MLB.com Columnist

Barry M. Bloom

With Mensch on Bench, Israel ready for Classic

With Mensch on Bench, Israel ready for Classic

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The Mensch on the Bench lives, and a full-size version of it is sitting in the passenger seat of Cody Decker's SUV. It traveled with him here from his home in Santa Monica, Calif., and will make the trip with Team Israel to Seoul, Korea, in early March for the opening round of the World Baseball Classic.

"I told my friends in L.A. that he's riding with me so I could use the diamond [high occupancy] lanes on the freeway," Decker said over lunch in a local pizza joint the other day. "He'll be on the bench with us again for the Classic."

Decker is in the Minor League camp of the Brewers and got to Maryvale on Friday in a squall. A career Minor Leaguer with eight games and 12 plate appearances (no hits) late in the 2015 season for the Padres, he has been promised a shot at catching in the big leagues this season.

At 30, Decker is on the cusp of many things: Marriage next offseason to his girlfriend Jenn Sterger, a role in a friend's action movie, an extension of his baseball career.

"I'm going to make it this year," Decker said. "The way I feel, I could play for another 10 years."

It took Decker 761 games in San Diego's system before finally making it to the big club, and he hasn't been back there since, but first thing's first. The upstart Israelis open Pool A play with the first game of the 2017 tournament against host Korea in spanking new Gocheok Sky Dome on March 6. It's a tough bracket that also includes the Netherlands and Chinese Taipei (or Taiwan, colloquially).

Israel is the only newcomer in this year's tournament, having survived Pakistan, Brazil and Great Britain last September in the Brooklyn qualifier to move into the Sweet 16 for the first time.

"That's fine, we go right into the fire," Decker said. "I like the fact that we're under the radar. That no one is paying any attention. But this is something that's very important to some of us."

To be eligible for Team Israel, you must be Jewish, have a parent or grandparent who is (or was) Jewish. There are no current Major Leaguers with a Jewish background on this year's team.

But like Decker, there are a number of former MLB players on the squad: pitchers Jason Marquis and Craig Breslow, catcher Ryan Lavarnway, first baseman Ike Davis and outfielder Sam Fuld. Fuld, in fact, is the only player in that group on the current roster who wasn't with the team last year when the Mensch on the Bench made its debut in a much smaller form.

"We've got a good team. Our guys are good," Decker said. "What I like about our guys is that a lot of us have been discarded and pushed aside in their careers, and all have something to prove."

During all three games at MCU Park, Decker talked about the Mensch, saying -- tongue placed firmly in cheek -- that he would have to do harm to anybody who discovered its identity. He finally revealed the Mensch during the post-victory news conference after Decker hit a homer and made a diving catch in a 9-1 clobbering of the English. Decker also hit the winning sacrifice fly in Israel's previous 1-0 win over Brazil.

"Mensch" is translated in Yiddish as simply a good person. Out of this context, the Mensch on a Bench is a serious Chanukah story. He helped the Maccabees while they were asleep keep the candles lit on one night's oil for an entire seven nights so they could win a war against the Greeks. The fact that he helped accomplish that feat is the everlasting miracle of Chanukah celebrated every December.

The Mensch now has a new function: the miracle of helping the Israelis into the main tournament and as far into it as they possibly can go.

At the Brooklyn news conference, Decker finally placed the mini Mensch sitting in a cardboard box in front of his microphone. He said he had "rush ordered it" for the tournament.

The accruing publicity led to an unexpected delivery of the life-sized Mensch. And we're up to date.

Team Israel is gathering at Salt River Fields for three workout days later this week under the tutelage of veteran baseball coach Jerry Weinstein, who also managed the team in Brooklyn. From there, it's on to Korea.

Decker said last year that the camaraderie of playing with a group of Jewish players -- more on one team than he has played with since his Little League days in Santa Monica -- was a seminal experience for him. He expects that to carry over for the three games in Seoul, and perhaps beyond.

"There's an attitude on this team," he said. "It's not bitterness, it's just that we're all in this together. We get along so well, too. It's like a family. If you were in that clubhouse with us in Brooklyn, you would have seen the attitude. I mean, it's something special."

The World Baseball Classic runs from March 6-22. In the U.S., games will air live exclusively in English on MLB Network and on an authenticated basis via MLBNetwork.com/watch, while ESPN Deportes and WatchESPN will provide the exclusive Spanish-language coverage. MLB.TV Premium subscribers in the U.S. will have access to watch every tournament game live on any of the streaming service's 400-plus supported devices. Internationally, the tournament will be distributed across all forms of television, internet, mobile and radio in territories excluding the U.S., Puerto Rico and Japan. Get tickets for games at Marlins Park, Tokyo Dome, Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul, Estadio Charros de Jalisco in Mexico, Petco Park, as well as the Championship Round at Dodger Stadium, while complete coverage -- including schedules, video, stats and gear -- is available at WorldBaseballClassic.com.

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.