Players for Israel’s World Baseball Classic team are visiting Israel to spark interest in the sport ahead of the competition in March, the Associated Press reported Wednesday.
The players visited the holy sites in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the Dead Sea, and an air force base, and put on a baseball clinic for local youth.
The goal of the tour was to build a bond between the players and their Jewish heritage, who which qualifies them to play for the Israeli team under the World Baseball Classic’s rules.
“Many of them didn’t have bar mitzvahs,” Peter Kurz, president of the Israel Association of Baseball, told the AP. “But they are getting much more in contact with their heritage playing for Israel and being here.”
Soccer and basketball are the country’s most popular sports, while baseball has yet to generate much support. The Israel Baseball League, which was established in 2007 and consisted exclusively of foreign players, only lasted a single year.
The Israeli team is ranked 41st worldwide. They won a qualifying round in September to secure a spot in the 16-team tourney, which will take place in South Korea. Team member and former Mets first baseman Ike Davis, whose mother is Jewish, expressed hope that having an Israeli team participate will spark greater Israeli interest in the sport.
Davis said the experience made him want to connect more with his family history. “I feel like that’s what basically Israel was born on,” he said. “Jewish people have a home here no matter where they live.”
He also expressed pride in wearing the uniform of team Israel. “It’s representing your past, your heritage, your history. What’s in your blood,” he said.
Mets infielder Ty Kelly added that he was proud to be on the Israeli team, and likened his participation on the team with his call up to the major leagues last year after eight years in the minors. “I hope that I am not taking it too lightly. It’s definitely an honor,” he said. Kelly said that he was inspired by a visit on Friday night to the Western Wall, where worshipers were singing and dancing, exhibiting the sort of energy he usually associated with fans at a sporting event.
“I feel like I should do more. I feel like I need to study as much as I can and stay connected as much as possible,” Kelly said. “I want to have as much depth in this as possible and not just something where I go play baseball for a tournament and it means nothing else.”
[Photo: Margo Sugarman / Israel Association of Baseball ]