Exclusive: Israel baseball brings Kinsler into the fold

With medal hopes growing, blue-and-white gets Tokyo commitment from 4-time MLB All-Star.

SHOFAR SO GOOD for new Israeli Ian Kinsler, playing around in Jerusalem (photo credit: DANNY GROSSMAN)
SHOFAR SO GOOD for new Israeli Ian Kinsler, playing around in Jerusalem
(photo credit: DANNY GROSSMAN)
Following Team Israel’s meteoric rise to Olympic heights, four-time MLB All-Star Ian Kinsler, widely recognized as the greatest Jewish second baseman of all time, made aliyah earlier this month. His goal: helping the blue-and-white squad win Israel’s first-ever medal in a team sport.
Israel will be one of six teams in the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Olympic baseball tournament (if it takes place). As host, Japan automatically qualified. Israel qualified by winning the Africa/Europe Qualifying Event in September 2019. Mexico qualified as the best team from the Americas, and South Korea qualified as the best team from Asia or Oceania (other than already-qualified Japan). Another team from the Americas will qualify through the Americas Qualifying Event in Arizona. The last spot will be awarded to the winner of the Final Qualifying Tournament.
Kinsler was inspired by the monumental achievements of his new teammates. The 37-year-old brings an impressive résumé to a line-up that already includes slugger Danny Valencia, Ryan Lavarnway (who, like Kinsler, earned a World Series ring with the Boston Red Sox) and a great pitching staff.
Besides his All-Star selections, Kinsler earned two Gold Gloves, and retired after last season just shy of 2,000 hits over 14 campaigns in the majors. His 243 steals led the all-time list of Jewish major leaguers, and his 257 home runs placed him fourth (behind Ryan Braun, Hank Greenberg and Shawn Green).
Kinsler is also among the select group of MLB players to join the lofty 30-30 club, with 30 homers and 30 stolen bases in a season. According to Baseball Digest, this is “the most celebrated feat that can be achieved by a player who has both power and speed”. Of the 41 men have ever done it, Ian is one of just 13 to do it more than once, joining Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and most recently, fellow Jewish slugger Ryan Braun.
Team Israel is hoping to benefit not only from Kinsler’s skills, but also for his knack of rising to the occasion at the most significant moments. In 2009, on Jackie Robinson Day, wearing the legendary second baseman’s No. 42, Kinsler went 6-for-6 while hitting for the cycle, a feat never achieved in a nine-inning game in the modern baseball era.
On September 11, 2010, with former President George W. Bush in attendance in Arlington, Texas, Kinsler ripped a ninth-inning, game-tying double off feared reliever Mariano Rivera sparking the host Rangers to victory.
In 2017, Jewish sports fans who had been thrilled by Israel’s sixth-place finish in the World Baseball Classic will recall how Kinsler then added to their sense of pride by being the star of the tournament’s championship team, while playing for Team USA.
Ian Kinsler coaching Israeli youth at Baptist Village Field. (Credit: Margo Sugarman)
Ian Kinsler coaching Israeli youth at Baptist Village Field. (Credit: Margo Sugarman)
From his earliest scouting reports, Kinsler was listed as a five-tool player, hitting for average and power, and excelling at base running, throwing, and fielding. However, apart from his inherited athleticism, Kinsler is quick to note the influence of his parents, who imbued him with a sense of values.
His father, Howard Kinsler, grew up in the Bronx, and had his bar mitzvah at Temple Adas Israel on the Grand Concourse, a stone’s throw from Yankee Stadium. Kinsler senior later moved to Arizona, where Ian was born, and passed on his Jewish heritage as well as his love for the game, tossing Ian fly balls since the age of four.
Kinsler is even more adamant about crediting his success to his wife and soulmate, Tess, who has been his guiding light since they were high school sweethearts. On their first full day in Israel earlier this month, Tess and Ian shared a marathon of meaningful experiences, and reflected upon the path life has taken them.
Sipping Turkish coffee in Jerusalem after exiting the Kotel Tunnels, Tess described Ian as a tough but scrawny kid who began college carrying just 160 pounds on his six-foot frame. While his University of Missouri coach Tim Jamieson agreed with the MLB scouts, that Ian was “as good a middle infielder as I had ever seen,” it was Ian’s inner strength that impressed him, as it had Tess.
According to Jamieson: “From the day Ian stepped through the doors here, you could see it on his face: He was on a mission.”
So as he mulled over his coffee while relating highlights of a great career, it became clear that Kinsler has now found another mission for himself. Beginning with the Olympics, Kinsler is intent on helping to build baseball in Israel.
When asked what really got him excited, he said, “teaching a kid something and seeing the fire in his eyes.”
For Kinsler, this was not a well-rehearsed line out of a movie. On his last day in Israel, even though he had already conducted a clinic at Israel’s one regulation-sized baseball field near Petah Tikvah, Kinsler insisted on spending two hours before departing on a midnight flight in a Tel Aviv high school classroom, talking shop with Israel’s Under-18 national team. It felt like fate had brought them together.
Interestingly, it was the day after Purim and as he left for the airport, the words of Mordechai to his niece Esther now seemed to apply to Kinsler: “Who knows whether thou art not come to this position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14).
Ian Kinsler has answered that question by stepping up to the plate for Team Israel.