The 'Mensch on the Bench' might be Israel's baseball team's secret weapon

The World
Team Israel

They have been dubbed the "Jamaican bobsled team" of this year's World Baseball Classic.

Team Israel is ranked 41st in the world. But this week, they beat the Netherlands, South Korea and Chinese Taipei, all of which are ranked significantly higher.

Danielle Barta, who lives in Jerusalem and works as the regional director of the Isreal Association of Baseball, has been rapt, watching it all. 

As much as she can, that is.

“It is actually very difficult to get a feed in Israel,” says Barta. “So, you’re stuck trying to find some not-so-reliable feed in a foreign language — like, the first game I watched in Korean, the third game I watched in Spanish.”

But for the game next week, the nation is coming together.

“We’re having a big showing at a sports bar, and we’ve invited all the fans from all over the country to come and join and watch with us,” Barta says. “So, we're making a big party of it, a celebration of what Israel has done already and what it will hopefully be doing in the next round.”

Some speculate that Israel’s team is playing so well, in part thanks to the support of their mascot, the “Mensch on a Bench.”

This mensch — a word used in Yiddish to mean a person of integrity — is a life-size, plush doll that the team takes everywhere with them. The mascot name is kind of inspired by the "Elf on the Shelf," Barta says.

“It looks like an older man with a long beard and mustache, wearing a prayer shawl and holding a candle,” she says. “The team has said he is their spiritual leader. They take care of the baseball part, and he takes care of everything else.”

To Barta, this division of labor makes sense. She doubts that the mensch is any good at baseball.

"He doesn’t have as much training, and he’s gray, so I’m assuming he’s old," she says, "and I don’t know how fast he can run."

All joking aside, as baseball director, Barta oversees about 90 kids, and she says that to them, the success of Team Israel means a lot.

"They love seeing the fact that there are Jewish baseball players," she says. "I think it makes a world of difference."

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