I have been a diehard fan of both baseball and the New York Yankees ever since my father started telling me tales of the greatness of Don Mattingly and Bobby Meacham in the early 1980s.
I admit, as much as I love my father, as I look back I still have no idea what he saw in Bobby Meacham. Nevertheless — I was hooked.
While my beloved Yankees always have provided me with a saturated dose of New York pride, it wasn’t until Israel’s Cinderella run in the World Baseball Classic that our Jewish baseball pride had an outlet.
Frankly, given that Israel was not even expected to qualify for this international tournament (it never had qualified before), given that it had been ranked #41 in the world, and given that even after the team somehow barely survived the qualifying round it was listed at 200 to 1 odds of winning, its chances at the World Baseball Classic, played from March 6 to March 22 this year, did not much supersede spring training in garnering our attention.
What is incredibly disturbing, however, is that just as the world of Jewish baseball fans like me began recognizing that as we were watching Team Israel’s defeats of the Netherlands, South Korea, Taiwan, and Cuba, and we were watching history, anti-Israel rhetoric once again managed to force its way into the picture.
As I continued to sneak glances at my phone, looking for updated reports of games played in different time zones throughout our east coast late at night, the press coverage began to be increasingly critical of Team Israel. The New York Times provided one of the opening salvos, declaring, “For all the team’s surprising success, critics contend that Team Israel is essentially a bunch of American ringers.” That was followed by articles such as that produced by Newsy, which made sure to lead with: “Team Israel took advantage of an unusual WBC rule. To play for a team, you only have to be eligible to be a citizen of that country; you don’t actually have to be a citizen. And since anyone who’s Jewish can be granted Israeli citizenship, any Jewish ballplayer can play for team Israel — no matter where they live.”
As a Yankee fan, I am very well aware of the fact that our star reliever, Dellin Betances, played for the Dominican team although he was born and raised in Washington Heights. I know that Team Netherlands, which starred Yankee shortstop Didi Gregorius until he was injured and had to leave the team, is predominantly made up of players from the former Dutch colonies in the Caribbean.
I am aware of the rules that govern player eligibility for the World Baseball Classic. I am aware of how every team around the globe is formed by taking its own country’s unique advantage of the rules provided. I am, however, also aware that what Team Israel has done in building its roster is no different from what any other team in this global competition did, and it is in no way in violation of the prescribed tournament methodology as currently constructed.
What I do not understand is why most press reports about Israel’s legitimately shocking success in this year’s competition feel the obligation to remind readers repeatedly about what they called the real makeup of Team Israel. Granted, in most articles that I have seen there is the documented caveat that Israel is playing entirely by the rules. Still, some of the coverage, led by the New York Times, seems to insinuate that Team Israel’s success was based on a loophole, rather than on timely hitting and quality pitching.
I grant you that the discussion every three years before the World Baseball Classic is littered with players of many heritages or national relationships struggling to figure out which of their respective families of origin to make proud. I grant you that this incredibly liberal set of qualification regulations may be far from optimal. But if the competition that Israel faces is set by the same standards that ensure a level playing field for all, why the double standard about the Jewish state?
I am incredibly proud of Team Israel. I hope that this beloved game of mine, which has struggled to gain a foothold in the consciousness of the Israeli general public, now will have another chance to succeed in the Holy Land. I do believe that as the World Baseball Classic eligibility rules allow, any Jew should have the right to play under the banner of the Jewish people’s homeland. To those in the world and the media who continue to single Israel out for unfair criticism, I say, either check the runs, hits, and errors of all teams equally, or don’t bother keeping score.
Michael Cohen of Englewood is the eastern regional director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. He represents his city’s second ward on Englewood’s City Council, and he belongs to Congregation Ahavath Torah there.