JUPITER, Fla. (AP) — The players are either way past their prime — consider former All-Star Shawn Green, who retired five years ago — or minor league prospects, such as 6-foot-7 slugger Nate Freiman.
But for Israel, which didn’t get a pro baseball league until 2007 and has precious few players competing in the sport on its home soil, the group of Jewish-Americans playing a World Baseball Classic qualifier at Roger Dean Stadium this week is something special.
Of the 28 players on Israel’s roster, 23 are currently in the minor leagues. That compares to just six in the same category for South Africa, one of four nations entered in the double-elimination tournament.
It also helps explain why Israel, playing its first-ever WBC game, defeated South Africa 7-3 Wednesday night.
“If you want to say that we are the (qualifying tournament) favorites because we have the most professional minor leaguers, that’s your call,” said Israel manager Brad Ausmus, a former big league catcher and a member of the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.
“But what’s best on paper isn’t necessarily the best on grass. You still have to win,” he said.
If Israel can do that against either Spain or France on Friday, then Ausmus’ team would be one victory away from qualifying for the WBC’s main draw in March. And if that were to happen, Israel’s team could get a major boost from Jewish-Americans such as 2011 NL MVP Ryan Braun of the Brewers, star second baseman Ian Kinsler of the Rangers and power-hitting first baseman Ike Davis of the Mets.
In addition, Kevin Youkilis of the White Sox has already committed to playing for Israel.
The team’s MVP so far in this tournament is Freiman, who hit a pair of two-out, solo home runs on Wednesday. Freiman, a San Diego Padres prospect, hit 46 homers the past two years, including 24 this past season in Double-A.
“I’ve known Nate for a few years,” said Ausmus, who is a special assistant for the Padres. “In my mind, when I was putting this team together and the qualifier was moved to September instead of November, Nate was our three-, four-hole hitter.”
The 39-year-old Green, one of 16 big leaguers to hit four home runs in a game, batted fifth in the opener. He struggled early with a strikeout and a double play, but finished 2 for 5 with a pair of singles.
Also in the lineup is third baseman Josh Satin, who went 1 for 3 with two walks and scored twice.
Other top prospects on the Israel roster include second baseman Jack Marder, who hit .360 for the Mariners’ High-A team, Double-A shortstop Jake Lemmerman and outfielder Joc Pederson from the Dodgers and Padres’ Double-A catcher-outfielder Cody Decker. Pederson is considered by Baseball America to be the top prospect in Jupiter this week.
Reliever Josh Zeid pitched well in the opener after spending last season in Double-A for Houston.
Of course, none of those players were born in Israel. Unlike South Africa and France, which are using native-born players almost exclusively, Israel and Spain went for “heritage” picks.
Major League Baseball allows anyone with a Jewish grandparent to play for Israel. Similar rules apply for every other country, which explains why Spain’s roster is full of players born in Venezuela, Cuba, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and the United State.
South Africa manager Rick Magnante doesn’t feel there is a “level playing field” and offers a suggestion.
“Suppose everyone of African-American descent could apply for citizenship for South Africa,” he said.
That’s not the reality, however, and Israel is pleased with the early result and the prospect of growing the game back home.
Among the more intriguing players on the roster is Adam Greenberg. In his first major league at-bat, for the Chicago Cubs in 2005, he was hit in the head by a pitch from Valerio De Los Santos of the Marlins.
Greenberg never got back to the majors. At 31, he’s a year past his last pro swing, for the independent Bridgeport Bluefish.
Greenberg scored in the opening WBC win. He’s hoping to send Israel into the main part of the tournament, where All-Stars from all over take part.
“There probably is a stereotype out there about Jewish people not being great athletes,” Greenberg said. “When a great Jewish athlete comes along, it takes some people by surprise.”
“But the bigger picture is getting kids in Israel excited about baseball and showing them people that they can relate to playing the sport at a high level,” he said.