example of how Team Israel has been built up through baseball’s version of Jewish geography.

A minor league pitcher, Rossman went to train at a Los Angeles-area gym following the 2019 baseball season. There, he met Cody Decker and Ty Kelly, former major leaguers also working out there. They told Rossman of their positive experiences playing for Israel’s team at the World Baseball Classic two years earlier. Rossman progressed to the point that Israel Association of Baseball officials wanted him to join the club that’ll compete in the WBC in March 2023, but he wasn’t promoted to the majors until this summer. In the Phillies’ locker room in Toronto, just before making his big-league debut, Rossman chatted with catcher Garrett Stubbs. He asked Stubbs — who, like Decker, Kelly and Rossman, is Jewish — to consider playing for Team Israel.

Members of Team Israel stand for their national anthem ahead of a baseball game against the Dominican Republic at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021, in Yokohama, Japan. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

“I was testing his feel for what he was thinking,” Rossman recalled this week from his home in Southern California. “It was all positive.”

Thanks to such word of mouth and recruitment led by Kinsler, who played for Israel’s 2021 Olympics team after retiring from a 14-year major-league career, a roster laden with big-league players is taking shape.

A team that’s half current major leaguers would be a striking contrast from Israel’s contingents at the WBCs in 2012 and 2016–17 and at the Tokyo Olympics. There, the teams included several former major leaguers and free agents, along with many minor leaguers and collegiate players — all of them American Jews — and a sprinkling of native Israelis, but no one currently on an MLB roster.

At least two key factors explain the shift.

First, Team Israel’s successes in international competition — it reached seventh place at the 2017 WBC, and was one of just six teams to qualify for the Olympics — made playing for it more desirable.

Second, Israel was placed in a 2023 WBC group that’s scheduled to play its early-round games in Miami, at most a few hours’ drive from many Major League Baseball teams’ spring training sites, easing players’ preseason preparations. The Olympics and previous WBCs took place either during MLB seasons or in Asia — sometimes both — conditions that dissuaded active players from representing Israel.

Israel Olympic baseball player Tal Erel fields a ball at Salt River Fields spring training facility, Wednesday, May 12, 2021, in Scottsdale, Arizona (AP Photo/Matt York)

“Team Israel has shown well,” Kinsler told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “Being in Miami makes [players’] decisions easier. All of those things led to more opportunities for more players. I think we get more accomplished players.”

Based on publicly released information and interviews for this article, 2022 major leaguers likely to populate Israel’s WBC roster include Pederson, who was the first one to sign on, and fellow outfielders Bader and Kevin Pillar of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Jake Bird of the Colorado Rockies, Kremer, Eli Morgan of the Cleveland Guardians and the Los Angeles Angels’ Zack Weiss — all pitchers — are on board.

If Stubbs decides to join Rossman, Team Israel could feature two pairs of MLB teammates, along with Miami Marlins relievers Richard Bleier and Jake Fishman. New York Yankees relief pitcher Scott Effross was Team Israel-bound until a few days ago, when a tear in the ulnar nerve of his pitching arm shelved him for at least a year.

“Terrible for him, and us!” Peter Kurz, Team Israel’s general manager, texted JTA the next day, adding an expletive. Kurz said he’s since invited Effross to Miami for the games to stay connected to Team Israel and provide moral support.

Israel Olympic baseball player Ian Kinsler takes batting practice at Salt River Fields spring training facility, Wednesday, May 12, 2021, in Scottsdale, Arizona (AP Photo/Matt York)

The MLB will permit players to compete in the World Baseball Classic only if they are citizens of the country they represent or eligible to become one. That makes all Jewish players, as well as the children and grandchildren of Jews, eligible to compete for Team Israel. And because Israel also confers citizenship on Jews’ non-Jewish spouses, the team hopes to snag Cincinnati Reds outfielder Mike Moustakas; he is not Jewish, but his wife is. It had sought a second player in that situation, New York Mets pitcher Adam Ottavino, but Ottavino will play for Italy’s team.

Pederson, on his own, is recruiting major leaguers for the team, Kinsler and Kurz said.

“Joc’s making phone calls and sending texts and is doing his best,” Kinsler said. “He wants to play on a competitive team.”

The greatest catches would be two of MLB’s best players: Houston Astros third baseman Alex Bregman and Atlanta Braves pitcher Max Fried. Bregman intends to sit out the WBC, while Fried remains noncommittal, Kurz said. Kinsler indicated that recruiting efforts have paused for the duo and other players on teams still competing in MLB’s playoffs.

About a dozen current major leaguers now seem destined for the roster, which will contain at least 28 players. Three others bound for Team Israel — Kelly, an infielder; catcher Ryan Lavarnway; and pitcher Robert Stock — are ex-major leaguers who still play professionally and are a callup away from returning to the major leagues.

Israel Olympic baseball manager Eric Holtz watches his team practice at Salt River Fields spring training facility, Wednesday, May 12, 2021, in Scottsdale, Arizona (AP Photo/Matt York)

All appear on Kurz’s spreadsheet, which contains the names of 120 players throughout professional and collegiate baseball. The names, he said, arrive from sports fans, players, players’ parents and such specialized sources as the Jewish Baseball News’ website and the recently-closed Jewish Sports Review newsletter. Kurz then vets the players for eligibility by obtaining documents proving that they’re Jewish.

The players’ capabilities will be needed at the WBC because Israel’s Miami grouping includes baseball powerhouses Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. Fishman or Bleier could even find themselves pitching against Dominican Republic native Sandy Alcantara, their Marlins teammate who’s likely to win the Cy Young Award as the National League’s best pitcher.

But Bleier, a native of South Florida, isn’t focused for now on the likely toughness of the competition.

“Playing in Miami is going to be awesome,” he said. “I know my family is thrilled it is so close to home, and they are all looking forward to going to the games.”

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