iab by the Forward

Israel’s baseball team heads to Olympics with made-in-America talent

In 2017, a ragtag bunch of Jewish minor leaguers, retired pros and semi-pros competing as Team Israel made a miracle run at the World Baseball Classic, winning its first six games and ultimately finishing in sixth place. They’ll be in Tokyo next month to prove it wasn’t a fluke — with a former all-star supplying reinforcement.

The team competing for the Blue and White in this summer’s Olympic Games won’t have any household names, and because of the Major League Baseball rule barring active players from competing, the first-ever Israeli draft pick won’t play, either.

They enter as a steep underdog playing against the best non-MLB players in the world. Asked why people should take Team Israel seriously, head coach Eric Holtz said with a laugh: “They shouldn’t.”

“I’d rather they don’t,” said Holtz. “The same way they didn’t two years ago. I’d rather no one take us seriously and I’d rather no one give us a shot, and we’ll see where the chips fall.”

Still, Team Israel’s chances of medaling in the tournament are pretty good for one big reason: only six teams are competing for three medals. And getting this far already indicates some prowess.

Israel’s roster features a handful of Israeli natives but is mostly made up of American-born Jews who gained Israeli citizenship in the last two years while the team barnstormed through the Olympic qualifying rounds.

Zack Raab, a Team Israel superfan who has attended all of the team’s games since its inauguration in 2012 — including exhibitions — says there’s another reason to like their odds.

“What’s special about this team is they have built-up team chemistry that I don’t know if any other team will be able to match,” said Raab, who also runs the team store. “As soon as they get in the dugout, there’s already that innate chemistry that doesn’t click with the other countries.”

That is partly due to roster continuity, Raab says, but also because of a Jewish connection that transcends national boundaries. Because of Olympic eligibility rules, the connection now extends to national identity as well.

To play for Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic, a player only had to be eligible to become a citizen in that country. This was a recruiting strategy for the tournament — which is co-run by MLB — among whose goals was to build a baseball audience in new markets like the Netherlands, Australia, and Italy. (In other words, it would have been difficult to field a competitive baseball team from Italy without extending eligibility to non-citizens.)

But the Olympics have rigid eligibility requirements: passport-holders only. Thus, every player on the team who was not already an Israeli citizen — that is, most of them — had to become one. Many of them, like former Cincinnati Reds left-handed pitcher Jon Moscot, stayed on their aliyah trip to tour the land, too.

In the case of the team’s most decorated player, securing Olympic eligibility almost didn’t happen.

Ian Kinsler, a 14-year pro who retired in 2019 with four all-star appearances, two Gold Gloves and 1,999 career hits to his name, was on one of the last flights out of Israel just before the pandemic hit.

“We had to pull some strings, and it came down to the last minute,” said Frankie Sachs, Team Israel’s director of PR and social media.

Kinsler and the former MLB journeyman who recruited him, Danny Valencia, will form the heart of the Team Israel lineup.

It was Team Israel’s run at the 2017 World Baseball Classic, which included wins over South Korea, Cuba and the Netherlands, that got the group to buy in for the Olympics, Holtz said.

A bid was far from guaranteed, but they made it look easy.

Israel clinched a spot in the Games all the way back in September of 2019 — it became the first non-host team to qualify when it tore up its 12-team group in the Europe and Africa preliminaries in Germany. And by the time Team Israel suits up for the first of eight exhibition games next month, it will have been nearly two years since its last game.

In the meantime, the team has been meeting regularly on Zoom throughout the pandemic to talk baseball or just catch up, Sachs said. Players have deepened their connections to each other and to their own Jewish identity by learning each other’s family histories.

Even in a small pool, competition at the Games figures to be fierce. The teams ranked first, second and third in the world — that’s Japan, the United States and South Korea, respectively — are in, as is fifth-ranked Mexico. Israel is 18th.

Because MLB is prohibiting players on teams’ 40-man rosters from competing, ballyhooed Baltimore Orioles pitching prospect Dean Kremer won’t be making the trip to Tokyo. The rule will substantially weaken the American team, which Israel will face first in the tournament’s group stage. On the other hand, the Korean Baseball Organization and Japan’s Nippon Professional League — the top leagues in those countries — are both suspending their seasons during the Olympics to let stars suit up.

“Some people don’t believe that chemistry matters in baseball,” Sachs said. “But there really is a spirit with these guys that you don’t see with every team. I do believe that makes them better.”

Baseball in Israel is still in relative infancy, and training and playing facilities are far from ubiquitous — though they’ve certainly increased in number since the team’s Cinderella run — or do we call it an Esther run? — in 2017.

But the team has never lacked belief, which can perhaps be described as borderline religious. (They donned yarmulkes for Hatikvah at the World Baseball Classic.) And while its mascot, the Mensch on the Bench, will not be making the trip to Tokyo — the player who brought the costume to the World Baseball Classic is not on the Olympic roster — representing the Jewish people on an international stage by qualifying for the tournament is a victory in itself, Sachs said.

“There are guys who feel that they’re fighting a Jewish stereotype of the weak Jew, of the unathletic Jew,” said Sachs. “They want to show that Jews can be athletes and stars. And they’re fighting each one of them by being decent human beings.”

Perhaps down the road, more of the players will be Israeli natives. For now, Team Israel will have to settle for just a couple of sabras garnishing a roster of yankees, and a head coach, Eric Holtz, who had his Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall.

Before Team Israel heads to Tokyo, it will be playing a round of exhibition games along the Eastern Seaboard, starting with a July 11 matchup with the FDNY team in Coney Island.

Team Israel opens Olympic play on July 29.

Author

Louis Keene

Louis Keene

Louis Keene is a staff reporter at the Forward. He can be reached at keene@forward.com or on Twitter @thislouis.

Israel’s baseball team heads to Olympics with made-in-America talent

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