Israel soars at World Baseball Classic, and a nation shrugs

JERUSALEM (AP) Israel is the big surprise of the World Baseball Classic, upsetting three teams, generating buzz and offering a mascot like no other – ”The Mensch on the Bench.”

Back home, no one seems to notice.

Baseball has long been overlooked in Israel, seen as an arcane and boring game. This team consists almost entirely of American pros of Jewish descent. It has been derided as a group of mercenaries with little connection to the country.

Israel entered this showcase tournament ranked 41st in the world, the lowest ranked and last team to qualify. In quick succession, however, the Israelis beat third-ranked South Korea 2-1 in extra innings in the opening game before topping fourth-ranked Taiwan 15-7 and ninth-ranked the Netherlands 4-2 to finish first in Pool A with a 3-0 record.

Next up in the second round is Cuba on Sunday in Tokyo, with a chance to advance to the semifinals.

For the small Israeli baseball community this has been nothing short of astounding, creating a wave of pride in their disparaged sport. The country has only one baseball-specific field and only about 1,000 active players who are well accustomed to fielding incredulous questions from native-born Israelis about their funny gear and the difference between a home run and a strikeout.

Israel’s WBC games haven’t been broadcast on the national sports channel and have been mentioned only briefly in the media. Most Israelis likely aren’t even aware they have a national team or understand it is competing against the world’s best in the sport’s most prestigious global event.

That includes the country’s sport minister. Asked in a radio interview whether she was planning to travel to South Korea, Miri Regev had no idea what was happening there. When pressed, she said she knew a baseball team existed but not much more.

”I may be the sports minister but I don’t pretend to know every player and every team in detail,”…