Decker, Team Israel dream of shaping country's baseball destiny

Minor Leaguer eyes opportunity at next month's World Baseball Classic qualifier

August 22nd, 2016

started in left field for the Israeli team that lost the final of a 2013 World Baseball Classic qualifier in heartbreaking fashion in September 2012. Four years later, returned to the 28-man roster for next month's WBC qualifier in Brooklyn.

And Decker knows there is far more at stake than a trip to Seoul, South Korea, for WBC pool play in March.

"If we win this tournament and get into the WBC, it could change the dynamic of baseball in Israel altogether," Decker said last week in a telephone conversation. "Israelis would see Jewish players on a grand stage, representing their country at the highest level.

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"I'm so excited about it. This is something that could have a real, legitimate impact on people's lives. Usually, me playing baseball doesn't have an impact, other than on me or my teammates. This is something that's much bigger."

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Decker is Jewish-American, like most players on Israel's 2012 and '16 national baseball teams. (World Baseball Classic rules permit players to represent nations for which they meet the qualifications of citizenship, even if they do not hold passports.) But Israel's domestic baseball culture has grown in recent years, with an academy for elite players now operating in Petah Tikva, east of Tel Aviv.

Decker, who plays for the Boston's Double-A affiliate in Portland, Maine, said he receives weekly updates from Peter Kurz, president of the Israel Association of Baseball, on the federation's progress.

Even though Kurz knew the 2012 team would be comprised largely of Jewish-American players, he believed it was important to bring a group of Israeli-born players to Florida for training prior to the final roster cuts.

"That week was so much fun," said Decker, who has yet to visit Israel. "It was like a short Spring Training. We were working right alongside the young Israeli players -- them with us, us with them. It really allowed us to learn more about Israel itself, and their baseball past.

"There aren't very many Jewish players in pro ball, so to be together was really meaningful to all of us. We had the full backing from Israel and the baseball federation."

Decker, who played eight Major League games with the Padres last season, has stayed in touch with a number of players from Israel's 2012 team, including , and , the Dodgers' everyday center fielder. Pederson can't play in next month's qualifier, because he's on a 25-man MLB roster, but he is eligible to represent Israel in the World Baseball Classic next spring.

Israel is viewed as a favorite to emerge next month from a four-team field that includes Brazil, Great Britain and Pakistan. Team Israel started 2-0 in the 2012 qualifier before losing to Spain, 9-7, in 10 innings in the winner-take-all final of a modified double-elimination format.

"The stakes felt completely different [than regular-season games]," Decker said. "In tournament-style baseball, it's go-go now. During the season, you can take a breath, because it's a marathon. In the WBC, it's a sprint. It's a totally different style of playing.

"If you look at the Royals last year, you know that the clubhouse dynamic matters -- especially in the playoffs. Anyone who doesn't think that has never played baseball. It's rare to play on a team with [chemistry] on that level, but we had a really close-knit team. We were having a blast. It was special, and I expect more of the same this time."

Decker's personality is certain to stand out at next week's qualifier, even among players from the unique collection of nations. Born and raised in Santa Monica, Calif., and educated at UCLA, Decker is active in the entertainment industry as a producer, actor and writer. His best-known baseball-themed work is "On Jeff Ears," chronicling the [successful] efforts of the Triple-A El Paso Chihuahuas to convince that a teammate was deaf -- when, in fact, he wasn't. (The seven-minute film has been viewed nearly 1.5 million times on YouTube.) When he's home in Los Angeles, Decker has been working on scripts -- including a couple pilots -- with his girlfriend, the comedian, actress and writer Jenn Sterger.

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The World Baseball Classic qualifier could provide a welcome contrast to what Decker described as a "tumultuous year." The Padres removed Decker from their 40-man roster last November, and he signed a Minor League contract with the Royals. Decker has spent all of this season in the Minors -- initially with Kansas City's Triple-A Omaha affiliate, before an April trade to Colorado. The Rockies released the 29-year-old about three weeks later, after which Decker, in his words, "spent a month on my couch."

"I got some feedback from a scout friend of mine who said some teams were scared to touch me because of my film stuff," Decker said. "I've hit 170 home runs in the Minor Leagues. What are you talking about, my 'film stuff?' You mean the stuff I do in the offseason to pay my bills?

"Apparently, some people think it's a distraction. I was furious. That conversation angered me to a level I haven't been before. I've always wanted to have a great time with my teammates and a great time playing baseball on the field. I guess some people didn't like that."

Decker returned home to Los Angeles to stay in baseball shape and wait for the phone calls that weren't coming. As a UCLA alum, he worked out with a fellow Bruin, reliever , who'd been released by the Padres at the end of Spring Training.

One day, Janssen called Decker -- who's started 11 Minor League games behind the plate -- to ask if he could catch a bullpen session he planned to throw for a Boston Red Sox scout. Decker agreed. And on the day of Janssen's showcase, Decker seized upon the occasion to take batting practice and field ground balls for the audience.

"Why are you home?" the scout asked.

One day later, Decker was on his way to Portland. He's posted an .806 OPS and has 12 home runs in 50 games there, despite the month-long layoff.

"I'm having a great time," Decker said. "It's the Red Sox. Who doesn't want to play for the Red Sox?"

But unless Decker is a surprise September callup to Boston, his seasonal work for the organization will conclude in a matter of weeks. And then he will join Team Israel in Brooklyn, to reunite with old teammates, meet new ones and set about changing the course of baseball history in a homeland he dreams of seeing.