Team Israel came into the World Baseball Classic as the underdogs, but now with two upset wins under their collective belt, the team with the T-shirts that read “Jew Crew” is proving it can hang.
Israel beat the third- and fourth-ranked teams in the world — South Korea and Chinese Taipei, respectively — putting it at the top of Pool C to qualify for the next round. The team is still slated to face ninth-ranked Netherlands on Wednesday, however, to determine seeding for the upcoming games. Not bad for a team that boasts no current MLB players and sits 41st in the rankings, between Poland and Peru.
It’s hard to pinpoint what suddenly made the team so successful, but fans have an idea about what (or who) may have lit the fire beneath them. Meet Team Israel’s mascot, Mensch on a Bench.
It makes sense, really. The Mensch, which means “good man” in Yiddish, is holding a candle after all.
“He’s a mascot, he’s a friend. He’s a teammate. He’s a borderline deity to our team,” former San Diego Padres player Cody Decker said at a news conference following the team’s win over South Korea on Monday. “He brings a lot to the table.”
The Mensch first joined Team Israel in Brooklyn, where it beat Britain, Brazil and Pakistan to qualify for the World Baseball Classic. ESPN reporter Eddie Matz said of the team ahead of the tournament, “it’s essentially the Mighty Ducks, Hickory High and the Jamaican bobsled team all rolled into one.” In other words, their tournament berth was highly unlikely.
Now, it appears, Team Israel’s momentum is unstoppable — maybe thanks to the Mensch, whom Decker compared to Jobu, the tiny Voodoo doll worshiped by Cuban slugger Pedro Cerrano in the film “Major League.” Instead of an offering of rum, however, Decker said the team poured the Mensch a glass of Manischewitz wine for good karma. The team also offered up gelt (Hannakuh gifts) and gefilte fish, according to ESPN.
Perhaps those hearty helpings led to the upgrade of the size of its Mensch. During the qualifying rounds, the team toted around a smaller, stuffed version of the character created by author Neal Hoffman in a series of children’s books about Hanukkah. In Seoul, where Team Israel is currently cleaning up, the mascot is life-size, although he remains stuffed with polyester fill and not a costumed human like most other sports mascots.
“Both physically and mentally, he’s grown,” said Decker, with a perfectly straight face. “He’s ready for the tournament just like we are.”
Hoffman, meanwhile, the man who created the phenomenon, is ecstatic to see the Mensch on Israel’s baseball bench. He first heard the team adopted Moshe (yes, the Mensch has a name) as their mascot in September.
“I saw a picture and it was awesome,” Hoffman said on Tuesday. “It’s great when this happens organically.”
Hoffman ended up sending out the life-sized Mensch to Decker after that, but it was Decker’s decision to tote Moshe to Seoul.
“I didn’t think he was really going to do it,” Hoffman said, but he’s certainly glad he did and if it can bring the team a bit of luck, then all the better.
“They are a bunch of Mensches now led by a Mensch and if anyone can do it, they can,” Hoffman said. “To have a whole Jewish team is so much fun.”
And as far as the team’s 200-1 odds to go all the way?
“We’ve faced worse,” Hoffman said.