Retooled Israel Makes Stirring Run In World Baseball Classic

What they will remember is the ride.

They come together for baseball, like they have done for so many different teams in their careers, but this time was different. That was evident with the giant “mench on a bench” doll that became the team’s mascot, and the “Jew Crew” t-shirts that provided light moments to lessen the tension of playing in the World Baseball Classic.

Even the ‘Megillah” reading in the dugout before batting practice to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Purim—it was all new. So was having Team Israel—with a roster full of Americans of Jewish heritage—in the WBC.

And not only did Israel make the Classic’s main 16-team draw, after winning a September 2016 qualifier. The “Jew Crew” won Pool A in Seoul, taking down host South Korea and going undefeated in the three games before stunning Cuba to open Pool E. Losses to the Netherlands (12-2) and host Japan (8-3) ended Israel’s run in the second round.

But the hope is that thanks to the exploits of the likes of Sam Fuld, Ryan Lavarnway, Jason Marquis and Josh Zeid—and the added development funds that the team earned for the Israel Baseball Association—the sport can grow back home.

“I’ve been part of this since the 2012 qualifier,” said righthander Josh Zeid, who signed as a minor league free agent with the Cardinals after the WBC ended. “I helped recruit some players for this tournament. They key has to do with the roster makeup. We brought in the 25 guys that we knew wanted to be there.

“These were the guys who were willing to go across the world to play for Israel. All our players and coaches were under the same mindset, and when you have that with everyone on the same mindset, that’s when you start putting together a team, not just a group of guys who come together for two or three days. We had a group of guys who wanted to do what’s right.”

It worked. Israel tried qualifying for the Classic once before, falling in the 2012 WBC qualifier in Jupiter, Fla. That team was managed by Brad Ausmus, his first experience running a club before he became the Tigers’ manager. For this WBC, Team Israel went grass roots, with Jerry Weinstein taking the helm.

Nominally the Double-A manager for the Rockies system, Weinstein is a baseball lifer, the former head coach at Sacramento City JC, a veteran of USA Baseball’s amateur coaching staffs and a former field coordinator with the Dodgers, as well as the author of a book on catching instruction. Israel assembled an all-star roster to build, manage and coach the team with Weinstein, including ex-big league pitcher Andrew Lorraine as pitching coach and veteran coach and manager Tom Gamboa.

Team Israel’s front office included Astros pro scout Alex Jacobs, Dodgers scout Jonah Rosenthal, Orioles advance scout Ben Warthen, former players such as Pat Doyle and Nate Fish and many others, who helped find players who could play and who fit the team’s dynamic. It worked.

In the opener against Korea, Israel hung around despite leaving 14 runners on base and got an RBI infield single in the 10th inning by shortstop Scott Burcham (Rockies), backed by three scoreless innings by Jason Marquis on the front end and Zeid on the back end. Then Israel stunned Taiwan, with Lavarnway and Nate Freiman homering as part of a 20-hit offensive display in a 15-7 win. Then Zeid got Didi Gregorius of the Netherlands to roll into a 4-6-3 double play, helping preserve a 4-2 victory that finished the Pool A sweep.

“Besides being American Jews that were playing for Team Israel, we wanted to win,” Zeid said. “We wanted the world to not know we were not so much a joke, but a group of good baseball players. “I think in Korea, their fan base took us for granted, but not the Korean team. I think that helped us. If we’d been in that Japan environment from the start, with 43,000 people, we might have been more overwhelmed.”

Israel wasn’t overwhelmed until after its first Pool E game, a stunning 4-1 win against Cuba, with Marquis pitching into the sixth and relievers Zach Thornton, Brad Goldberg and Zeid finishing it off. Zeid got out of a bases-loaded jam in the eighth and pitched 10 scoreless innings overall in the tournament. The team’s modest pitching depth was exposed by the Netherlands in a return match in the second round, as the Dutch banged 15 hits in a 12-2 victory, with Gregorius homering and driving in five. Then host Japan ended Israel’s run with an 8-3 victory in the pool finale, ending Israel’s Cinderella run.

“We are disappointed we lost and will not be moving on to the next round,” Weinsein said after the Japan loss. “But we lost to a couple of really good teams. “The reason we lost was not for lack of effort.”

— Contributing: Wayne Graczyk

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