By Daniel Ben Tal
When the news broke that Israel had qualified for next July’s Tokyo Olympic Games in baseball, many locals raised an eyebrow.
“Baseball? I didn’t even know it’s played in Israel!” was the common refrain. “How on earth did we get to the Olympics?”
Nobody denies that most of the squad members are not really Israeli, rather American Jewish players who received Israeli citizenship in order to play on the national team.
Israel Association of Baseball President Peter Kurz was the man with the vision, recruiting top Jewish American players, including former major leaguers.
“This is going to be baseball’s breakthrough year in Israel,” Kurz told Israel21c upon returning home from the qualification tournament in Italy.
Kurz said IAB plans to stage “all kinds of events throughout the year, to bring the players here for training camps and exhibition games — and make baseball popular in this country.”
Baseball is a minor sport in Israel, played mainly by immigrants from the US and their offspring. Several hundred amateur baseball players take to the diamond regularly in five leagues from age 6 to adult.
“The plan wasn’t to bring American Jews to Israel – it was to build up baseball in Israel,” says Kurz. “The IAB is no longer run by Americans but by native-born Israelis.”
In 2014, the IAB launched the Israel Baseball Academy, offering outstanding 14- to 21-year-old players an opportunity to be recognized as Elite Athletes in the IDF. The association also runs a program for Jewish and Arab Israeli young teens, who learn baseball together.
Israel has regulation ballparks in Kibbutz Gezer, Petah Tikva and the Tel Aviv Sportek complex, but many games are still played on converted soccer fields.
“We’re going to build stadiums in Beit Shemesh and Ra’anana this coming year, which will boost the game,” says Kurz.
“By this time next year, we’ll have 2,000 kids playing — the eventual target is 5,000.”
Kurz is still pinching himself that Israel is one of the six teams to make the Tokyo Olympics.
Israel was the first country to qualify for the 2020 Games. Japan, the host nation, automatically qualifies while the other teams play preliminary competitions.
Israel has fielded only three Olympic teams in the past: basketball in 1952, and soccer in 1968 and 1976. Israeli teams have already secured places in Tokyo for the show jumping and rhythmic gymnastics competitions.
Team Israel confounded the pundits by winning the six-team Europe-Africa Olympic qualifying tournament on Sept. 22.
They opened the tournament by beating Spain 3-0, then overpowered the Netherlands 8-1 and hosts Italy 8-2 before losing 4-7 to the Czech Republic. In a tense final game, with qualification at stake, Israel emphatically swept aside South Africa 11-1.
“This has been the best baseball experience of my life,” says star pitcher Joey Wagman, a seven-year professional who plays for the Milwaukee Milkmen of the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball.
When Wagman conceded a run to the South Africans in the final game, it was the only run he allowed in both the qualifiers and European Championships the week before.
“It was magical,” he said from Florence, where he was taking a well-earned vacation.
“It’s been such a long road for the entire team that will culminate in the Olympics. We knew what kind of talent we have, but we had to win 17 games over the past couple of months to make it possible.”
Kurz put the success down to belief and team spirit. Every player finds a way to contribute, he says.
For example, veteran Tel Aviv-born pitcher Shlomo Lipetz, who has represented Israel in international baseball for over 30 years, made an inspirational speech that fired up the disheartened team after the loss to the Czechs.
In the last World Baseball Classic in 2017, Israel — ranked 41 in the world — surprised everyone by finishing sixth. This was the start of an unprecedented run of successes.
A documentary entitled “Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel,” released earlier this year, tells the story. That team was packed with Jewish-American college players and some pros — the World Baseball Classic only requires that players be eligible for citizenship of the country they represent.
However, Olympic Games participants must be actual citizens.
With the help of Nefesh B’Nefesh, which supports aliyah, 18 American players became Israeli citizens. Kurz points out that the squad includes five sabras who grew up in Israel, as well as American Jews who want to contribute to the Jewish state.
“I first got involved three years ago, before the World Baseball Classic,” recounts pitcher Wagman. “A few months later Peter asked me if I’d want to take out Israeli citizenship. The country captivated me the first time I went five years ago. I was raised Jewish in a non-Jewish community. Now I’m becoming more Jewish, more connected to Jewish people. That first trip to Israel opened my eyes,” he says.
“There’s something special about representing an entire nation of people across the planet, who feel so connected.”
Wagman and Kurz predict that the Olympics will be a shot in the arm for baseball in Israel. “Now Israelis will learn to appreciate the game,” says Kurz.