Jewish-American pros look to boost baseball in Israel

Published 9:06 am Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Israel has just one baseball-specific field, and most Israelis know little about the game. Yet the country has emerged as a potential spoiler in the upcoming World Baseball Classic thanks to quirky regulations that allow it to pack its squad with American pro players of Jewish descent.

Major leaguers Ike Davis, Sam Fuld and Ryan Lavarnway were among 10 team members who visited Israel for the first time this month to get a glimpse of the country and people they will represent — and to boost a sport that remains on the fringes of the local athletic scene.

It’s a match that benefits both sides. For Israel, the option of tapping into a deep pool of Jewish big leaguers offers a rare opportunity to compete internationally against powerhouses like the U.S., Japan and the Dominican Republic and lift baseball out of its longtime obscurity in the Holy Land. For the players, it’s a chance to play in the high-profile tournament and connect with roots many didn’t even realize they had.

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“It was just really weird because it’s not something that I really ever associated much with,” said New York Mets infielder Ty Kelly, whose mother is Jewish. “I hope that I am not taking it too lightly. It’s definitely an honor, and I definitely appreciate the fact that it is a possibility.”

Tournament rules allow countries to field players who are eligible for citizenship — even if they are not actual citizens. Israel grants automatic citizenship to anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent.

It’s hardly the only country to tap into foreign talent under the so-called heritage clause. Italy, South Africa and the Netherlands all managed to field U.S. major leaguers in the 2006, 2009 and 2013 tournaments through similar citizenship rules. Italy’s roster, for example, has previously included Hall of Famer Mike Piazza and Chicago Cubs All-Star Anthony Rizzo. The Boston Red Sox’s All-Star shortstop Xander Bogaerts, born in the Dutch Caribbean island of Aruba, is planning to play for the Netherlands in this year’s tournament.

The Israeli team has relied almost exclusively on players with the loosest of links to their supposed homeland to advance to the showcase tournament, where they are the lowest ranked team (#41 in the world) and the last of the 16 to qualify.