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Team Israel baseball gear a home run with kvelling fans

Infielder Cody Decker of Team Israel holds team mascot The Mensch on the Bensch in Seoul, South Korea. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty)

Infielder Cody Decker of Team Israel holds team mascot The Mensch on the Bensch in Seoul, South Korea. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty)

TEL AVIV — A couple weeks ago, Adam Atkins didn’t know Israel had a baseball team.

But since the squad started winning games last week in the World Baseball Classic, he has become a fan. Atkins and his friends wanted team caps, but were frustrated to discover they were sold out online.

“The only thing available was a youth size, and I consideredwhether  my head was small enough to fit. That’s how bad I want a hat,” Atkins, a 33-year-old renewable energy consultant based in New York, told JTA.

Israeli baseball “is definitely in the air.”

The supply of official caps has since been renewed and expanded, and the team’s “Jew Crew” T-shirts worn off the field are a mini-sensation.

“I think the league probably underestimated the number of American Jews who would be interested in merchandise,” Steve Adler, who owns the company that makes the “Jew Crew” shirts, told JTA. “You can’t really blame them. Who could have predicted this?”

Israel was the lowest-ranked team to qualify for the World Baseball Classic, coming in at 41st.

Yet the club, with seven former major league players and 20 minor leaguers, started the tournament last week by beating third-ranked South Korea, fourth-ranked Taiwan and ninth-ranked the Netherlands to win its pool in the first round and become the only team to come out of the qualifying round and go undefeated.

In the second round this week, Israel beat fifth-ranked Cuba before losing badly in a rematch with the Netherlands on Monday, March 13.

Before each game, the players removed their caps for Israel’s national anthem, “Hativkah,” to reveal matching kippahs.

Both headcoverings feature Israeli flag colors: royal blue embroidered in white with the team’s logo, a stylized Star of David with an “I” in the middle. The kippahs were still sold out online Tuesday.

Another Judaism-related option for fans is a life-size stuffed Mensch on a Bench, who Team Israel has adopted as its mascot. The toy, based on a character from a children’s Chanukah book, was on sale as of Tuesday.

Major League Baseball’s vice president of business public relations, Matt Bourne, told JTA that the Israel cap has outsold those of all the other teams in the WBC with the exception of the US.

He had not responded to a request for additional sales information as of Tuesday afternoon.

The “Jew Crew” T-shirts are in demand, too. Adler, the owner of America’s Finest Apparel, said he had sold hundreds since the team started winning last week.

There was a big spike after ESPN’s Darren Rovell tweeted an image of Cody Decker, an outfielder and designated hitter for the team and a member of the Milwaukee Brewers, wearing one at a news conference.

“After Rovell’s tweet, we went from selling one or two a day to being back-ordered,” Adler said. “We’ve sold hundreds at this point.”

He said most of the orders have come from the American Northeast, with a few from Canada and one “very persistent” American woman requesting a shirt from Israel. In response to requests, the company has rolled out new styles, including for women and children.

“We didn’t do this to make money, but more as a favor to Cody [Decker] and of course Team Israel,” said Adler, who is friends with some of the players.

“The amazing thing is that these guys aren’t even Israeli for the most part. They’re American Jews who are playing for a culture, not just a country. It’s easy to get caught up in the love affair of that.”

Nearly all the Israeli players are American Jews. According to WBC rules, a player may compete for a country if he is eligible for citizenship under its laws. The grandchild of a Jew, and that grandchild’s spouse, have the right to become Israeli citizens.

Many members of Israel’s small baseball community have American backgrounds, too. Otherwise, the sport is little watched or played in the country, which has just three baseball-specific fields and about 1,000 active players.

Team Israel’s success has not changed that.

Although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week tweeted his support for the team, the games have not been broadcast on Israel’s sports channel and have received only passing mention in the Hebrew media.

Asked on the radio whether she would attend the game in South Korea, Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev sounded confused and said, “Obviously, [baseball] is not one of the preferred fields we invest in.”

Adler said he will donate a portion of the proceeds from the “Jew Crew” shirts to a Jewish National Fund project to promote baseball in Israel.

Although Japan ended Israel’s remarkable run on Wednesday with an 8-3 win, the team’s fans remain fired up.

Adler summed up Israel’s tournament experience eloquently: “It’s not necessarily something you’d expect to see from a gritty little Jewish baseball team.”

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