Home-grown Israeli baseball: From youth to the pros

Israel has seen professional baseball in Israel, but after only one season in 2007, the league folded, and the country has yet to see a comeback.

Baseball practice (photo credit: MARGO SUGARMAN)
Baseball practice
(photo credit: MARGO SUGARMAN)
A revolution is well on the way.
Just as Israel embraced the emergence of basketball in the 1960s and 70s, now too, the country is beginning to accept baseball within its ever-growing, ever-transforming athletic world.
For the past 25 years, the Israel Association of Baseball has operated a nonprofit organization charged with developing the sport at the amateur level. However, in the past year the IAB has seen an accelerated transformation within its infrastructure.
Just ask IAB National Director Nate Fish, the self-proclaimed “King of Israeli Baseball.”
“We want to offer all of the same opportunities that any baseball program in the world offers. It’s our goal to grow baseball in Israel. We want to actually have a domestic impact. We want baseball to be a sport in Israel that people identify with, and are knowledgeable about, and can enjoy,” Fish said this week in a phone interview with The Jerusalem Post.
A sport such as baseball, whose rules are not so intuitive to newcomers, definitely has a steep learning curve in a new locale.
“It’s a whole educational project,” noted Fish. “So yes, we want to be able to give kids the opportunity to go play college and pro baseball, but it’s not the only thing.
We’re not only focused on the high-end programming. We want to have a strong youth league. We just want to give kids the experience of playing baseball.”
Since taking the National Director position just over a year ago, Fish and the rest of the revamped IAB organization has seen a nationwide growth the likes of which have never before been seen in Israeli baseball.
Armed with a sleek, reinvigorated website, an enhanced communications department, a new merchandizing department and a brandnew staff dedicated to promoting baseball in Israel, the association has seen an almost 30 percent increase in participation over the last year, approximately matching up exactly to the time that these new operations were implemented.
The IAB finished 2013 with 590 players, and by the end of the 2014 season had around 750 players nationwide, a number they expect to keep growing exponentially.
Baseball players are incorporated into five different leagues: minor, juvenile, cadet, junior, and premier, ranging from five-yearolds in the minor league to adults of all ages in the premier league.
As the association has grown, the IAB and Israeli baseball in general is gaining some international recognition. According to Fish, in the last year, Israel’s senior national team rank, both in the European and world rankings has gone “through the roof.”
In 2012, under the guidance of Brad Ausmus – the current Detroit Tigers’ manager and long time MLB catcher – Team Israel made a serious push in the WBC qualifiers, coming one win away from making the tournament.
Ranked fifth and 19th, in Europe and the world, respectively, this kind of development, says Fish, could put Israel in a position to qualify for the World Baseball Classic sooner rather than later.
After winning the European championship in the C-pool this past summer,  Team Israel has a chance to win the B-pool this summer, which would give it a chance to qualify for the A-pool, which acts as the WBC qualifier, in 2016.
Israel is also working to become an internationally recognized part of the world for find young baseball talent.
Early last month, the IAB launched its first-ever baseball academy, a way to get Israeli baseball players invited to try out for “elite camps” throughout Europe.
“Major League Baseball officially recognizes the Israeli Baseball Academy as the elite training program for youth players in Israel, certainly,” explains Fish. “When we send in our reports [from the Academy], we’re sending it directly to the representatives of Major League Baseball International in London, and they’re the ones that are providing the camps for us.”
According to the Confederation of European Baseball website, Major League Baseball invites players for the European Elite Camp following the Academies Tournament each spring and after a series of tryouts throughout Europe. The Elite Camp is for the top 40 under-19-years-old prospects in Europe. MLB is connected to international baseball is through these camps.
These prospects will inevitably have their player profiles entered into major league scouting bureau’s system for all 30 major league teams to see.
“It’s just a way to get our guys noticed,” notes Fish. “There are a lot of scouts and coaches at these camps, so we’re creating player profiles for all of our academy players so that those coaches can look at their numbers, pictures, and videos in order to get them some more exposure.”
This being the first year, the academy has only 11 players participating. The chosen 11, ranging in age from 14 to 21, are some of the best players Israel has to offer, and all hope to receive an invite to try out for once of these camps, whether it be the Elite Camp or a mini-camp, which takes the next best 40 players in Europe.
Fish has high hopes for baseball in Israel.
However, the recent evolution also comes with its own unique set of problems.
The IAB continues to face a shortage of coaches, umpires, equipment, and perhaps most importantly, fields.
A big part of the success that the IAB has experienced is starting new programs throughout the country.
In Fish’s own words: “It’s easier to get kids excited about baseball. That’s not a hard sell.
I go into schools all over the country to introduce kids to baseball, and they get really excited about it. They love it. They want to play, but finding fields is much slower and much harder. It’s just a slow process. We are always trying to raise money for new fields.
It’s a process because you have to find land, you have to raise the money, and you have to build the field. There are a lot of things that need to fall into place to get that done.”
According to Fish, there are “very few fields in the country, and as the organization grows, we get more and more crammed for space. The number of players is growing like crazy, but the number of fields is not.
There is one full sized, legitimate baseball field in Israel. It is in Petah Tikva in the ‘Baptist Village.’ Most of our teams [around the country] play on soccer fields.”
And building new fields can only happen once more willing coaches and umpires come out of the woodwork.
The IAB has a meager personnel budget and advertises through Nefesh B’nefesh in hopes of finding people from North America with baseball experience. But apart from that, most of what the association depends is word of mouth and volunteers.
The IAB does own some land in Beit Shemesh that is currently sitting dormant as money is being raised to develop the property. There are also possible projects on the horizon in Ra’anana and Modi’in.
The future success of these situations hinges primarily on Peter Kurz, the president of the IAB and the head of Project Baseball, the fundraising branch of the organization. Through Kurz’s affiliation with the Jewish National Fund in New York, The IAB is hopeful that it will be able to build a field this year.
Although these issues are real obstacles to the growth of baseball in the region, they are only so pressing and vital because of the recent surge of players the IAB is now dealing with.
In other words, these are good issues to have, because the goal is to bring baseball to Israel, and as the sport propagates, it is only natural for concerns to arise of how to handle the influx of players.
As Fish says, “Jews have been huge in the sport of baseball. It’s sort of the most Jewish sport. There have been lots of Jewish baseball players. It doesn’t always necessarily translate to Israel, but it’s the most Jewish sport in that sense.”
It is only natural that the “Jewish sport” should find its way to Israel.
And as baseball continues to develop in the Holy Land, Fish and the rest of the IAB see even bigger opportunities on the horizon.
“Hopefully – eventually – as more people play and the talent gets better, the league will improve, and we can start bringing in foreign players. The same way that the European pro leagues do, or the same way, for example, that basketball in Israel does. Getting a really good base of players and young fans in the country is our priority, but if there are enough people that like and pay baseball here to sustain a professional baseball league, I’m sure naturally it’ll just come up.”
Israel has seen professional baseball in Israel – the Israeli Baseball League – but after only one season in 2007, the league folded, and the country has yet to see a comeback.
“Someone will take that opportunity, or we’ll even be able to run a pro-league,” envisions Fish. “I do think there’s a unique opportunity to provide a winter league for Europe. European pros can come here and play. We may have an opportunity to fit that sort of niche and give guys a winter baseball experience; maybe a league that would run from October to March.”
Who knows what is in store for Israeli baseball, but one thing is for sure: The “Jewish Sport” has returned home.
For more information on baseball in Israel, please visit www.baseball.org.il