Top Jewish ex-baseball players join Israel WBC bid

Three Jewish former major leaguers have joined Israel’s bid for

the 2013 World Baseball Classic, a move that could transform the

baseball backwater into a legitimate contender.

Shawn Green, Brad Ausmus and Gabe Kapler met this week in Los

Angeles with Israeli baseball officials and committed to helping

Israel field a competitive team in next year’s WBC qualifying

round, the three players told The Associated Press.

While it remains unclear if the recently retired players will

take the field themselves, their involvement provides an immediate

boost to Israeli baseball, which remains a niche sport in a country

where soccer and basketball reign supreme.

The 39-year-old Green, a two-time MLB All-Star, did not rule out

playing, saying he would help the team ”in any capacity.”

”If I felt like that was a role that the team needed, I would

prepare for it … I’m pretty confident that it wouldn’t be too

huge a mountain to climb to get back and play,” he said. ”I feel

a strong connection to Israel and it would be an honor to put on

the uniform.”

In Israel, a small, devoted group of American ex-pats make up

the majority of the local leagues and the country has had moderate

success in international youth competitions. A professional league

was launched in 2007 but was dominated by foreign players and

lasted just one season.

But thanks to WBC tournament rules that allow countries to field

players who are eligible for citizenship – even if they are not

actual citizens – Israel can tap into the formidable pool of

Jewish-American baseball talent that includes 13 major

leaguers.

Ausmus said that, if Israel gets through next year’s qualifying

round, it ”could be a contender” in 2013. He said he would try to

reach out to Jewish major leaguers.

”My gut says they would consider playing,” he said.

”Today, the idea of bridging the gap between the generations of

American/Jewish baseball fans and baseball fans in Israel is an

enticing prospect,” Ausmus said in an email. ”Hopefully, this is

the beginning of renewed and long interest in baseball in

Israel.”

The current crop of Jewish major league talent includes stars

such as Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers, Kevin Youkilis of the

Boston Red Sox and Ian Kinsler of the Texas Rangers. An Israeli

”Dream Team” could also feature Ike Davis, Jason Marquis, Sam

Fuld, Danny Valencia and Scott Feldman.

”I think there will be a big interest. There are going to be a

good number of guys who want to participate,” said Kapler. ”I

think it makes sense to dream about it and imagine what could be if

the stars align.”

Israel is among 16 countries invited to play in next year’s

qualifying round, with the top four teams advancing to the WBC. The

2013 tournament will be the third World Baseball Classic. Japan won

the first two competitions, in 2006 and 2009.

Peter Kurz, the secretary-general of the Israel Association of

Baseball, said Israel would likely have to make it past the

qualifiers before any professionals would consider suiting up for

the team. He said the qualifying team would recruit recently

retired Jewish major leaguers as well as players in the minor

leagues and top U.S. colleges.

The star power of Green, Ausmus and Kapler makes the team ”much

more attractive,” Kurz said. He said one of the three is expected

to become the team manager, and all are going to contribute in

coaching, recruiting and fund raising.

”Our main goal is developing baseball in Israel by putting

together a team that can compete,” Kurz said.

Israeli baseball officials are hoping the trio will help draw

quality players to upcoming team tryouts, as well as donations for

a $3 million baseball complex being built in Raanana, in central

Israel, which will become the country’s central baseball hub.

According to the association, some 2,000 youths and adults play

baseball in Israel and it says the sport has enjoyed growth in

recent years since the experiment with the professional league. But

adding the former major league standouts takes the sport to a whole

new level in the Holy Land.

Green was perhaps the greatest Jewish baseball player since

Sandy Koufax, hitting 328 homers in a 15-year career with the

Toronto Blue Jays, Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Mets and Arizona

Diamondbacks. Ausmus played 18 years in the big leagues, including

in the 1999 All-Star Game, and was a three-time Gold Glove winner

at catcher for the Houston Astros. Kapler had a productive 13-year

career and won a World Series title with the Boston Red Sox in

2004.

Kapler, known during his playing days as ”The Hebrew Hammer,”

is very open about his pride in being a Jewish role model. He has a

Star of David tattoo on his left calf – with the inscription

”Strong Willed, Strong Minded” in Hebrew – and the post-Holocaust

motto ”Never Again” with a flame and the dates of the Holocaust

tattooed on his right calf.

He said he is eagerly anticipating his first visit to

Israel.

”It is a great thing when you can introduce a new sport to a

place that doesn’t have it in its blood yet,” he said.