Israel’s national baseball team was victorious over the weekend, winning the Confederation of European Baseball’s (CEB) European Championships Pool B tournament by going a perfect 6-0 in Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria, in the first step toward qualifying for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
The results included conquests of Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, Ireland and twice Russia (which had six Cuban players on its roster).
Winning the tournament in Bulgaria advanced Team Israel to a three-game playoff series against the winner of the second Pool B group, Lithuania, at the end of July, and the winner of that series will move up to Pool A, to be played in early September. The top five teams from Pool A will advance to the Olympics qualifiers to be played in Parma, Italy in late September.
“This was the first step in our road to the Olympic Qualifiers,” Israel Association of Baseball President and general manager of Team Israel Peter Kurz told The Jerusalem Post from Bulgaria. “This was an A-level quality tournament. All the other teams were excellent. The best thing for me was to see five native Israeli kids who grew up in the IAB program play crucial roles. Bringing in ‘new Israelis’ like Blake Gailen, like Zach Penprase, is important for our organization, but I think having those homegrown players playing such crucial roles is fantastic.”
The first game against Russia was a true thriller, going to extra innings tied at eight, with the Russians scoring four runs in the top of the 10th inning before the blue-and-white exploded for five runs in the bottom of the frame for the dramatic 13-12 triumph.
Included in the 24-man roster were Gailen, who is playing AAA with the LA Dodgers and was named MVP of the tournament; Penprase, Corey Baker, Matt Soren, Jeremy Wolf, Jonathan DeMarte, Rob Paller, Mitch Glasser, Shlomo Lipetz, Alon Leichman, Dean Pelman, Ryan Willen, Eric Brodkowitz, Simon Rosenbaum, Dan Rothem; Danny Grillo, Tal Erel, Asaf Lowengart and Noam Calisar. Team Israel’s head coach was Eric Holtz.
Ophir Katz, Calisar, Erel, Lowengart, Leichman, Lipetz and Rothem started their baseball careers in Israel baseball and have all gained international experience to boost the team.
“This team represents the best of Israel Baseball, with players who have vast experience both on the professional stage as well as in colleges,” noted Kurz. “With Team Israel’s great sixth-place finish in the 2018 WBC tournament, after beating some of the top teams in the world, still fresh in their minds, their motivation is at an all-time high to represent Israel on this international stage and to go all the way to Tokyo in 2020.”
Looking ahead to the playoff against Lithuania and beyond, Kurz is optimistic.
“Our goal is to be one of he six teams in European qualifiers,” he said. “Then, when you are in a four-day tournament with six teams and you have the kind of pitching we have, we have pretty good chances.
“I want to thank all the people, who have helped get the team this far. We have our [crowd-funding platform] Jewcer account where we are getting donations, but there really have not been any major corporate sponsors to date, and we hope to get some of those on board for this exciting journey.”
According to former IAF pilot Danny Grossman, who has helped connect Team Israel players with Israel’s heritage and also has assisted with fundraising, many prominent MLB figures have recently stepped up to the plate to help the IAB cover expenses for its participation in the Olympic qualifying games this summer. Among them, both New York Yankees President Randy Levine and Los Angeles Dodgers President Stan Kasten graciously donated suites for IAB use. Levine and Kasten also reached out to fellow MLB owners and executives, who are donating suites as well.
Penprase, who grew up in California and was selected by the Philadelphia Phillies in the 2006 MLB draft, spoke with the Post about his experience in suiting up for Israel for the first time.
“After playing for the Phillies and then playing eight years of professional baseball in Fargo, North Dakota, I wasn’t sure what direction my career would take,” said Penprase. “I grew up in a Jewish-Christian household, and always felt more connected to my Jewish heritage. Getting Israeli citizenship was such a special moment and playing for my country, something that is so much bigger than me, was truly amazing.
“To see how all of the guys, with such different backgrounds, came together in six days to win this tournament is really spectacular. I can’t put into words what playing in Olympics for Israel would be like. To be an Olympian is something I never actually even dreamed of before. I am so thankful to be involved in this journey.”
In related news, the IAB also sent an Under-18 team to a CEB European Championship tournament for the first time this week. The team will be playing starting Monday in Sundbyberg, Sweden, to qualify for a place in next year’s U18 tournament. The team has a strong core of players who have come up through the Israel Baseball Academy.
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