The deeper meaning of Israel’s historic baseball accomplishment

Reflecting on the blue-and-white's improbable qualification campaign for a berth at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics

ISRAEL’S NATIONAL baseball team qualified last week for the 2020 Toyko Olympics, an incredible accomplishment and the culmination of years of hard work to assemble a top-notch squad to compete next year against the world's best. (photo credit: MARGO SUGARMAN)
ISRAEL’S NATIONAL baseball team qualified last week for the 2020 Toyko Olympics, an incredible accomplishment and the culmination of years of hard work to assemble a top-notch squad to compete next year against the world's best.
(photo credit: MARGO SUGARMAN)
   From earliest memory, the Jewish Days of Awe and baseball have always gone together. My father, like many North American rabbis, would slip in World Series updates between page announcements (perhaps to inspire his congregants to pray harder). So as we go through yet another round of annual spiritual accounting and reawakening, let's reflect on what’s been achieved and what lies ahead regarding the seemingly miraculous accomplishment of Israel's national baseball team, which has historically secured a berth in next year’s Tokyo Olympics.
Yet make no mistake about the term “miracle”. Our tradition teaches us that we should believe as if everything lies in the hands of the Almighty, but that we should act as if only our actions matter. Peter Kurz, the President of the Israel Association of Baseball and Team Israel’s general manager has devoted decades of meticulous planning and execution in creating a vision and then turning it into reality. The road has not been smooth. In 2013, a painful extra-innings loss kept Israel from advancing in the World Baseball Classic. Four years later, the team shocked the baseball world by finishing sixth in the WBC, while just missing the finals in Los Angeles by one game.
But the WBC and Olympic baseball competitions are as different as Ashkenazi and Sephardi, or the Orthodox and Reform, Jews. To represent Israel in the WBC,  players need only to be eligible for citizenship. For Olympic competition, each player must be a citizen. Kurz and his colleagues identified and convinced an amazing group of American professionals to throw in their lot with the Jewish state to bolster the budding homegrown talent of native Israelis.
Therefore, while Israel’s qualifying for the Olympics might appear supernatural, it was in fact a product of superhuman efforts to build a team marked by combined excellence of its players, who came together on and off the field. The situation is similar to Israel in the mid-1960s facing threats from surrounding countries that vowed to push us into the sea. Over years, Israel quietly built an air force with planes imported from a limited number of sources, mostly French, which included the top-of the-line Mirage along with less sophisticated aircraft. In three well-planned and perfectly executed hours of June 1967, that team changed the face of the Middle East.
From this season’s opening day in the executive suite at Yankee Stadium to Dodger Stadium and venues across MLB cities, Kurz and his group carefully explained his vision and game-plan to top American baseball people. Israel had to “only” win a series of four consecutive tournaments, needing to finish first in all but one. After winning the first two competitions in July, momentum was building, like a baserunner stretching a single into a double.
But a home run was needed and there were still two bases to go – the European Championship in Germany followed by the WBSC Europe/Africa Olympic Qualifier in Italy – both with significantly stiffer competition.
Again, the IAB was up to the task. It utilized the time to add its own version of the Mirage supersonic fighter-bomber: a group of five new reinforcements, including MLB veteran slugger Danny Valencia, whose 864 big league games dwarfed the combined experience of all other players in the upcoming tournament.
Valencia and his colleagues were modern-day versions of Mickey Marcus (the US Army colonel who assisted Israel during the 1948 war), arriving without any fanfare to cast their own giant shadows and propel Israel towards Tokyo.
Every one of the players who made aliyah has gone all-in. They were speechless at Yad Vashem and overwhelmed by a sense of history at the City of David, the Western Wall and a visit to an Israeli Air Force base.
The players identify with their Machal predecessors, who went above and beyond in 1948 to help the fledgling state survive. They also viewed the powerful video of the over-flight of Auschwitz, which shows how far we have come as a people in 75 years.
The team landed in Frankfurt just a few days before the anniversary of the 1972 Munich massacre. Left-hander Jeremy Bleich, who pitched last year with MLB’s Oakland A’s, expressed what it meant for him, as the grandson of two Auschwitz survivors, to represent the Jewish state on a field in Germany. With quiet determination, the team won its first four games in Germany and then advanced to the Olympic Qualifier in Italy the following week.
Yet even then, few reckoned that Israel could beat the favorites: perennial champs Netherlands or host Italy. The blue-and-white would have to win at least four out of five games and beat these two powerhouses.
Manager Eric Holtz brought old-school baseball to life, playing games one at a time. Everyone found a way to contribute. Ace Joey Wagman opened with a Sandy Koufax-like three-hit shutout, striking out eight (walking none) while throwing 116 pitches. He would come back on three-days' rest, reminiscent of Koufax’s 1965 return for Game 7 on only two-days’ rest after sitting out the World Series Opener on Yom Kippur. And like Koufax, Wagman gave another gutty performance of seven-inning shutout ball before exiting with a 7-1 lead.
But Wagman will be the first to mention how his defense bailed him out, with Rob Paller and Blake Gailen making great plays that could have sent the game on a different course in the very first inning. Jon Moscot found his form from his Cincinnati Reds days and Mitch Glasser continued his solid play, as did Zach Penprase, Benny Wanger, Ty Kelly, Jonathan DeMarte, Nick Rickles and too many others to mention.
The players became a team with a delightful family-like twist. They shared bar mitzvah pictures, warmed up before the games playing matkot as if they were at the Tel Aviv beach, and kibitzed non-stop. Walking in the Old City, former New York Mets infielder Kelly did an impression of a Sabra accent that comedian Elon Gold would kill for.
The players’ families were equally impressive. Parents and siblings, girlfriends and spouses with babies all made the trip. Pre-game Hatikvah was a moving moment for everyone and besides supporting the blue-and-white, the family members displayed an incredible wealth of knowledge of the game. Yet I couldn’t resist kidding one of the “Jewish" mothers,” jokingly asking her not to yell at her son when he crouched in his batter’s stance – “Don’t slouch! Stand up and be proud of your height!”
By the seventh inning of the final game, with the outcome and Olympic berth assured, the Israeli fans organized a wave. It was no small feat getting 50 Jews to agree to anything, let alone move in unison. It was reminiscent of the old joke about a visitor to a synogogue on the High Holy Days who sees half the congregation standing for the Kaddish, explaining “that’s our tradition,” while half would sit, also saying “that’s our tradition.” When the visitor asked why they are fighting with each other, they all chimed in “that’s our tradition.”
Hopefully, Team’s Israel's victory will usher in a new tradition, of understanding and pride among Jews from Israel and the Diaspora. When the game ended, Nefesh B’Nefesh benefactor Sylvan Adams, whose grant helped with the players’ aliyah, called the clubhouse. After congratulating the team and saying he looks forward to meeting them in Japan, Adams spoke movingly about the team’s contribution to Jewish people in Israel and around the world. (He was also the first person to correctly identify the last Israeli sports team to compete in an Oympics – in soccer at the 1976 Games in Montreal.
A recent editorial in The Jerusalem Post asserted that Israel’s fantastic baseball achievement was a welcome respite from the grind of our daily news. In a similar vein, US Chief Justice Earl Warren once remarked that he always turned first to The New York Times sports page and only later to the front page. As he explained, “on the sports page I can read of man’s hopes and achievements... whereas the front page tells of his shortcomings.”
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 Peter Kurz and Team Israel, the focus is already on Tokyo. There's a medal to win.
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