In nearly every World Cup, there is usually one qualifying round group known affectionately as the “grupo de la muerte” or “Group of Death.” This group is the one with the toughest, most evenly-matched competition wherein at least one very good team is going to be knocked at the first stage of the tournament.
For the World Baseball Classic (“WBC”), we have the “Pool of Death.” (“Piscina de la muerte?”) Actually, that sounds more like a tawdry, exploitative horror film than a hyper-macho showdown between rival sports superpowers.
However it is termed, Pool D of the WBC is stocked with three of the five most highly rated teams in the WBC power rankings, to wit: the Dominican Republic (#1), Venezuela (#4), and Puerto Rico (#5). Since only two teams from the pool can advance to the quarterfinals, at least one of these powerhouses is going have to pack up and leave host city Miami earlier than planed. As for the other two teams in the pool–Israel (#13) and Nicaragua (#17), they will need stellar starting pitching and some timely hitting if they hope to make it through to the next round.
The Dominican Republic holds a unique place in modern Jewish history. At the infamous Evian Conference of July 1938, the western world addressed question of Jewish refugees attempting to flee Nazi Germany. The participating nations all proved their rank hypocrisy on the Jewish question when none of them agreed to accept more than a token number of Jews seeking safe haven from the impending Shoah. None of them–except for the Dominican Republic. The Dominican Republic offered to accept up to 100,000 refugees on generous terms, including offers of land and livestock. The authoritarian leader of the country, Rafael Trujillo even donated 26,000 acres of his properties for Jewish settlements. Unfortunately, few Jews were able to escape Europe to take advantage of the Dominican offer. The rumor is that Trujillo perceived Jews as smart and financially resourceful. Perhaps he hoped that Jewish men would take Dominican wives and produce a race of bespectacled, but highly talented middle infielders. In any event, the Dominican Republic gets the ZGWBC’s seal of approval.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about Venezuela, or should we call it the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Once friendly to Israel and home to a large, vibrant Jewish community, the rise of Hugo Chavez and his Castro-inspired dictatorship changed all of that. Once Chavez seized power, at least two-thirds of the Jewish community fled the country and bilateral relations with Israel have taken a nose dive. Since 2009, there have been no diplomatic relations between the two countries. Hopefully, Team Israel will be able to pull an upset against the loaded Venezuelan squad. That game is scheduled for high noon on March 15. The Ides of March has been a propitious day to knock off strongmen. So let it be here with Venezuela.
Puerto Rico is part of the United States, but fields separate athletic teams in international competition. For the record, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, and the Northern Marianas also field their own sports teams. The ZGWBC is not exactly sure what the origin of this situation is. Frankly, most American do not know or care that its dependencies compete separately. The only time Americans do seem to care about such matters is when a team from Puerto Rico beats the US is a sport like basketball or baseball. Historically, Puerto Rico has acquitted itself well in the WBC, and they will be highly motivated to beat the US should they meet up in the later rounds of the tournament. The ZGWBC considers Puerto Rico part of the USA and will cheer for them accordingly.
Nicaragua can be considered Cuba-lite or Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela-lite. Under current authoritarian leader Daniel Ortega, Nicaragua has conducted a typical leftist foreign policy with regards to the Middle East and Israel. As such, it has been highly critical of Israel, and the manager of the Israel Baseball Team can expect a barrage of impertinent questions from the Nicaraguan press corps. Israel opens its WBC campaign against Nicaragua on Sunday, March 12. It is the only game that Israel is currently favored to win. Here’s to hoping the Israel squad takes care of business.
After the Nicaragua game, Israel will face a veritable murderers’ row of Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, and Venezuela over March 13, March 14, and March 15. Lead by Dean Kremer of the Orioles, Team Israel will likely require unexpected heroics up and down the batting order and from the other starting pitchers and don’t forget the bull pen. Team Israel, though, has an advantage in this regard vis-a-vis their more highly-regarded opponents. Team Israel is plucky, and they have team spirit. The WBC may not mean as much for some of the powerhouse teams, those loaded with multi-millionaire major leaguers. That has never been the case for Team Israel, with its career minor leaguers and journeymen. The WBC is everything for them, and they have historically played as if every inning matters, every at bat matters, every pitch matters. Because they do. Let’s go, Team Israel. Give your fans something to cheer about; they could certainly use it now.