JERUSALEM (AP) — With a pair of Jewish ex-major leaguers on his roster, the new coach of Israel's team in the World Baseball Classic says his squad is already a legitimate contender.
Former All-Star catcher Brad Ausmus said Shawn Green and Gabe Kapler have committed to play for him, and he's hopeful that other Jewish big leaguers, including All-Stars such as Ryan Braun, Kevin Youkilis and Ian Kinsler, will join the cliub.
The scenario of having a star-studded lineup could make Israel, a country where few people know the difference between a home run and a strikeout, an unlikely powerhouse.
"I feel pretty good about the potential of this team," Ausmus told The Associated Press on Monday during his first visit to the Jewish state. "I never guarantee anything in the sport of baseball, because you just don't know, but I'm more than comfortable with the potential of this roster."
Thanks to WBC tournament rules that allow countries to field players who are eligible for citizenship — even if they are not actual citizens — Israel can tap into the formidable pool of Jewish-American baseball talent that includes about 15 major leaguers. Israel grants automatic citizenship to anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent.
Among the potential players who could wear the Israeli uniform are Ike Davis, Jason Marquis, Sam Fuld, Danny Valencia and Scott Feldman. Ryan Lavarnway, a top catching prospect in the Boston Red Sox system, is also a candidate.
Speaking in an outdoor cafe overlooking the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, the 43-year-old Ausmus said he has been in touch with all Jewish big league players, either directly or through their agents. He would not say whether anyone has formally committed, but said all were "honored" to be able to represent Israel, regardless of whether they eventually do. He said no one has turned him down.
Ausmus' team will face its first challenge this November in a preliminary round in Florida against Spain, France and South Africa.
Israel is among 16 countries invited to play in the qualifying round, with the top four teams advancing to the WBC. The March 2013 tournament will be the third World Baseball Classic. Japan won the first two competitions, in 2006 and 2009.
Israel would not be the only country to tap into foreign talent. Italy, South Africa, and the Netherlands all managed to field U.S. major leaguers in the 2006 and 2009 tournaments through similar citizenship rules. Italy's roster, for example, has included Mike Piazza and Nick Punto, and Andruw Jones, born in the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao, represented the Netherlands.
Should Israel advance, it would provide a huge boost to Israeli baseball, which remains a niche sport in a country where soccer and basketball reign supreme.
Ausmus, a three-time Gold Glove Award winner and 1999 All-Star who is currently also a special assistant for the San Diego Padres, said he's not planning too far ahead.
"I'm not looking past the qualifier right now. The goal is to win the qualifier," he said.