Gailen, blue-and-white take it step by step

Israel faces Lithuania in best-of-three series in latest challenge to qualify for 2020 Olympics.

By JOSHUA HALICKMAN
July 26, 2019 00:07
BLAKE GAILEN was Israel’s top hitter in the European Baseball Championship Group B tournament earlie

BLAKE GAILEN was Israel’s top hitter in the European Baseball Championship Group B tournament earlier this month, and the blue-and-white is counting on him to maintain that momentum in this weekend’s best-of-three series against Lithuania. (photo credit: MARGO SUGARMAN)

Israel Baseball will be facing yet another important test this weekend when it plays Lithuania for the final spot in the European Baseball Championships, which is slated to be played this September in Germany. The games scheduled for Bonn and Solingen serve as a pre-qualifier for the Europe/Africa Olympic Qualification Tournament to earn a berth in the 2020 Tokyo Games.

The blue-and-white advanced to the playoff against Lithuania as both nations won their respective pools in the European Baseball Championship Group B competitions. The MVP of Israel’s group was Blake Gailen, who is a veteran of Team Israel and featured in the World Baseball Classic in 2017.

Gailen spoke to The Jerusalem Post about his career while looking ahead to the immediate goals at hand.

“I’ve been playing baseball my whole life,” said the West Hill, California, native. “I always loved the game as a child and I’ve never stopped playing. My dad was a huge baseball fan and playing was always what I wanted to do."

“Growing up in the Los Angeles area made me a Dodgers fan and when I was younger I really loved Fernando Valenzuela and Kirk Gibson. As a high school student I really admired how Barry Bonds played the game. In those days you were either a Ken Griffey Jr. or Bonds fan, and I chose the latter.”

As Gailen moved up the ranks he felt that he was definitely good enough to become a professional but, “I wasn’t as good as I thought I was. I knew I had the brains for the game, but I was undersized so everyone said that I overachieved."

“I was always overlooked as a kid and in college. I was never drafted and I’ve had to prove myself every year. Nothing was handed to me on a silver platter which gave me a different perspective in my very interesting journey.”

Bouncing around from one independent team to another finally led him to the Los Angeles Angels, with whom he signed as a 26-year old in 2011. One of Gailen’s teammates at the time in Double-A Arkansas was current superstar Mike Trout and he was able to see first-hand a future phenomenon in the making.

“When I arrived in Little Rock everyone said that I had to watch this young guy play. I couldn’t believe it when Trout hit a short chopper down the line and the next thing I see is him sliding into third base. I had never seen anyone so spry on the base paths and I knew right there and then that he was going to be one of the best ever.”

Just as Gailen’s travels in baseball took some interesting turns, so did his arrival in Israel.

“I was playing in the Atlantic League back in 2016 and one of my teammates said that I should join him on the team since I was Jewish. He put me in contact with the head of the Israel Association of Baseball, Peter Kurz, and told him that I was interested. A week later we got the paperwork done and I was on the roster.”

Next up for Gailen was representing Israel Baseball at the highest level at the World Baseball Classic in March 2017.

“The experience was first class all the way and we were humbled because we were all treated like kings. That’s not the way it is in the minor leagues, but since there were major leaguers in the competition the organizing committee wanted to treat everyone equally.”

Gailen noted that Israel enjoyed playing the underdog role at the WBC.

“Before the WBC, we were ranked dead last, but we knew that we should match up pretty well with every team in the tourney and I was confident in our abilities to do so. On paper we were underdogs, but we knew we were going to be competitive. We won our first game against Korea and that sparked us; It was pretty wild. In Korea and Japan we played in stadiums with over 45,000 spectators and we embraced and enjoyed the moment. It was incredible.”

The immediate goal right now for Gailen and Israel is to qualify for the Olympics, and in order for the outfielder to play for the blue-and-white at this level, he needed to make aliyah, which he did in October 2018.

“Although I am Jewish, it wasn’t something that I had practiced. But by the end of the WBC, I was pulled closer and closer toward my Jewish heritage. I saw how much it meant to the people of Israel and to Jews around the world. The entire experience brought me toward my lineage and when I walked through the streets of Jerusalem it meant even more to me. I have become more immersed in my Judaism and I am very proud.”

Gailen knows that there is still much to accomplish and Israel will need to get through three more qualifying rounds, with the first challenge against Lithuania in a best-of-three series.

“It was important to qualify for the Lithuania series after winning our group earlier this month. The next mission is to move on and get to Germany and then Italy in September as the quality of teams will improve. We’re not looking at the teams in front of us because we just have to win and continue on.”

Although at the age of 34, Gailen has never had an MLB at bat, it still remains a possibility as he plays for the Dodgers Triple-A affiliate in Oklahoma City.

“You always play for opportunities and you never know what will happen. I wouldn’t say I am content that I didn’t make it to the majors, but that’s why I continue to play. I feel that I still have the ability to, but my window is continuously getting smaller. It’s not something that is in my control and there are too many decisions that have to be made which isn’t my department. I have to keep putting myself in the best situation to have the opportunity to be called up.”

Israel will automatically take part in the 2021 WBC and Gailen hopes to still be a part of the action.

“I really want to play as long as I can so I can get to the 2021 WBC. We won our first pool back in 2017 and that gets you into the tournament. It was an experience of a lifetime and one that I want to be a part of once again.”

However, one thing is certain for Gailen.

“Being able to represent Israel through baseball, the game I love, has done so much for me on a personal level and for that I’ll always be grateful to the Israel Association of Baseball for this incredible opportunity.”

Joshua Halickman, the Sports Rabbi, covers Israeli sports and organizes Israel sports adventures for tourists and residents (www.sportsrabbi.com). Follow the Sports Rabbi on Twitter @thesportsrabbi or feel free to contact the Sports Rabbi via email at sportsrabbi9@gmail.com.


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