Team Israel 2017 – Davids versus Goliaths (Part 2)
In early 2017, nobody had a good word to say about Israeli baseball. It was a sport that was unpopular at home. Many of the Israeli professional teams played on sub-standard diamonds lacking proper pitching mounds and dugouts, there was no money for anything else. Game attendance was almost incidental. But as bad as it was at home, it was even worse on the world stage. Israel was a team that was almost beneath notice internationally, and when it was noticed it was usually as the butt of a joke.
But all of that would soon change thanks to a group of oddballs, has-beens, and all around menschs.
Going into the 2017 season, Israel was ranked 41st in the world, near the bottom of the rankings. When your team is rated that low, even competing in the qualifiers becomes a kind of story. Their entry in the WBC drew comparisons to Jamaican bobsled teams and other famous longshots. Calling them an underdog would be a compliment, they were more or less invisible, expected to politely wash out during the qualifying rounds and leave a nice vacant spot for one of the more "deserving” teams. That didn’t happen.
In a double-elimination tournament (carefully planned to allow Team Israel to avoid the Shabbat), Israel went up against both Brazil and Great Britain. Neither team was considered particularly strong, but both were expected to far outgun the Israelis. Such was the lack of interest that the games were barely even broadcast in Israel, with the few interested spectators having to tune into satellite feeds of Korean and Spanish coverage to even see them!
Despite the expectations though, Israel powered through. A first game 5-2 win against Great Britan saw Marquis throwing just under 50 pitches to keep the Brits contained. Decker batted in teammate Nate Freiman for a solo game winning run against Brazil, 1-0.
These two successes raised some eyebrows. No way Israel could qualify to be in the WBC, could they? Surely Britain would rally after perhaps being overconfident in their first game and dash those dreams, right? The complete opposite happened. With more eyes on them than ever before, Team Israel rose to the occasion and delivered a devastating 9-1 drubbing on the Brits that sent them home.
This is when the world, and Israel started to notice what was happening and when Newberger’s film covering the team, Heading Home, takes off. Going into the tournament proper (as the 200-1 longshot), nobody was sure how long the magic would last. But as the games went on, hope started to spread, and more people began to tune in.
For the team, it was a very special moment in their lives. Some of these players, like Marquis, were very in touch with their Jewish roots and aware of what it meant to be representing the team at this level. Others found a reconnection with their identity, not having played with so many other people from the same background since they were children. Both the positive and the negative was reveling to the team, with national pride surging for these sudden heroes, so too did anti-Israel sentiment, shocking some of the American players who didn’t realize how virulent those attitudes still are in some areas.
It was an awakening. The team, suddenly a hot topic in Israel, made a point of touring the nation and spending time with their new fans, learning about the history and unique role Israel plays in the world. Shlomo Lipetz, one of the native Israeli players on the team, understood "It’s so special for all the players. They feel this kind of connection being Jewish, this connection of playing for Israel.”
Documentarian Newberger watched the transformation in the team. "The team that went on the trip to Israel, they bonded in such a way that I don’t think other teams had the ability to do. No other team had cried on each other’s shoulders at a Holocaust museum.”
The experience lit a fire in the roster. Clinching a miraculous win against the powerhouse South Korean team (ranked 3rd in the world at that time) for their first tournament game, and then delivering a 15-run clinic to Chinese Taipei (ranked 4th) the team defied all expectations. When they beat the Netherlands to sweep their first tournament pool, it seemed like anything was possible.
We wish it was. If this story ended with Israel taking home the WBC trophy that would be an incredible tale. Unfortunately, in the end Team Israel was eventually eliminated by Japan’s powerhouse team. Not all Cinderella stories end the way we’d like them to, but to even get as far as they got in 2017 is a tremendous achievement.
While Team Israel’s accomplishment stands as nearly unprecedented in the world of international sports, the real story is in how the team and the country affected each other. Israel’s 2017 run ignited a passion for the game unseen in the nation before, inspiring little league sign ups, and diamond renovations as the country saw it’s first glimmer of just how magical baseball could be. For the players who bonded on this journey and fell in love with Israel, their lives were changed forever. Every player on the team finished their run with a stronger sense of personal identity and a connection to the land of Israel.
Several players have even since made Aliyah, becoming permanent citizens.
With baseball returning to the 2021 Olympic games, no doubt some of these players will have another opportunity to represent Israel. Many wonder, with quiet hope, if lightning can strike twice. There is no way to know for sure, but if Team Israel’s 2017 WBC performance has taught us anything, it’s to never count Israel out!