Team Israel will get its first exposure to the World Baseball Classic on Wednesday, but it's already quickly become the early story of the tournament.
The Israeli team, participating in the Classic for the first time Wednesday night at 7 ET against South Africa in the qualifying rounds at Roger Dean Stadium, first garnered attention for getting former Major Leaguers Shawn Green and Gabe Kapler to come out of retirement to play and Brad Ausmus to manage.
They all recognized the tournament as a chance to promote baseball back in Israel, where the games will be broadcast, and the Israel Association of Baseball has been working for years to get more people playing the game in hopes of one day fielding a club comprised solely of young players from Israel.
"We hope that it helps grow the sport in Israel. We hope that 25, 30 years from now, Israel will field a team of native Israelis and only a few American baseball players with Jewish heritage," Ausmus said in a phone interview. "That's the ultimate goal: to not have mostly American-Jewish ballplayers, but to have Israeli native citizens."
Until then, there will continue to be intrigue regarding the fact that only three of the team's 28 players are from Israel, the rest made up of American Minor Leaguers with Jewish backgrounds, and there is further speculation that Jewish Major Leaguers, like Ryan Braun and Kevin Youkilis, could join Team Israel for the main tournament in March.
But, for now, there are games to play. And, as Ausmus said, it won't matter if Israel could get a Braun or a Youkilis to join it in March if it doesn't win in September.
"I don't get too concerned with it. You have to prepare," Ausmus said of all the attention. "We have to prepare these players to get ready with a short period of time to do it, then we'll release them on the field and hope the preparation and their ability takes over. That's really all it is. I don't get concerned about what's being written and said. My focus is with the players."
In addition to potentially leading all the teams in the qualifying rounds in media coverage, Team Israel is mostly considered the favorite to win its qualifier with South Africa, Spain and France. While the team features few native Israelis, it is loaded with Jewish Americans fresh off their Minor League seasons in addition to former big leaguers like Green.
Take, for instance, Robbie Widlansky, an outfielder in the Orioles' system who hit .316 with an .850 OPS. Or Cody Decker, a first baseman for the San Antonio Missions who hit 25 homers in 104 games this season. Or Jack Marder, the catcher who posted a .360 average and 1.008 OPS in the California League with the High Desert Mavericks.
So it's no wonder Jim Stoeckel, the manager of Team France, told MLB.com's Barry Bloom that Team Israel is "going to look like a Major League club." They figure to be the fan favorites, too, as South Florida contains a large Jewish population that could give the team a sort of home-field advantage.
Ausmus, for his part, isn't ready to get carried away with any early prognostications.
"Baseball's a very fickle game. I don't really like to predict anything," Ausmus said. "It's also 28 guys that we threw together from different parts of the country and world."
Furthermore, Team Israel will have spent only about a week together when the first pitch is thrown on Wednesday. A few of the players come from the same organizations, and the three players from Israel obviously have some familiarity with each other.
They've played a few exhibitions against local colleges, but the players are still learning to communicate and understand each other while getting enough repetitions on the field to feel comfortable. If everything comes together as planned, however, there should be little doubt why Team Israel has been the story of the World Baseball Classic qualifying rounds.
"I expect to play hard. Certainly that's all you can ask from your players, that they concentrate and play hard, and the chips will fall where they may," Ausmus said. "But we're playing to win, obviously."