Israel's national baseball team making its way to the Olympics

Team Israel, Israel's national baseball team, provides inspiration to both Israelis and Diaspora Jews who take pride in its achievements

Pitcher Joey Wagman (photo credit: MARGO SUGARMAN)
Pitcher Joey Wagman
(photo credit: MARGO SUGARMAN)
“There is baseball in Israel!” declared Peter Kurz, general manager of Team Israel. His squad had just received President Reuven Rivlin’s blessing in advance of the Tokyo Olympics in the summer.
However, not long ago, one might have ended the above statement with a question mark instead of an exclamation point, as few Israelis – including its president – were familiar with America’s national pastime.
But over the past decade, baseball in the Holy Land has produced an impressive string of achievements, reminiscent of David’s upset victory over Goliath. Admittedly, the road has not been smooth. In 2012, a painful extra-innings loss kept Israel from advancing to the 2013 World Baseball Classic.
Four years later, with the help of several former Major Leaguers – like pitchers Jason Marquis (a 2009 Major League Baseball All Star with a World Series ring), Josh Zeid and its MVP catcher Ryan Lavarnway (who had also earned a World Series ring) – Team Israel shocked the baseball world by finishing sixth in the WBC, while barely missing the final four in Los Angeles. Its victory over South Korea was dubbed the greatest upset in the history of international baseball.
However, unlike the WBC competition, for players to represent their country in the Olympics they must be citizens. Kurz and his colleagues convinced an amazing group of American professionals to throw their lot in with the Jewish state and bolster its roster of native Israelis, in time for a four-month campaign during the summer of 2019. The players arrived in small groups and were assisted in their aliyah process by the professional staff of Nefesh B’Nefesh, which helped them as they do with thousands of other immigrants who arrive annually.
Along with their passports, Team Israel members received intense Birthright-type experiences that tied them to their new homeland. After the Western Wall and City of David, they visited Yad Vashem. The next day, they toured an Israel Air Force fighter squadron where they learned they could identify with their predecessors from Mahal (overseas volunteers), fighters who came from abroad in 1948 to help the fledgling state survive. The players also viewed a powerful video of the IAF overflight of Auschwitz, which shows how far we have come as a people in 75 years.
The team added MLB veteran slugger Danny Valencia, whose 864 big-league games dwarfed the combined experience of all other players in the competition. Against all odds, Team Israel won four consecutive tournaments played in four different countries, culminating with the Europe/Africa Olympic Qualifier in Italy – from which only one team would be guaranteed a berth in Tokyo.
The boys of summer reeled off a string of consecutive victories, showing poise with come-from-behind as well as extra-inning victories, and beating teams like Russia (twice) and perennial European powerhouses the Netherlands and Italy. To a man, the players delivered timely hitting, sterling defense and clutch pitching. Blake Gailen was the slugging star of the first tournaments and Valencia went on a tear in the last, hitting six home runs in seven games.
Former Mets infielder Ty Kelly and catcher Nick Rickles combined great at bats with solid fielding, as did Zach Penprase, who also ran the bases like a thoroughbred. Yet in baseball, pitching is critical – especially in a short series – and the entire pitching staff stepped up its game. Reds pitcher Jon Moscot threw as hard as he had worked to make a comeback after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
Ace Joey Wagman hurled a complete game and came back on short rest (à la Sandy Koufax in the 1965 World Series) to clinch the final victory over South Africa, which guaranteed a place in the Olympics. But Wagman was the first to mention how his defense bailed him out; with Rob Paller making an acrobatic catch that set a tone for the game that could have taken a different course in the very first inning.

The Olympic qualifying campaign was laden with meaningful moments that transcended victories on the diamond. The team landed in Frankfurt just a few days before the anniversary of the Munich massacre, becoming the first national team to represent the Jewish state there since 1972. And just days after receiving his citizenship, Oakland A’s left-hander Jeremy Bleich expressed what it meant for him, as the grandson of  Auschwitz survivors, to represent the Jewish state on a field in Germany. To add further context to the enormity of Israel’s achievement, it should be noted that the Blue-and-White baseball squad will be Israel’s first to team compete in a “ball sport” in 44 years (since Israel’s soccer team at the 1976 Games). And with only six teams from around the world in the baseball tournament, Team Israel mathematically has a 50 percent chance of bringing home Israel’s 10th Olympic medal.
But baseball is played on a field, not on paper, and Israel’s manager, Eric Holtz, is a classic “old school” manager who believes in playing the games one pitch, one at-bat and one inning at a time. Holtz’s dream is to see Israel not only succeed in Japan, but to use its hard-fought achievements to grow the sport in Israel and quickly double the current number of participants (around 1,000 from ages six to 50).
Kurz noted that with the help of the Jewish National Fund, construction of a major field in Beit Shemesh is well under way and one in Ra’anana will soon follow suit.
Before traveling abroad, the players held youth clinics around Israel, coaching kids in fundamentals and infecting them with their love of the game. During a 16-hour-day up north, players joined Israeli kids from Jewish and Arab backgrounds in playing catch – perhaps the most psychologically rewarding activity based on sharing an equal exchange. In Ra’anana, the kids were thrilled when Valencia spontaneously FaceTimed his buddy, superstar Manny Machado who last year became the MLB’s first $300 million free agent.
Not only did Machado graciously mention that he was traded for one of the Israeli players (Dean Kremer), but he took great delight when a 16-year-old Israeli shortstop cockily announced he was gunning for Machado’s position. Machado later Tweeted his good-natured offer to slide over and play Third Base to make room for our young hopeful (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NaFad7c5PWI).
Israeli players also visited patients at Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer, including the victim of a horrific road accident as well as an IDF soldier facing a difficult rehab, and shared tender moments with sick children at the hospital. So while there is plenty to be proud of with respect to Team Israel’s accomplishments on the field, there is also lots of pride to be had with their off-field behavior. Following the team’s meeting with Rivlin they heard inspiring words from Team Israel supporter Sylvan Adams, who implored them to follow his lead in using sports to promote Israel’s image abroad.
Equally important, Team Israel provides inspiration to both Israelis and Diaspora Jews who take pride in its achievements. The common purpose and sense of shared destiny among teammates is a model of peoplehood for all members of our greater Jewish community.
Indeed, Team Israel’s feat reminds of Vin Scully’s legendary call of Kirk Gibson’s 1988 World Series home run: “In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened!” But for Team Israel, the focus is now on Tokyo. There’s a medal to win!
Lt.-Col. (res.) Danny Grossman flew fighters in the US and Israeli Air Forces and has served as the Israeli director of the American Jewish Congress and as a senior adviser to Team Israel