When Cody Decker, third base for Team Israel at the World Baseball Classic qualifier being played in Brooklyn, and formerly of the San Diego Padres, ceremoniously placed the iconic “Mensch on a Bench” on the bench of the Team Israel dugout, it went viral on Jewish baseball social media, and beyond.
The comic genius of Decker was evident in his astute explanation of the deeper meaning behind this little stuffed rebbe sitting on a miniature bench, wrapped in a tallit. “It’s not just a mascot, it’s a mensch on a bench,” he expounded. “It explains itself — he’s a mensch and he’s on a bench. And you take that and you put it on our bench and it’s almost like Inception (the movie) — it’s a dream within a dream within a dream — a mensch on a bench on a bench, and it’s magical.” And so it has been a magical talisman in this superstition-filled sport.
But as the mensch sits on the Team Israel bench for the games at Coney Island’s MCU Park, just a stone’s throw from the boardwalk, he is surrounded by other mensches — the members of Team Israel. They smashed their way efficiently into the final game of the qualifier with the skill and determination that has characterized the Jewish spirit for centuries. This time on a baseball diamond and on a world stage.
And here’s the heartwarming thing: “Menschlichkeit” oozes out of every player on the 28-man roster. These are accomplished professional sportsmen whose fans place them high on pedestals as they beg for autographs, selfies and game balls. Yet when it comes to playing for Team Israel, they are humbled and honored, setting aside their ongoing or growing celebrity in the big world of baseball.
“We want to win for Israel, we want to win for those young players watching at 2am in Ra’anana, Jerusalem and Modiin,” says catcher Nick Rickles, formerly of the Oakland Athletics, and who played in 2012 for Team Israel that just fell short of winning that qualifier. They are all looking to rectify the situation, and it’s weighed heavily on them for the past four years. “We want to get redemption this time for all the players in Israel,” says pitcher Josh Zeid, the former Houston Astro right-handed pitcher, who was on the mound in 2012 when Israel narrowly missed the win in the 10th inning of the game against Spain.
“We are all just honored to have Israel across our chests and we’re doing the best we can. We’re all just extremely proud of it,” said Corey Baker, Cardinals right-handed pitcher and the starting pitcher for Game 2 against Brazil, which Israel won 1-0 to book a spot in the finals.
“When I joined the team the first time around (in 2012),” recalls Decker, “I didn’t expect it to be what it became — an instant family. It really ate away at a lot of us that we didn’t come away with that victory. This has been exactly the same type of atmosphere, if not even better.”
They’re excited about Israel, they’re excited about wearing Israel baseball kippot for the pre-game singing of Hatikvah, they’re excited about Israel baseball and they’re the biggest mensches in the sport.
Move over Mensch on a Bench — Team Israel has earned the title 28 times over.
Margo Sugarman is the Secretary General of the Israel Association of Baseball, a baseball mom, coach, umpire and fan, and professionally, a business communications consultant.