MIAMI (JTA) — When Michael Ignagni found out that Israel would be competing in the 2013 World Baseball Classic qualifier, he immediately thought of how Western pop culture undermined communism.
“The first thing I thought of was the impact that everybody says the Beatles had on breaking down the Berlin Wall and ending communism in the Soviet Union,” Ignagni recalled. “And I thought, what if they started playing baseball in the Middle East, and think of the impact baseball can have.”
He had a vision of baseball as a vehicle for unity among Israel and its neighbors — a road he said had to begin with Israel.
“So I thought, you know what, if this is going to happen, I’m going to be all in for Israel, and I’ve been supporting them ever since,” said Ignagni, 53, a hotel auditor who lives in Los Gatos, California.
Ten years later, Ignagni has been at each of Israel’s WBC games this week in Miami. He’s befriended the team’s general manager Peter Kurz and former Olympic team manager Eric Holtz, and he proudly wears Israel merchandise with the Israeli flag and a Star of David — he says he’s bought about $500 worth.
Ignagi is like a lot of fans who have turned out to root for Israel in the tournament, with one notable difference: He isn’t Jewish.
“It means something to stand for something,” Ignagni said. “I wear [the Israel hat] with pride so people can see I’m not afraid to wear this, whether I’m Jewish or not.”
Throughout the tournament, Ignagni was far from alone in his commitment to Team Israel — even if the cheering squad couldn’t match the tens of thousands of fans who came out to root for the Latin teams.
Claudia Wolff has been to all five WBCs dating back to the inaugural edition in 2006, including Israel’s qualifying games in New York, where she lives.
Speaking before Tuesday’s game against the Dominican Republic, Wolff highlighted the representation Team Israel provides for Jewish fans.
“The fact that Israel can go toe-to-toe on the world stage is so meaningful,” she said.
Another draw for Wolff is the fact that Israel’s success in the 2017 WBC and other international competitions has helped raise baseball’s profile in the country.
“I think it’s really going to encourage baseball in Israel, which is terrific,” she added.
Sitting near the dugout — a ripe spot for autographs — Lloyd Kaplan had the chance to meet Israel player and Chicago Cubs prospect Matt Mervis.
Kaplan traveled from Long Island to see Israel play after watching the team in 2017. He called it a “once in a lifetime experience.”
Stu Moss, an entertainment agent who lives in nearby Coral Springs, said his love of Team Israel is about more than baseball.
“If I had the opportunity to go to the USA game or go to the Israel game, I have to go to the Israel game because it’s my heritage,” Moss said.
A Brooklyn native — he called Dodger great Sandy Koufax “the left arm of God” — Moss has followed the team since 2017. He runs a senior softball club in Boca Raton called the Hebrew Hammers.
“It’s part of our heritage,” Moss said. “We’re not a religion, we’re a people.”
Moss also said he appreciates the demographic of the team, which is mostly composed of American Jewish ballplayers who qualify for the team by dint of their heritage.
“You wanna be on the Israeli team? You seen ‘Fiddler on the Roof?’ You’re in,’” Moss joked.
RELATED: How Israel built its most talented baseball roster ever for the 2023 World Baseball Classic
One of those players is San Francisco Giants All-Star Joc Pederson. And while speaking to Team Israel fans before a game at loanDepot Park this week, this reporter spotted a familiar face sitting in the section behind Israel’s dugout: Shelly Pederson, Joc’s mother.
“I’m proud that he’s excited to play with Team Israel,” Pederson told JTA. She added that the team is “a great group of people,” and that she loves the support from fellow fans.