"OXYMORON" IS a figure of speech that contains words with opposite meanings – a contradiction in terms. For instance: Israeli baseball.
Baseball is a very slow game; in 2006 it took almost five hours for the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees to play a nine-inning game. A perfect game in baseball is one where no batter for one team ever reaches first base – in other words, where for three hours or more nothing happens. For impatient Israelis, who seek action, baseball is Nembutol – it puts you to sleep.
That is why the recent miraculous wins of the Israeli national baseball team are so astonishing. For instance, in the recent Tokyo Olympics, where the Israeli team defied all odds by qualifying – one of only six countries worldwide to do so – and then, finishing a respectable fifth. Or this year’s European baseball championships, in Turin, Italy, where a depleted Israeli team again worked miracles and reached the finals against a powerful Netherlands squad, led 4-1 – and lost 9-4 to the Dutch only after running out of pitching.
Here is the story of Israel’s national baseball squad, told brilliantly by Joel Shupack and the Israel Story podcast [full disclosure: my son Yochai is a producer and co-founder].
Act I: The Jamaican bobsled team?
“We’ve been compared to the Jamaican bobsled team,” said Eric Holtz, about the Israeli national team. “I love it!”
In the 1988 winter Olympics, Jamaica’s bobsled team debuted, improbably, and crashed on its final run, failing to finish. Yes, there are a few snowflakes atop Jamaica’s Blue Mountain…but not much bobsledding.
But Israeli baseball? It’s a different story.
In late 2016, Peter Kurz, President of the Israel Association of Baseball met with Holtz, who had coached the US baseball team at the Maccabiah games. Kurz offered Holtz the job of building Israel’s national team, intimating Israel could possibly be one of six Olympic qualifiers.
Holtz owns a baseball training camp near New York City. He was skeptical. Israel had not qualified for any Olympic summer games team sport of any kind since 1976. And Israeli baseball? Who plays baseball in Israel?
Holtz took the job. And Kurz and helpers began to assemble a team. But how?
The national team’s veteran right-handed pitcher Shlomo Lipetz told Shupack about a Little League match that he played in, against Saudi Arabia in 1989. It was at the US military base in Ramstein, Germany (where thousands of Afghan refugees were flown recently). Israel lost 41-0. Later, the Saudis, embarrassed by press reports of having played an Israeli team, for them a no-no, denied the game ever happened.
By Olympic regulations, to represent a country you must be a citizen. Enter Israel’s most powerful baseball weapon – the Law of Return, which says, anybody with even one Jewish grandparent can automatically and instantly (on touching Israeli soil) become a citizen.
Kurz scoured America for Jewish-American ballplayers, aided by octogenarian Ephraim Moxson, who with friend Shel Wallman collected data on every Jewish ballplayer who ever lived, published in the Jewish Sports Review magazine.
Kurz began making calls. The word spread about Team Israel. Soon players were calling him. Like Jeremy Wolf, a former New York Met, whose career was ended by a slipped disc. He was keen to come to Israel and become a citizen – so he could play for the Israeli national team.
But the road to Tokyo was long and very hard.
Act II: The miracle in Parma
The road to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics made Via Dolorosa seem like Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. It started, Shupack recounts, on July 1, 2019, in Bulgaria. Half of the Israeli team were Israelis; half were Americans. It was the first of three preliminary tournaments.
Israel had to win. They beat Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece and Ireland. But they had to beat Russia. Russia led – but Israel came from behind to win.
Jeremy Wolf explains – it was Israeli-style baseball. “In America, like, you’re cautious, you have to see your next steps. Israelis? They go, “I don’t think at all. I just play!”
Gradually, as more skilled Americans joined, Israelis were shed. It was hard for many. And it all came down to the qualifying tournament in Parma, Italy, in September 2019. Israel vs. South Africa. A win would send Israel to Tokyo.
South Africa was a powerhouse. Improbably, Israel won 11-1. Shlomo Lipetz, 40 years old, pitches the last inning.
And then, in early 2020, COVID-19. Global pandemic. The Olympics are postponed.
Can the Israeli national team hold together for over a year?
Yes, it can. Shupack says, “a scrappy team of has-beens and wannabes takes the field [in Japan] with ‘Israel’ written across their chests and a Star of David on their hats…. What happens next is anyone’s guess. It’s baseball. Anything can happen!”
And indeed it almost did.
Act III: Tokyo
8-1! Israel is drubbed by the US team in Yokohama. Starring for the US is the amazing Eddy Alvarez, who drove in runs with two doubles. Alvarez won a medal as a short track speed skater in the 2014 Winter Olympics and would win another as a US baseball player in the Tokyo Olympics.
A bright spot for Israel: Star infielder Danny Valencia homered for Israel, leading off in the fourth inning.
Israel plays five games. An opening heartbreaking loss to South Korea, 6-5. The loss to the US. A win over Mexico, 12-5. A drubbing by South Korea, 11-1. And another heartbreaker, losing 7-6 to the Dominican Republic, a country that supplies scads of stellar Major League Baseball players to the US.
Israel finishes a respectable fifth.
We can look back with pride at the Via Dolorosa. In the 2017 tournament Israel beat the UK twice and Brazil once. In 2019 in the European Championship B-Pool Israel won all five of its games, qualified for the A-pool and came in fourth, qualifying for the Africa/Europe Olympics qualifier. It won the qualifier, becoming one of the six teams to reach Tokyo. It had been quite a ride!
Act IV: Turin
But the saga is far from over. After the Olympics, the team disperses. Then it reforms, with mostly Israelis, for the European Championships in Italy, September 12-19, 2021.
Again, things look bleak. Teams comprise 24 players. Israel can only round up 17, and most of the American stars have gone home. But the Cinderella team again surprises, reaching the final game on Sept. 19 against powerhouse Netherlands. The Dutch team has many top players born in its former Central and South American colonies, where baseball is a hot sport.
But again Israel seemingly defies the odds. Israel leads 4-1 at the top of the seventh inning; third-baseman Assaf Lowengart smashes a two-run homer in the sixth. Ben Wanger pitches five outstanding innings in relief. Teenager Itai Goldner patrols the outfield. Manager Nate Fish brilliantly deploys his depleted talent.
Does Cinderella get her Prince?
Well, no. The Dutch bats come alive in the bottom of the seventh and eighth innings, with four runs in each. The game ends 9-4. Israel is European runner-up. Still, by all odds, a major underdog triumph.
Take me out to the ballgame?
Despite my snide oxymoron jibe, baseball in Israel is far from moribund. There are three ballparks: In the Baptist Village in Petah Tikva, Gezer Field, and the Sportek Field in Tel Aviv. There are 13 teams, youth and senior, including three in the Jerusalem suburb of Beit Shemesh, where many former Americans live. There is even an Israel Baseball Academy, in Petah Tikva, launched in 2014, with 24 players enrolled, ages 14-18.
Looking ahead, there will be no baseball in 2024 at the Paris Olympics. But look for baseball to return to the Olympics in 2028, in Los Angeles.
And don’t bet against Israel’s team again showing up, with a ragtag assemblage of Israelis and Jewish-Americans, who, against the odds, surprise the world once more – and, maybe, even themselves.
The writer heads the Zvi Griliches Research Data Center at S. Neaman Institute, Technion and blogs at www.timnovate.wordpress.com