How Israel made major progress at World Baseball Classic qualifying

Team Israel first baseman Ike Davis, who's played for the Mets, Pirates, A's and Yankees, signs autographs before a World Baseball Classic qualifying game. Steven Ryan for ESPN

NEW YORK -- It has been said that baseball is religion, and this belief might be especially true after what occurred at MCU Park in Brooklyn this past weekend.

Team Israel clinched its first berth in the World Baseball Classic by sweeping three games at a qualifying tournament, beating out Great Britain, Brazil and Pakistan to earn the last spot in the 16-team tournament for 2017.

Of the 28 players on Israel's roster, 21 are currently affiliated with major league organizations, eight have MLB experience, and all are Jewish by heritage, if not also by faith. Former MLB pitcher Jason Marquis, who qualifies for Team Israel based on his ancestry, described his motivation to join even though he's a native New Yorker.

"I was excited that they gave me an opportunity to get on the mound and compete and pitch for my heritage and tradition -- something that played a vital role in my upbringing and shaped who I am today," said Marquis, who grew up on Staten Island, just a few miles from MCU Park, and at 38 is the oldest player on the roster. "I still have the itch. I still love it. I still love competing."

Marquis will get at least one more chance to compete when Israel enters round-robin pool play March 7-10 against South Korea, Chinese Taipei and the Netherlands at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul. Veteran reliever Craig Breslow and first baseman Ike Davis almost certainly will be asked to return from the qualifier roster, alongside lesser-known players with MLB experience, such as third baseman Cody Decker, catcher Ryan Lavarnway and pitcher Josh Zeid.

Current major leaguers with Jewish heritage, such as Detroit Tigers second baseman Ian Kinsler, Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Joc Pederson, Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun and Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Kevin Pillar also will likely be invited to join the Israeli team in Korea.

We know what you're thinking. Why is a de facto Jewish-American all-star team representing Israel?

WBC eligibility rules are more flexible than those which govern most federated international competitions, including the Olympics. By WBC rules, a player is essentially allowed to compete for a nation if he fulfills the criteria whereby he would be eligible to become a citizen of that country. Israel isn't the only country that benefits from this rule, but its religious status makes for a unique situation among WBC teams. The nation's Law of Return allows anyone with a Jewish parent, grandparent or spouse to become a citizen.

MLB established this policy with the idea of growing the game globally. After all, a tournament where a handful of established teams crush inexperienced competition would serve as an insincere invitation to nations where MLB has growth interest.

The heritage exemption greatly expands the talent pool available to the Israeli team, but Israel Association of Baseball president Peter Kurz said he went to great lengths to prove player eligibility to MLB, which operates the WBC in conjunction with the players' union. He presented birth certificates, marriage certificates and, yes, even circumcision certificates to bring players aboard.

Israel, like Great Britain and Brazil, relied heavily on minor leaguers who weren't available until their seasons ended earlier this month. Despite coming together only days before the qualifier at a brief minicamp in upstate New York, Davis said Team Israel had little difficulty connecting right away.

"A lot of us played organized ball together or against each other," said Davis, a seven-year MLB veteran who was released by the Yankees organization in August. "There's definitely some age gaps and experience level differences, but everyone here is a pretty good player. ... It's unique to play in situations like this. Stats don't really matter. If you go 0-for-4 and you win the game, that's all that matters."

Israel made sure to tap 20-year-old Dodgers minor leaguer Dean Kremer, the team's youngest player, to join its bullpen. Kremer was born in Stockton, California, to Israeli parents and holds dual citizenship. He was the first Israeli citizen to be selected in the MLB draft. He was picked in the 38th round in 2015 by the Padres but didn't sign. Instead, he played a season at UNLV and joined the Dodgers organization after they took him in the 14th round this year.

Previously, Kremer competed for the Israeli national team in European championship qualifying in 2014 and '15. In addition to advancing to the WBC with Team Israel, he won the Class A Midwest League championship earlier this month with the Great Lakes Loons.

"I've been dreaming about playing for this team since I first saw them in 2012 and heard about the WBC and representing Israel," Kremer said. "Being able to play with them is definitely a dream come true."

Jerry Weinstein, a longtime coach who has been with the Colorado Rockies organization since 2007, is manager of Team Israel. He has visited the nation twice in a baseball capacity and said he was pleased with how seriously his players took the qualifying competition despite teaming up only recently.

"They're approaching this just like a playoff game or a World Series -- just the intent with the way they work and the professionalism," Weinstein said before the tournament. "They're not half-stepping. They're doing it the right way."

The results proved Weinstein correct. Israel opened with a 5-2 win over Great Britain, followed by a 1-0 victory against Brazil, and then defeated Britain a second time, 9-1. Decker and Lavarnway each homered and drove in three runs during the tournament. Marquis struck out six and allowed one earned run in seven innings. Zeid struck out nine and allowed one earned run in 6 2/3 innings.

Kurz is the architect of the operation. He's a native New Yorker who became a Mets fan after the team's improbable run to the 1969 World Series title, but he has lived in Israel for the past 28 years. Kurz became involved in baseball in Israel in the late 1990s, when he was asked to help coach his son's team in Tel Aviv. He hesitated, having never played the sport seriously, but he was convinced to step in because he knew the rules of the game.

A month later, he took over as the team's head coach, and not long after that he was taking an Israeli youth team to an international competition in the Netherlands. A coach who joined him on that trip was Shlomo Lipetz, who happens to be the only Israeli-born member on the WBC qualifier roster, and one of the players was Alon Leichman, now a coach for Team Israel.

Kurz later served as the secretary-general for the IAB and as general manager of Israel's 2012 WBC qualifier team. He became IAB president three years ago.

"You rise very quickly in the organization," Kurz said with a grin.

Meantime, the ultimate goal of Team Israel is to increase participation, improve the level of play, and create a bigger footprint for baseball in a nation where soccer and basketball are far more popular. Kurz said baseball participation increased by more than 30 percent the year after the 2012 WBC qualifier, and he expects the current team's success to provide even larger growth.

"The heightened awareness that this win brings, and just this whole competition, the whole concept of the WBC, can only help baseball in Israel," Weinstein said. "[I'm] hoping there's more heightened awareness relative to people that are going to provide resources for the program, which is a very fledgling program. We need fields. We need more participants. We need more coaches over there."

The conversations have already begun regarding the addition of major leaguers to the 2017 roster. There is an existing relationship with Pederson, who played for Team Israel in 2012. Kurz said he will ask Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, who managed Team Israel in 2012, to speak with Kinsler. Kurz will also tap current Jerry Narron, an Israeli coach, to contact Braun, whom Narron knows from previously serving as Brewers bench coach. Pillar has already expressed interest through mutual friends.

Davis is currently a free agent, and his baseball future is up in the air. He's intrigued by the possibility of representing Israel again in March but is unable to commit until he knows where he will sign -- and how that organization will feel about him traveling to Asia for a week or two during spring training.

"I don't know what next year will bring or where I'm going to be," Davis said. "But I think it would be pretty cool."

With all that in mind, Kurz vows that Team Israel won't be satisfied by just making an appearance in Korea. A rare opportunity is there for the taking, with the top two teams in that pool advancing to the second round, March 12-15 at the Tokyo Dome. The semifinals and championship game will be held at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles on March 20 and 22.

"Our goal is to come in first or second place in our division," Kurz said. "And you can print that."