To many, the Middle East has long been recognized as the world’s pulse and epicenter for historical conflict and present-day empowerment. There have been many battles waged within its lands, from before the crusades to the ongoing wars and strife of today. The desert landscape of Israel and its environs seem to have always been tempered with conflict, if even for little reason.
The two most commonly found religions in the wider world originated within the borders of the Middle East. And if that’s not enough, you can now tack another pin to the Asia Minor piñata: How many Jewish professional baseball players will commit to play for Team Israel in next spring’s World Baseball Classic, were the Israeli team to qualify.
Since former Major League Baseball All-Star Brad Ausmus was named Team Israel manager, numerous Jewish baseball players were rumored to have been contacted regarding their commitment for the Blue & White. However, nobody would say who exactly was contacted, or if anyone expressed significant interest.
“Every player, or his agent, at the major league level has been contacted by someone on the team’s coaching staff,” Ausmus admitted to me a few weeks ago. “I’m not ready to announce which specific players have expressed an interest to play for us, but I will note that everyone we spoke with had been nothing short of positive about the idea.”
Well, one of those cats may now be out of the bag.
On Israel Sports Radio’s sports-talk show, LouisLive, Kevin Youkilis was asked if he would commit to playing for Team Israel, were the Israeli squad able to make it beyond next month’s qualifiers and into the WBC tournament in March.
“I’d be willing to give it a go,” admitted an enthusiastic Youkilis. “If I’m healthy and ready to play, going into Spring Training, then I’ll definitely represent Israel.”
Even so, we must bear in mind that Youkilis’ comments are but a drop in the bucket when the bigger picture is addressed.
“Having the possibility of fielding a future national team that would include a player of Kevin’s caliber is a thrill to everyone,” enthused the smiling Israel Association of Baseball president, Haim Katz. “Overall, however, our main objective in participating in this qualifying tournament is to build the love for baseball in Israel. That Kevin clearly stated he would like to be part of this mission is exciting.”
While batting well below his career numbers of .285 Batting Average, and .873 On-Base plus Slugging Percentage (.241 BA; .770 OPS this season), the Jewish “Greek God of Walks” has morphed into the “Greek God of Injuries” for much of the past three years, making Youkilis’ suiting-up-for-Israel a compelling off-season story to watch as it unfolds.
Although a nice note if Team Israel qualifies – if being the word of the year – not everyone I spoke with today was caught up in the Youkilis yodel.
“It certainly is a wonderful thing to hear that coming from Kevin,” expressed a succinct Ausmus. “But if we don’t qualify, his comments are but a moot point.
“I would love for him, and others, to get the opportunity to represent Israel at the WBC, but we first have to finish Top Four at next month’s qualifiers for him and the rest to have the chance to play for us.”
The White Sox third baseman also hinted in his radio interview that there were other Jewish MLB players who are strongly considering playing for Team Holy Land.
“If the Israeli team does qualify and make it to the WBC in March, there is a group of us guys who are looking to play for them,” allowed Youkilis.
For now though, Ausmus is strictly focusing on the present, not future fantasies.
“I’m not looking at the future prospects now,” said the realistic Ausmus. “I’m sure Kevin’s comments will only help us garner more attention from other players, but my main concern is the here-and-now; the games we need to win in order to qualify.”
WBC rules state that passport-eligible athletes may compete for their respective countries. Thus, non-Israeli citizens of Jewish heritage are eligible to participate on Israel’s behalf in the tournament, due to Israel’s Law of Return.
This stipulation would allow Major Leaguers such as Youkilis, Ryan Braun, Ike Davis, Ian Kinsler, Ryan Kalish, Jason Marquis, and Scott Feldman, among others, to represent the on-field product for Israel and its hopes for international glory.
As the 16-team WBC qualifying round will take place during the end of the MLB season, minor league and retired players will make up Israel’s best qualifying hope. Only the top four teams advance to the WBC tournament in 2013.
Aside from being managed by Ausmus, Team Israel also features retired players Shawn Green and World Series winner Gabe Kapler, who are both serving as player-coaches.
“Just having their names attached to the squad has proven plenty for the minor league players we’re currently fielding,” an even-keeled Ausmus told me today. “Sean and Gabe are proven winners and are very good with their coaching duties, talking and helping the younger players with getting better as each day passes.
“They both assist me in the decision making aspects for various team decisions, ranging from practice locations to personnel decisions, and all other things in between. They both are a huge asset to our goal.”
Although it will certainly be a tall task for the Israelis to finish in the top four come mid-September’s qualifier, it’s nonetheless heartening to know there are options for Team Israel, should it reach the point of accessing them.