Cody Decker of Team Israel holding team mascot the Mensch on a Bench
Cody Decker of Team Israel holding team mascot the Mensch on a Bench after the World Baseball Classic game against the Netherlands in Seoul, South Korea, March 9, 2017. (Photot/Chung Sung-Jun-Getty Images)

Team Israel baseball gear a home run with American Jewish fans

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A couple weeks ago, Adam Atkins didn’t know Israel had a baseball team.

But since the squad started winning games last week in the World Baseball Classic, he has become a fan. Atkins and his friends wanted team caps, but were frustrated to discover they were sold out online.

“The only thing available was a youth size, and I considered if my head was small enough to fit! That’s how bad I want a hat,” Atkins, a 33-year-old renewable energy consultant based in New York, said. Israeli baseball “is definitely in the air.”

Team Israel’s improbable five-game run in the international tournament has many American Jews kvelling, and looking to purchase a piece of their people’s baseball history. The supply of official caps has since been reupped and expanded, and the team’s “Jew Crew” T-shirts worn off the field are a mini-sensation.

“I think the league probably underestimated the number of American Jews who would be interested in merchandise,” Steve Adler, who owns the company that makes the “Jew Crew” shirts, told JTA. “You can’t really blame them. Who could have predicted this?”

all lined up wearing matching blue kippahs
Team Israel players lining up for the national anthem prior to the World Baseball Classic between Netherlands and Israel in Tokyo, March 13, 2017. (Photo/Matt Roberts-Getty Images)

Israel was the lowest-ranked team to qualify for the World Baseball Classic, coming in at 41st. Yet the club, with seven former major league players and 20 minor leaguers, started the tournament last week by beating third-ranked South Korea, fourth-ranked Taiwan and the ninth-ranked Dutch team to win its pool in the first round and become the only team to come out of the qualifying round and go undefeated. In the second round this week, Israel beat fifth-ranked Cuba before losing badly in a rematch with the Netherlands on Monday.

Before each game, the players have removed their caps for Israel’s national anthem, “Hativkah,” to reveal matching kippahs. Both headcoverings feature Israeli flag colors: royal blue embroidered in white with the team’s logo, a stylized Star of David with an “I” in the middle. The kippahs were still sold out online Tuesday.

Another Judaism-related option for fans is a life-size stuffed Mensch on a Bench, who Team Israel has adopted as its mascot. The toy, based on a character from a children’s Hanukkah book, was on sale as of Tuesday.

Major League Baseball’s vice president of business public relations, Matt Bourne, told JTA that the Israel cap has outsold those of all the other teams in the WBC with the exception of the United States.

The “Jew Crew” T-shirts are in demand, too. Adler, the owner of America’s Finest Apparel, said he had sold hundreds since the team started winning last week. There was a big spike after ESPN’s Darren Rovell tweeted an image of Cody Decker, an outfielder and designated hitter for the team and a member of the Milwaukee Brewers, wearing one at a news conference.

“After Rovell’s tweet, we went from selling one or two a day to being back-ordered,” Adler said. “We’ve sold hundreds at this point.”

He said most of the orders have come from the American Northeast, with a few from Canada and one “very persistent” American woman requesting a shirt from Israel. In response to requests, the company has rolled out new styles, including for women and children.

“We didn’t do this to make money, but more as a favor to Cody [Decker] and of course Team Israel,” said Adler, who is friends with some of the players. “The amazing thing is that these guys aren’t even Israeli for the most part. They’re American Jews who are playing for a culture, not just a country. It’s easy to get caught up in the love affair of that.”

Nearly all the Israeli players are American Jews. According to WBC rules, a player may compete for a country if he is eligible for citizenship under its laws. The grandchild of a Jew, and that grandchild’s spouse, have the right to become Israeli citizens.

Many members of Israel’s small baseball community have American backgrounds, too. Otherwise, the sport is little watched or played in the country, which has just three baseball-specific fields and about 1,000 active players. And Team Israel’s success has not changed that.

Although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week tweeted his support for the team, the games have not been broadcast on Israel’s sports channel and have received only passing mention in the Hebrew media. Asked on the radio whether she would be attending the game in South Korea, Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev sounded confused and said, “Obviously, [baseball] is not one of the preferred fields we invest in.”

Adler said he will donate a portion of the proceeds from the “Jew Crew” shirts to a Jewish National Fund project to promote baseball in Israel. He also promised that if Team Israel beat top-ranked Japan on Wednesday and qualified for the WBC semifinals in Los Angeles on March 20-22, he will produce a special shirt for the occasion — and drive supplies up from his company office in Mesa, Arizona, if necessary.

“For people who are watching the team with a lot of pride, it’s gonna be perfect,” he said. “It’s not necessarily something you’d expect to see from a gritty little Jewish baseball team.”

Andrew Tobin
Andrew Tobin

JTA Israel correspondent