The Israeli national baseball team is several months away from the most significant tournament in its history: the November qualifier in Jupiter, Fla., at which a bid to the 2013 World Baseball Classic will be at stake. And Israel stands an excellent chance of emerging from a four-team field that includes France, South Africa and Spain.
The biggest reason: Team Israel could include a number of established major leaguers.
Israeli baseball officials are in the midst of perhaps the most intriguing roster selection process of any WBC nation. Israeli citizens who played baseball while growing up in the country certainly will account for a substantial portion of the roster. But other players will be Americans who meet the qualifications for Israel’s Law of Return — that is, having at least one Jewish grandparent or being married to someone with at least one Jewish grandparent.
While the roster is in its formative stages, Team Israel is assured of having recognizable faces in the dugout: Former big leaguers Brad Ausmus, Shawn Green and Gabe Kapler have agreed to serve on the field staff, sources told FOXSports.com, and already are assisting in the recruitment of players.
Ausmus will be named field manager of the team at a Wednesday press conference in Tel Aviv. Green and Kapler have expressed interest in serving as player/coaches. Green last appeared in the majors in 2007, Kapler in 2010. Mark Loretta, the two-time All-Star second baseman, and Andrew Lorraine may also serve on the coaching staff.
Ausmus, 43, was one of baseball’s brightest minds and top defensive catchers during an 18-year career that ended with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2010. He’s currently a special assistant to San Diego Padres general manager Josh Byrnes, specializing in player development with a focus on catching.
Baseball observers have said for years that Ausmus could make a great major-league manager. But Ausmus said in a telephone interview with FOXSports.com that he doesn’t view his role with Team Israel as a stepping stone to a managerial career — nor does he plan on returning to a big-league dugout in the near future.
Ausmus said he’s involved with Team Israel for two reasons: He believes he will enjoy the chance to compete again without spending too much time away from his family; and he wants to pay tribute to the role his Jewish heritage had in his baseball career.
Ausmus, who is half Jewish, credits his mother, Lin Ausmus, and grandfather, Jack Dronsick, with instilling his passion for the game. Ausmus was born and raised in Connecticut and has vivid memories of his mother taking him to Fenway Park for Red Sox games.
“My mother and grandfather really were the ones who got me into baseball,” Ausmus said last week. “There’s such a rich tradition of baseball in American city centers like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, where Jewish families have passed on the love of baseball to generation after generation.
“In New York, for example, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say there are literally millions of Yankees fans of Jewish upbringing.”
Israeli baseball officials have coordinated with players and player agents in the U.S., as they work to expand the list of those eligible for the team. American players don’t have to become Israeli citizens in order to qualify; they merely have to prove they are eligible to do so. (Team Italy, which included a number of American-born big leaguers in the last WBC, has similar criteria: One must be able to get a passport, rather than have one in hand.)
Ausmus, who did not play in the ’06 or ’09 WBC, said he would have had a difficult time deciding if he had been approached by both Team USA and Team Israel for those tournaments — as may be the case this time for Jewish stars such as Ryan Braun and Ian Kinsler.
“I imagine this is going to be a tough decision for them,” Ausmus said. “If you’re born in the U.S., it would be an honor to play for your country. We’re certainly going to respect what each player decides.”
Ausmus acknowledged the timing of the tournament may be problematic for some players; it will likely require a two-week commitment in November, when many big leaguers are either resting from a postseason run or beginning their offseason workouts. But the possibility of big leaguers participating is sure to generate excitement for the team, both in Israel and the U.S.
On a larger scale, the expanded WBC should offer a gauge of how much the game has grown globally — not only in Israel, but countries like Brazil, the Czech Republic, Germany, Great Britain, New Zealand and Thailand that also are trying to qualify for the first time.
“We’re going to find out a lot about where the sport is globally,” Ausmus said. “Baseball is in its infancy in a lot of these countries, but I think we should see how far it can go.”