By Steven Rosenberg
“America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: It’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and that could be again. Oh … people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.”
This famous quote from Terence Mann (played by James Earl Jones) in the movie, Field of Dreams really sums up the game of baseball. However, in Israel that isn’t the case.
I just returned from a week in Israel leading the Ira Saligman z”l Men’s Mission with the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. In addition to seeing this great country and meeting wonderful people along the way, I was excited to see the impact of Israel’s participation in the World Baseball Classic might be having on this proud nation. I was hoping to see what I saw in 2006 when I was in Italy and the Italians won the World Cup — the country was in a frenzy, the likes of which I haven’t seen since.
On the day of our arrival, we had a group dinner and I invited my friend, Haim Katz, to join us and give some remarks. Katz is the immediate past president of the Israel Association of Baseball and one of the most avid supporters of making baseball relevant in Israel. The current president, Peter Kurz, is travelling with the team in Korea as it participates in the WBC.
Haim told us of the goals of the IAB and how proud many Israelis are of this team’s participation. Israel is known for soccer and for great basketball. Tal Brody and Omri Caspi are household basketball names, but few can name any Israeli baseball players.
Haim got our group excited to follow team Israel over the course of the next few days of our trip.
There wasn’t much optimism as the first game was against a good South Korea team in its home stadium. The Israelis won 2-1 in an epic extra-inning game. That win was followed with two more victories — 15-7 over Taiwan and 4-2 over the Netherlands, giving Israel the top spot in Pool A and a game against a powerful Cuban team. The Israeli team shocked the world by beating the Cubans 4 -1.
What was fascinating was to talk to Israelis about baseball during our journey across the country. Few people knew the games were taking place and, sadly, many didn’t seem to care. The pride in Team Israel was not anywhere close to what I’d hoped or imagined.
I was hearing a lot from Jewish friends at home who were excited — by the team’s success and by its mascot — the Mensch on the Bench.
Perhaps more excitement would have been generated had the announcers talked about a “two-field solution,” or if Israel would have faced a combined team of Egypt-Syria-Lebanon-Jordan-Iran as they do each and every day of its existence. Can you imagine the result of that game? After Israel won, the combined team would have complained about the playing field being unfair and demanded that Team Israel give back all of the runs it scored.
Who knows, but hopefully the continued success of the team will ignite the excitement of the World Baseball Classic onto the Israeli people.
The Israel Association of Baseball is a wonderful grassroots organization looking to build additional fields and grow the great sport of baseball in Israel. It seeks to leverage the success of Team Israel in the WBC and to raise much needed money to develop homegrown talent like Shlomo Lipetz, the lone Israeli on the team, and less on former Major League Baseball players.
Israel is a winner — from start-up nation to a strong military. There is no silver medal for Israel in anything it does, and there are certainly no participation trophies. There is no reason to think the team won’t win the gold medal in the WBC, carry the momentum home and build a great success in baseball as they have in so many other industries.
I know there are 20 Americans from the Ira Saligman Men’s Mission who are rooting for Team Israel, and I hope every one of you will find this story as compelling as so many of us do.
Steven Rosenberg is the chief marketing officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and the publisher’s representative of the Jewish Publishing Group, which publishes the Jewish Exponent.