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When Israel swatted the goliaths of world baseball out of the park

    TOKYO, JAPAN - MARCH 12: Israel celebrate after winning the World Baseball Classic Pool E Game One between Cuba and Israel at Tokyo Dome on March 12, 2017 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images)
    TOKYO, JAPAN - MARCH 12: Israel celebrate after winning the World Baseball Classic Pool E Game One between Cuba and Israel at Tokyo Dome on March 12, 2017 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

    Take away David’s rocks and sling. Give him a ball covered in horsehide with two seams and 108 double stitches. Move the action from the Valley of Elah to the Tokyo Dome. And replace Goliath’s javelin with a baseball bat. What you have now is this year’s World Baseball Classic.

    Two teams from Tokyo’s second-round of the tournament advanced to the knock-out semi-finals in Los Angeles next week. The contenders included the usual suspects: Japan, Cuba, the Netherlands. And Israel. Israel?

    Baseball’s Davids swept their first-round matches in Seoul, defeating South Korea, Chinese Taipei and the Dutch. They moved to Tokyo and beat the Cubans before losing a rematch to the Netherlands, setting up a do-or-die contest Wednesday with the Japanese hosts. Israel lost that match, but the question on the lips of the baseball world, where Israel is ranked a lowly 41st, remained: “Who are these guys?”

    Well, before we get too excited, they are not actually Israelis. Only one of the squad was born in Israel. The WBC was created by America’s Major League Baseball, aiming to bring the world’s best professionals together on one stage.

    Players can play for any country in which they would be eligible for citizenship; thus “right of return” opens up the Israeli team to Jewish Americans. Which does not mean stars— apart from pitcher Jason Marquis, at 38 a veteran of 15 major league seasons. Manager Jerry Weinstein, a coach for the Colorado Rockies, has deftly maximised his use of Mr Marquis; pitchers are held to strict limits on pitches thrown and days worked, both to prevent a single thrower dominating and to protect valuable arms for their professional seasons. As Mr Marquis goes, so goes Israel.

    Most of Israel’s other players are auditioning. They come from the minor leagues, like football’s lower divisions.

    Take relief pitcher Josh Zeid, who normally closes out a game after Mr Marquis or another starter gives the team a lead. Mr Zeid played last year for the New Britain Bees in an independent league, the equivalent of football’s semi-pro Conference. But his fastball has been hitting 95 mph at the WBC, and he is hoping someone will notice.

    With Mr Marquis unavailable to start the crucial match with Japan, Mr Zeid moved into the starter’s role, and hurled four innings without allowing a run. After his departure, the walls caved in, to mix Biblical metaphors, and Israel lost 8-3.

    Israel’s hitting was supplied by former New York Met Issac “Ike” Davis and catcher Ryan Lavarnway, a Yale-educated veteran of numerous big league clubs who was named Most Valuable Player of the first round pool matches. Then there was 6ft 8in Nate Freiman. When he batted against the 7ft 1in Dutch pitcher Loek Van Mill, we witnessed the first Goliath versus Goliath contest in baseball history.

    Baseball is not big in Israel — unlike basketball, another American import, which is arguably the country’s favourite sport. A highly-publicised professional league started in 2007 but lasted only one season. The amateur game is growing, but still a long way behind even Europe’s best, Italy and Holland.

    But Jewish players have made a big impact on American baseball. Slugger Hank Greenberg and pitcher Sandy Koufax are in the Hall of Fame (along with shortstop Lou Boudreau, who through his Jewish mother would have been eligible for the World Baseball Classic). Al “Flip” Rosen, “The Hebrew Hammer”, ought to be there too, as a player, manager and executive.

    Jewish players have also been among baseball’s most memorable characters. Mose Solomon signed a big contract with the 1920s New York Giants, who hoped he would become the Jewish Babe Ruth, one of their star players. Mr Ruth was called “The Sultan of Swat”; Mr Solomon was nicknamed the “Rabbi of Swat”. However, his career in New York lasted just two games.

    Catcher Moe Berg stayed in the major league for years. Educated at Princeton, Mr Berg spoke seven languages “but can’t hit in any of them” according to a contemporary. He could, however, spy for his government, first on a baseball tour of Tokyo in 1937, and later during the Second World War.

    Although baseball, like cricket, highlights the duel between pitcher and hitter, sometimes team spirit can provide an X-factor.

    Israel adopted Neal Hoffman’s children’s Chanukah book about Moshe, the “Mensch on the Bench”, as a mascot. A life-size Moshe flew with them from Seoul to Tokyo, and sat in their dugout, a literal mensch on their bench. Though Israel’s Davids could not book Moshe a ticket to LA, they proved he was not the only mensch in the dugout.