By Josh Hasten
Does America’s favorite pastime have a chance of becoming Israel’s?
Playing in their first major international tournament, Israel’s U18 (“18 and under”) youth baseball team shocked the competition last week, returning home from the European Championship qualifiers in Stockholm with a first-place finish. The win qualifies team Israel for a place in next summer’s prestigious U18 European Championships, with that venue to be determined.
The win also caps a historic month for the Israel Association of Baseball (IAB), which since 1986 has been the official organization promoting and developing baseball in the Jewish state.
In early July, the Israeli men’s national team won their tier “B” pool at a tournament in Bulgaria and earned the right to compete in a best-of three game series versus Lithuania in September.
The winner of that matchup on the diamond will qualify for tier “A,” Europe’s top tier, and will become a step closer towards earning a chance to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympic Games.
Secretary-general of the IAB Margo Sugarman traveled with the U18 team to Sweden as head of the delegation. She said that she had no idea how the team would fare entering the competition. “We came into the tournament not knowing any other teams, and we have never played on a national level before with this age group. This was all new territory for us,” she said.
Sugarman, who immigrated to Israel from South Africa — a country where baseball is barely on the map — says she fell in love with the game when her son started playing the sport around 12 years ago in the Central Israeli town of Tel Mond.
After volunteering for her son’s team, her passion grew, and after mastering the game, she eventually starting coaching and umpiring in her community before becoming a league official. “I kind of got sucked into the great Israel baseball vortex,” she says.
In Stockholm, the U18 squad earned first round victories over Switzerland and Sweden, but fell to Great Britain before losing a heartbreaker to Belgium by one run, 14-13.
With the Belgian squad securing their place in the championship game, the Israeli youth had to scoreboard watch as it looked like they would finish the round tied in the standings with other teams also with records of 2-2.
However, after all first-round games were completed, the Israeli players were jubilant once they realized that they had qualified for the finals based on having the best run differential (runs scored minus runs allowed) of all the 2-2 teams.
Sugarman says that she was extremely nervous during the championship game against Belgium not only because Israel lost to them in the first round, but because midway through the finals it started raining, impacting the play, especially for those in the field (on defense).
But she says the team played “a nearly perfect game,” earning an 8-5 win and taking the trophy home to Israel.
“The elation is indescribable,” says Sugerman. “The best part was seeing the support the kids gave each other. They lifted each other up after a couple of upsetting losses, and that’s how they won by being incredible teammates.”
‘This means a lot for Israeli baseball’
Israeli third baseman, 18-year-old Zev Moore, was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player, with a tournament batting percentage of .429, which included nine hits, two of them triples and going 4-4 on stolen bases. His twin brother Eitan was also on the squad playing in the outfield.
The Moore brothers made aliyah from New Jersey with their family seven years ago. After growing up playing Little League baseball, they were happy to hear that they could stick with their passion in Israel.
Moore said that the tournament win “is huge.” He said that “it’s the first time I ever won a tournament. Representing Israel is always special, but winning is extra special.”
He attributed the team’s success to the fact that nearly all the players have developed their skills together, as they have been playing on various IAB teams and in leagues for the past six years. He said the win “puts Israel baseball on the map. It shows that Israel baseball has talent.”
Sugarman attributes the team’s success in part to the fact that several years ago, the IAB established the “Israel Baseball Academy,” an intensive baseball training program for the most talented 15- to 19-year-olds from all over the country. Those players are given the opportunity to increase their skill level under the tutelage of some of Israel’s top coaches — several of whom have played and coached baseball at elite levels in the US and Israel.
Israeli outfielder Daniel Laderman also picked up some hardware at the tournament winning the “Best Batter” award. Born and raised in Israel, he finished the competition with an impressive .600 batting percentage, with nine hits and scoring eight runs. He also led the team with a .727 on-base percentage.
Laderman said that he grew up playing catch with his dad, who is originally from the US, and that he went to Major League Baseball games whenever he had the chance during summer visits there.
“It means a lot that we won,” he says. “Now we have a whole year to practice for the European championships. This means a lot for Israel baseball.”
While the Moore twins are now 18 and will be disqualified from competing in next summer’s championships, as will several other players on this year’s squad, Laderman, who is 17 and will be able to participate, is confident that other younger players will step up to the plate.
“We will have a pretty strong team, and we’ll do the best we can in the European Championships,” he shares. “I am really looking forward to this tournament. I know we can do big things.”
Sugarman views the impressive results of the tournament as a “checkmark,” adding, “it shows that we can send youth teams to the highest level of competition. Baseball in Israel is not just another afterschool chug (‘activity’).”