The Uniqueness of Israel
Israel’s Unexpected Baseball Success
To the surprise of nearly everyone, the Israeli baseball team has qualified for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. Most people were unaware that Israel even had a baseball team but this amazing feat was brought about through the hard work of the President of Israel Association of Baseball (IAB), Peter Kurz.
The truth is, most of the players on the squad are American Jewish players who have received citizenship allowing them to play on the national team. Kurz worked hard to recruit top Jewish American players, including former major leaguers. He is now planning to bring them to Israel over the course of the next year for various events such as training camps and exhibition games to try to raise the profile of the game.
However, while much of the national team may have been recruited from the US, there is some baseball taking place in Israel. Many amateur enthusiasts play regularly in five leagues that cover ages six and upwards. In 2014, the IAB set up the Israel Baseball Academy and it gives gifted players between the age of 14 and 21 the chance to be recognised as Elite Athletes during their army service. They also run a program where Jewish and Israeli teens play baseball together. There are now plans to build stadiums in Beit Shemesh and Ra’anana over the coming year and to have 5,000 children playing regularly within a few years.
Israel was the first country to qualify for the 2020 Olympics. As the host country, Japan automatically qualifies and there will be four more teams joining them. They will be joining the Israeli show jumping and rhythmic gymnastics teams, who have also qualified for the games. In order to qualify, Israel had to win the Europe/Africa Olympic Qualifying Tournament, which saw them beat Spain 3-0, the Netherlands 8-1, and Italy 8-2. They then lost 4-7 to the Czech Republic but qualified with their final game when they defeated South Africa 11-1.
After qualifying, star pitcher Joey Wagman, an established professional who plays for the Milwaukee Milkmen said, “This has been the best baseball experience of my life … It was magical. 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.”
Just a few years ago, in the World Baseball Classic 2017, Israel, who at the time were ranked 41st in the world finished in sixth place. This surprised many at the time and was the start of a thrilling run of success. To participate in that competition the players just had to be eligible for citizenship of the country they represent. To play in the Olympics eighteen American players have become Israeli citizens. However, there are also a number of players who grew up in Israel and there is high hope that exposure at the Olympics will be the catalyst for a long tradition of Israeli baseball.
If you are a baseball fan, be sure to seek out opportunities to play while on your gap year. You never know where it will lead and you too could one day find yourself on the country’s Olympic team.