Bringing it all back home

The impossible dream of reaching the Olympics may become a reality for Israel’s national baseball team.

Israel baseball players at World Baseball Classic (photo credit: HOWARD BLAS)
Israel baseball players at World Baseball Classic
(photo credit: HOWARD BLAS)
For now, all we can do is hold our breath and dream.
By Sunday at the latest, we’ll know if Israel’s national baseball team will be competing in the Olympics come July.
You know how many times Israel has fielded a team in the Olympics? Three: basketball in 1952, and soccer in 1968 and 1976. That’s it, three teams.
Now, after 44 years, another Israeli team may participate in the Olympics – playing baseball!
The possibility of this happening will be decided this weekend in Italy, where Team Israel  is facing off in a round-robin against five other countries at the Europe/Africa Olympic Qualifier tournament. Should Team Israel win the tournament, it’s on to the Olympics; should it finish in second place, it will have a final opportunity via a tournament next spring.
For some fans, baseball is a sport to follow only at the Major League level, the highest caliber of play. For me, it has always been about the sport, no matter where it was played, no matter who was playing. Some baseball fans can walk by a Little League field and see a game going on, and keep walking. I always stop. At least one batter. There’s always time for one batter if you love the game.
I have two passions in life: baseball and the Jewish people, and by extension Israel. I made the decision to move to Israel 28 years ago – and didn’t move back – because one passion was greater than the other. That was a trade I hated to make, forgoing one love for another. But baseball is full of tough trades. This was one I thought would be worthwhile – and I was right.
For people under 30, it’s difficult to imagine following baseball from Israel in the 1990s, when you were 48 hours late to the game, waiting for the morning newspaper to fill you in on the scores and the stories from two nights before, unless you were lucky enough to work for The Jerusalem Post, as I was, and could read the news and standings off the wires as soon as I came to work.
Then came the Internet, and one could stay connected in real time, watching and listening live. It brought the game closer, but not together – I could follow my Yankees and Cubs, but I had to follow them alone. I understood that soccer and basketball are the two sports that drive the Israeli masses, but it would have been gratifying to share my passion for, and devotion to, baseball with Israeli-born sports fans.
Over the past 30 years, that has changed. Olim from America started to grow the sport, and today the Israel Association of Baseball under Peter Kurz runs leagues for children of all ages. Though the numbers are small, the kids are playing, and local baseball is growing.
However, most Israelis don’t know about those leagues, or about the tournament taking place over five days this weekend in Bologna and Parma, Italy, where Israel is on the cusp of greatness playing against Italy, South Africa, the Netherlands, Spain and the Czech Republic.
I know the pushback: Didn’t we just go through this a couple of years ago, with an Israeli baseball team playing in the World Baseball Classic, the team that surprised everyone (though not the players) by finishing sixth in the world? Did anyone in Israel notice – besides the former Americans who grew up loving the game and brought the love with them when they made aliyah?
No, Israelis didn’t care, which was a shame because what the Israeli baseball team accomplished in March 2017 was extraordinary. The WBC didn’t register on Israeli radar for many reasons, including it supposedly not being an “Israeli” sport, and the players not being Israeli, just potential Israelis under the Interior Ministry rules of the tournament – even if the players wore an Israeli flag on the front of their uniforms, right above the heart.
But now it is different. The members of this team are all passport-carrying Israelis, with ID numbers. My landsmen.
Come the big stage at the Olympics, when the country’s pride is on the line, Israelis will care. Israelis don’t follow judo or windsurfing like they do soccer and basketball, but every Israeli knows that Yael Arad was the first Sabra to win an Olympic medal, and Gal Fridman the only one who has ever won Gold. Israelis will surely know next summer about baseball’s Team Israel.
The thought brings up the familiar tingle of a baseball team on a winning streak: What if Israel makes it? What if, after 44 years, Israel sends its fourth team to compete in the Olympics? Baseball will surely be on the sports map of Israel.
If Team Israel loses this weekend, we will have to wait eight years for another chance, as there will be no Olympic baseball played in the 2024 Games in France. But should they win? For a committed Zionist and American-born sports fanatic for whom baseball is the king of all sports, it means celebrating the ultimate confluence of my two passions – the sport I love being played by the country I love, the pride of seeing my Blue-and-White hitting and fielding on the green diamonds of Tokyo in July. I hope we will all be able to say “Sheheheyanu.”