Are the Jews a nation? Can they hit a curveball breaking low and away? Major League Baseball (MLB) says yes to both. And Commissioner Bud Selig will prove it by allowing a team comprised solely of Jewish ballplayers to compete in the 2013 World Baseball Classic (WBC).
The plan is to recruit Jewish minor leaguers, college players, and recently retired and current major leaguers, to join a few token Israelis in order to enter the tournament as the Israeli national team. This is, of course, a bizarre circumvention of the rules of international sports competition. The stated goal of Major League Baseball, which produces the WBC, is to promote the sport in Israel, where it has had little popularity despite the glove dreams of various groups of American immigrants and a few quixotic Jewish-American promoters.
The Israelis already have recruited former major league star, Brad Ausmus, to coach the team. Shawn Green, arguably the most accomplished Jewish player since Sandy Koufax, is ready to suit up. Although he has retired from active competition, at 39 years-old, Green is still fit enough to pack the wallop of a Merkava tank at this level of competition. Another recently retired major league Jew who has expressed interest in joining the "Israeli" team is Gabe "The Hebrew Hammer" Kapler.
The Israeli Association of Baseball (IAB) website lists the names of eight Jewish baseball "stars" among the current crop of major leaguers. (That webpage is no longer available, also see jewsinbaseballnews.com) All have been contacted by the IAB, which is the organization charged with putting together the Israeli national team. At this stage, there have been no public commitments from any of these players in regard to playing on the "Israeli" team. However, Met first baseman, Ike Davis helped raise money (Hebrew) at an IAB event and has said he wants to play for Israel one day. Two players that could be forced to choose between playing for Israel and for the USA are Ryan Braun and Ian Kinsler. Braun, last year's National League Most Valuable Player, has already stated that he is considering this "difficult choice." Talk about having dual loyalties! If Braun picks the Jewish State over his home state, this act would become as legendary among Jewish-Americans as Sandy Koufax refusing to pitch in the World Series on the holy day of Yom Kippur.
Israel will have to win a qualifying round against France, South Africa and Spain to play against the top teams. As opposed to the two previous Classics, both won by Japan, the Americans are now sending a major league all-star team. That fact will immeasurably increase the visibility of this international baseball competition. If the Jews win the qualifier, the hope is that they will face the USA team, which will mean big publicity, interest and promote baseball b'aretz (in Israel). Unfortunately for the "Israelis," the qualifier was moved from November to September 2012. This means that the Jews will be without any big leaguers until the March 2013 championship round.
Baseball in Israel has been a passion for a small group of mostly Jewish-American immigrants. Israel had a professional league that played and flopped miserably in 2007. The commissioner of that league was the ex-American ambassador to Israel, Daniel Kurtzer. In an email response to me, Kurtzer, who now teaches at Princeton, wrote, "I hope there's a future for professional baseball in Israel. To restart it will require substantial funding and a multi-year commitment." Despite its past dismal failure, the IAB is currently raising 3 million dollars to build a new stadium which they hope will help invigorate interest in the sport.
There is precedent for the Jewish-American run on the Baseball Classic. In 2006, the rules were bent to permit Mike Piazza to play for the Italian team. Then in 2009, the Italian team consisted of 13 Italian-American major leagues players whose eligibility did not appear to conform to the Classic's own rules. When I asked Kurtzer about Jewish-American eligibility for the Israeli team, he pointed to the "qualification for citizenship" clause in the rules of eligibility and the fact that all Jews are eligible for Israeli citizenship. However, the limitations on eligibility appear to be more clearly defined in the WBC rules by the three initial bullet- pointed criteria, which require citizenship or birth of the player or one parent in the country he seeks to represent. Still, I imagine the "Israelis" will refer to this clause in their hasbara explaining why their team is kosher.
Although the idea of a group of American Jews representing Israel is contrary to all rules and logic, it will be pointed out that the Italians did it. Also, it will be claimed that athletes have long been exploiting tenuous connections to foreign countries in order to represent those countries in international competitions. But this is a whole team! And Jewish is a religious designation, not a national one.
The idea of fielding an all- Jewish team appears to be less about promoting Israeli baseball and more about a misplaced effort at displaying Jewish pride and pro-Israel support by a small group of rich and powerful people. According to the LA Times, seven of 30 major league teams have Jewish owners. The current baseball commissioner, Bud Selig, who is a former owner, is Jewish. Ironically, the LA Timesarticle opines that these Jewish owners are reluctant to have their own Jewishness in the public eye. If this is the case, they may not have thought out the bad publicity that may be the result of this outrageous "all Jewish-American team" wearing the Israeli blue and white.