Los Angeles Dodgers General Manager Ned Colletti presents an encased catchers mask to Dodgers' catcher Brad Ausmus representing his career achievements before the MLB national league baseball game against the Arizona Diamondbacks in Los Angeles, October 3, 2010. (REUTERS/Danny Moloshok)
JERUSALEM, ISRAEL - Israel’s maiden voyage to the global baseball stage will have a very American flavor.
Israel, which has only one playable baseball field and whose sports landscape is dominated by soccer and basketball, is one of 12 new teams competing in the 2013 World Baseball Classic as Major League Baseball continues to expand its global footprint.
In the double-elimination qualifying round that kicks off on Wednesday in Jupiter, Florida, Israel will play South Africa and then the winner of France versus Spain.
The best record of those four teams will move to the first round in March. The championship will be held in San Francisco.
“I feel very good about our chances,” Brad Ausmus, a former MLB All-Star catcher and the manager for the Israeli team, told Reuters in a telephone interview.
“I feel good about the team we have.”
Just three players on the Israeli team are Israeli-born and raised. The 25 others are Jewish Americans playing in the minor leagues, mostly in Double-A, although Josh Satin has played a handful of games for the New York Mets the past two seasons.
As long as one parent is Jewish and are eligible for Israeli citizenship, they are allowed to play for Israel.
“I hope that in 20, 30 years from now, teams will be represented by players born and raised in their countries,” said Jewish-born Ausmus, who retired in 2010 after an 18-year MLB career spent with MLB with the San Diego Padres, Detroit Tigers, Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers.
Joining Ausmus, whose mother is Jewish, in steering the Israeli team are former major leaguers Shawn Green and Gabe Kapler, who will serve as player/coaches.
Should Israel win its pool, its roster could be beefed up by some of MLB’s top Jewish players, such as Kevin Youkilis, Ryan Braun, Ian Kinsler and Ike Davis.
Israeli media have reported that Youkilis has already committed to the team, although Ausmus said he has not been notified of the decision.
However, Ausmus said every professional player with Jewish heritage has been contacted about playing for Israel. “Nobody told us no,” he said. “The majority of the responses were: ’It sounds interesting.’”
Ausmus himself said he was not initially sure whether he wanted to be involved with the Israeli team but decided it would be fun and not too much of a time commitment that would keep him away from his family.
He also rejected the notion that managing the Israeli squad was a stepping stone to becoming a MLB skipper.
The qualifying round had been slated for November, which would have made it more intriguing since more big leaguers could have played. But Ausmus believes moving it up to September was a smart move.
“It’s the middle of the offseason for most major leaguers and they don’t want to touch a baseball until after New Year’s,” he said. “Here we have minor leaguers fresh off their seasons and their arms and legs are in shape.”
Although he likes his chances in advancing out of the qualifying round, nothing is a given. “It just takes one good pitcher or one good hitter to have a good game,” Ausmus said. “I am not looking past any team.”
Other countries competing in the qualifying round include: Canada, Germany, Great Britain, the Czech Republic, Brazil, Columbia, Nicaragua, Panama, New Zealand, the Philippines, Thailand and Taipei.
In a bid to raise the profile of baseball, Israel started the Israel Baseball League in 2007 but it folded after one season due to a lack of interest and financing.
Much of the baseball played in Israel, mainly on make-shift fields, is by kids whose parents moved from the United States.
Exposure to U.S. baseball is also limited since most MLB games are aired by ESPN and Fox Sports in the middle of the night Israel-time, but the Israel sports channel occasionally broadcasts weekend day games that air at night.
When asked whether baseball could become popular in Israel, Ausmus said: “Maybe in 25 years it will be. It certainly takes time and you need a long vision.
”You need to teach kids and if you develop a love for the game, you hope it grows exponentially with each generation ... I don’t know if basketball was that popular 40 years ago.“