Many fans were despairing as Team Israel trailed Puerto Rico 6-0 in the World Baseball Classic last week, but the team’s Twitter account had a different message.
“We will never give up,” the account tweeted. “After all, Moses was once a basket case.”
While the quip couldn’t stave off the team’s ultimate 10-0 loss, it came in the course of a win for Avi Miller, the 30-year-old marketing veteran who runs the @ILBaseball account. For Miller — who tweeted the tournament from 3,000 miles away — the World Baseball Classic was a breakout moment, nearly doubling Team Israel’s social media followers and exposing countless baseball fans to jokes straight out of Hebrew school.
Miller told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that his ambition was to do for Team Israel what the World Baseball Classic, an international Olympic-style baseball tournament, aims to do for baseball itself: deepen fans’ interest.
“Of course virality is nice, because it creates more of a following. But then once you have a following, what are you doing with it?” Miller said. “So for me, and it’s even continued through today, and it will tomorrow and so on, is to create engagement with people, create interest in it, help to create and raise the fundraising efforts, help to create awareness of these programs.”
Team Israel won its first game but dropped the next three to exit the competition early. Some of those games were brutal: Across 15 innings on March 13 and 14, Israel managed just one base runner against its opponents.
But on the team’s Twitter account, the hits kept coming. One breakout post, seen more than 100,000 times, showed a photo of a seemingly apoplectic Jakob Goldfarb (who was actually celebrating, despite what his expression suggests).
In another popular post, the account outlined its “bubbie rankings,” using the Yiddish word for grandmother used in some Jewish families — and a homonym for the first name of one of the team’s pitchers. The list: “1) my bubbie 2) Bubby Rossman 3) other bubbies.”
From joking about storing a cooler of Manischewitz in the dugout to leaning into the “nice Jewish boy” vibe of the team, which was almost entirely composed of American Jewish ballplayers, the account’s sense of humor seemed to resonate.
Bill Shaikin, an award-winning baseball writer for the Los Angeles Times and a member of the Southern California Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, called Israel’s Twitter “the best social media account in the tournament.”
“I thought the account was a wonderful mix of baseball information and witty nods to what your Jewish mother might say,” Shaikin told JTA. “If you know, you know. But, if you didn’t know, it still worked.”
Miller was well positioned to tell Team Israel’s story. A marketing consultant living in San Diego, he worked in communications for sports teams and the NCAA before expanding his portfolio to include tech clients. He’s also been involved with the Israel Association of Baseball in different capacities for a few years, mostly helping with social media and video editing. The Baltimore native is a Jewish day school graduate and cofounded a Moishe House in San Francisco.
“I’ve had these two worlds collide,” Miller said. “I have a mentally strong relationship with baseball in my life, and then I have a bond to Judaism, from my entire upbringing. And for me as a passionate storyteller, my goal has been, both in years past and this World Baseball Classic, it’s been to help tell that story.”
That story, which included a late-game comeback win over Nicaragua and an impressive performance by Orthodox prospect Jacob Steinmetz, took place entirely in South Florida — a few thousand miles from Miller’s home in San Diego. Miller had been planning to be present at the tournament but was not able to — though no one would have been able to tell from the tweets.
“I think it’s similar to what a great YouTuber or videographer would tell you, is that to make the best video you don’t need the best camera ever made,” Miller said. “What I needed was the passion and the storytelling ideas behind it. Between that and then having contact with almost every single guy on the team and people on the ground, it gave me plenty of ideas to work with when it came to telling that story in a fun way.”
Miller said the feedback was overwhelmingly positive — and came from all levels of baseball fandom, from those who know little about Israel baseball, or even baseball, to die-hard fans.
“That to me is the best response to it, making it something that was approachable for all, but then still getting the signs of respect from the deep baseball people,” Miller said.
He also said there were, predictably, some negative responses. Miller said he made a conscious effort to shy away from politics, including keeping his own personal opinions out of the mix. Not everyone followed that tack.
“Could I have engaged with every single person that wrote in on any platform and was sending us messages about ‘Free Palestine,’ and [said], ‘Oh, you respect our boundaries now, because you don’t like the strike zone,’ all these different things?” Miller said. “Sure, I could have been sassy and responded within those spaces, one hundred percent. I could easily talk smack with anyone any day. But at the end of the day, that wasn’t the goal.”
Part of that restraint, Miller said, had to do with channeling the voice and priorities of the team itself.
“If you talked to Ryan Lavarnway, you talk to Josh Zeid, any of those guys about their views on Israel baseball, I can’t imagine the Palestinian conflict comes up as part of it because it’s simply not,” he said, referring to a Team Israel player and coach, respectively. “It doesn’t make that not an important thing to talk about, but in this case, the story was aside from that.”
In general, Miller said he worked to build relationships with the players and other members of the Israel baseball organization, to help craft an authentic presence of the team’s social media accounts — from the underdog mentality to the emphasis on team camaraderie.
And in that vein, it was tweets showcasing players’ talents that Miller said made him most proud. Not only did the players’ families appreciate the content, but some of their agents did, too — with one pitcher even asking Miller for video highlights he could send to teams considering bringing him on. Miller declined to share who it was, but at least one Team Israel pitcher landed an MLB contract after the tournament, Rossman with the Mets.
“The most meaningful to me are ones where I can put out content that showcases an individual or multiple individuals and then knowing that that impacts that guy in some way,” Miller said.