On September 19th at 7:00 PM a baseball team representing Israel will play South Africa in the first game of a qualifying round of the World Baseball Classic. What makes this noteworthy is that baseball is virtually unknown in Israel. The country has only one playable field and the idea of Israelis being competitive at this level is as unimaginable as a pork chop at a Passover meal.
Yet the “Israelis” are actually favored to win this qualifier round which in addition to South Africa includes teams from Spain and France. How is this possible? Major league baseball, which produces the Classic, has declared players who claim one Jewish parent or one Jewish grandparent (depending on your source) to be eligible to compete for the Israeli national team.
How and why did this bizarre eligibility standard come into being? According to the Bleacher Report, seven of 30 major league teams have Jewish owners. The current baseball commissioner, Bud Selig, who is a former owner, is Jewish. Ostensibly these rulers of the sport are allowing Americans to play for Israel in the hope of promoting baseball in the Holy Land, which has been a recent project of a handful of Jewish-Americans who have immigrated to Israel.
More likely, it is a pro-Israel public relations gambit. Many supporters of Israel believe that any sports or entertainment-related publicity Israel can garner helps divert public attention from that nation’s military aggression and abuses of Palestinian human and political rights. Also, the conflation of world Jewry and Israeli nationality is thought by many to bolster the standing of the Israeli government and help shield it against criticism.
This means the “Israelis” will field a team of American minor leaguers, two recently retired big leaguers, Shawn Green and Gabe Kapler, along with three token Israeli citizens. This team should win the qualifier and advance to the championship which will be played in March 2013. That will be the off-season for Major League Baseball, so if the “Israelis” advance to the main tournament they could fortify their team with such big league stars as Ryan Braun, Ian Kinsler, Kevin Youkilis and Ike Davis. All these players have been approached and have reportedly expressed interest in playing for Israel.
If the Israelis win the qualifier it will be the realization of the dream of some American-Israeli baseball promoters. They envision the Israelis facing an American All-StarTeam in the March tournament as generating immense interest in the sport in Israel.
As Bill Shaikin of the LA Times says, “If baseball is to capture the Israeli imagination, it might be now or never. If Israel wins that one game — the championship game of that qualifying tournament — then the national sporting conversation might turn to the tantalizing prospect of Derek Jeter batting against the Jewish homeland.”
One Jew’s dream could, however, be another’s nightmare, since what would be in effect a contest between American Jews and non-Jews could prove to be socially divisive and, at the very least, be perceived to be in extraordinarily bad taste.
Tickets for the Israel vs. South Africa contest can be purchase through Ticketmaster for the unbelievably low price of $13.80 including fees. For those unable to attend, the game will be broadcast on Israel Sports Radio starting at 6:45 PM. There is also the possibility that the live video of the game could be transmitted by one of the many illegal free sports Internet sites.
Ira Glunts is a retired college librarian and writer. He lives in Madison, NY with his wife, the historian Linda G. Ford. Mr. Glunts lived in Israel for a couple of years in the 70s and never saw baseball being played there.