Team Israel -- and its mascot, Mensch on a Bench -- is the Jamaican bobsled team of the WBC

ByEddie Matz ESPN logo
Wednesday, March 8, 2017

If Ty Kellyissearching for material for his next screenplay, he doesn't have to look very far.

According to his W-2, Kelly is a professional baseball player. But what Uncle Sam doesn't know -- at least not yet -- is that the 28-year-old infielder is an up-and-coming screenwriter. That is, when he isn't busy moonlighting as the starting shortstop for Team Israel in this year's World Baseball Classic.

If you aren't familiar with Team Israel, it's essentially the Mighty Ducks, Hickory High and the Jamaican bobsled team all rolled into one. In other words, it's straight out of Central Casting for the role of "underdog team that stands absolutely no chance of winning but somehow goes on to win it all." Except for the part that so far, it has won nothing -- well, almost nothing.

This past September in Brooklyn, Israel penned the opening chapter of its Cinderella story by finishing first in a four-team qualifying tournament to earn its inaugural trip to the WBC. Although the competition wasn't exactly stiff (Great Britain, Brazil, Pakistan), Israel will take it, especially after falling to Spain in extra innings in the deciding game of the 2012 qualifier. The losing pitcher in that contest? Reliever Josh Zeid, who, in true fairy-tale fashion, just so happened to pick up the W in Israel's clinching 2016 win over Great Britain.

Six months later, skipper Jerry Weinstein's squad (raise your hand if you've ever heard of him) is arguably the biggest underdog in the history of the event.

Of the 16 nations represented in this year's WBC, Israel was the very last one in and is the only participant not currently among the top 20 in the world rankings. (It's No. 41, just behind baseball powerhouses such as Poland and the Ukraine.) As if that weren't enough, the team had to travel halfway across the world (with its lifesize "Mensch on a Bench" mascot), where it's the lowest seed in a four-team pool that features host country South Korea (2009 runners-up) and 2013 final-four squad Netherlands. Of the 28 players who made the trip to Seoul, not a single one is presently listed on a major league 40-man roster. No wonder bookmaker Bovada has Team Israel listed at 200-1 odds to win the whole thing, the longest shot in the tourney and 100 times as unlikely as 2-1 favorite USA.

"It's kind of like a Disney movie," said Kelly, who knows a thing or two about the entertainment biz. The Mets farmhand has spent the past couple of offseasons collaborating with roommate and fellow ballplayer Matt Pare, helping to create video content for Pare's YouTube comedy brand, "Homeless Minor Leaguer," including playing a starring role in the clip below:

At the same time, Kelly has been writing an original screenplay. A dramedy set in the sports marketing world, it's still a work in progress, but he's confident he'll get it done. "I have some really good resources for finishing it," he said. He has even enlisted the help of "Silicon Valley" producer (and rabid Mets fan) Tom Lassally.

Hollywood isn't the only place where Kelly's networking skills have helped him. Last spring training in Port St. Lucie, a conversation with a couple of Jewish fans about Kelly's background (his mother is Jewish) led to a phone call from Peter Kurz, president of the IAB (Israel Association of Baseball). Before that call, Kelly -- whose father is Irish Catholic and who was baptized while in elementary school -- had no clue that he even qualified for Team Israel. "I always figured that if I played in the WBC, it'd be based on my Irish or German ancestors," he said.

A year later, thanks to the Classic's "Heritage Rule," he's rocking the Star of David on his cap, and he is part of a decidedly anonymous roster that screams what-could've-been.

"We had a chance to have the dream outfield of Ryan Braun, Kevin Pillarand Joc Pederson," Kurz said in reference to three of MLB's most prominent players with Jewish ties. In a perfect world, Team Israel also could've had four-time All-Star Ian Kinsler at second base and former second overall draft pick Alex Bregman at third, both of whom are members of the tribe. Instead, Kinsler and Bregman opted to play for Team USA, and Team Israel's outfield will be anchored by Sam Fuld, a 35-year-old journeyman coming off shoulder surgery.

Needless to say, it's an imperfect world.

"We're a team of guys trying to prove ourselves," said Kelly, who was slated to play in the Brooklyn qualifier but had to withdraw after the Mets called him up at the beginning of September. "We don't have an All-Star team. We have a bunch of guys playing for jobs, guys that are trying to get exposure and show they can still play."

One of those guys is Jason Marquis. A 38-year-old righty, his last MLB gig came with the Reds in 2015, when he posted a 6.46 ERA in 47 innings. Those 47 frames are the only big league innings Marquis has thrown in the past three years. Yet here he is, pitching for Team Milk and Honey, the undisputed ace after tossing four perfect innings in the Brooklyn clincher. While other countries are counting on studs such asChris Archer (USA), Johnny Cueto (Dominican Republic) and Felix Hernandez (Venezuela), Israel is all-in on Marquis -- or, well, as all-in as you can be in the WBC.

As much as bullpens dominated the 2016 postseason (see: Miller, Andrew), they're sure to be even more crucial during the 2017 preseason. That's because, per WBC rules, no pitcher is allowed to throw more than 65 pitches in a single outing, and any hurler who logs more than 50 pitches is essentially out for the remainder of pool play. (Four days' rest is required.) In other words, as important as Marquis is to Team Israel's chances, its relievers will be just as instrumental, if not more so. According to Kurz, that's a good thing.

"I think we have better pitching than Korea or Netherlands," Team Israel's GM said. Whether Kurz is right is debatable. Veteran lefty Craig Breslow, the most experienced member of the pen during the qualifier, was set to reprise his role in Korea, but he pulled out at the last minute after the Twins offered him an invite to spring training. Instead, Weinstein will lean on the likes of Zeid, Corey Baker and Jeremy Bleich to shut the door in Seoul.

Add it all up, and it's easy to see why, in the eyes of most, Team Promised Land doesn't show a whole lot of promise -- not that Kelly cares.

"We're gonna play hard," the shortstop/screenwriter said. "We're gonna be a really scrappy team."

With a little luck, they might be the kind of team that movies are made of.