Baseball / Building on the (not-so) foreign legion
College players strengthen Israel's core.
Peter Kurz clearly sees the silver lining in Israel's sixth-place finish at this week's Prague baseball week. "We met all our goals to gain experience in international tournaments," the secretary general of the Israel Association of Baseball told Anglo File Sports on Wednesday. "You have to play six games in five days, which is very intensive. "We are used to one to two a week. It wears on you physically, psychologically. It's important to know how to do that mentally and physically."
The friendly competition in the Czech Republic served as a training tournament for the seven teams. Croatia, Austria and Russia - which are literally out of Israel's league - tuned up for the senior European championship in Stuttgart in two weeks. Israel, which finished 1-5, used Prague as a practice tournament for the 2011 qualifiers preceding the 2012 European championships.
Kurz says a core of teammates playing college ball in North America give reason to be optimistic that Israel will improve on its third-place performance in the previous European qualifiers, which was a good finish but not enough to advance.
"We've got five guys in college - Ophir Katz in junior college in California, Oren Gal in Canada [York University], Daniel Maddy-Weitzman in Philly [Haverford], Guy Stevens in California [Pomona-Pitzer] and Alon Leishman, who is going to junior college [Cypress] in January," says Kurz. "Alon was our best player in this tournament. We were very close in every game."
Maddy-Weitzman and Gal, a Team Canada member at last year's Maccabiah Games who was the Israeli team MVP two years ago, were unavailable for the tournament, indicating that the team could have been more competitive.
Pitching is Israel's strong card, and all four whom Kurz refers to as "top-level pitchers" are past, present or future college players in North America.
Besides Leishman, who grew up in Kibbutz Gezer, the rotation boasts Stevens, 19, who grew up in California and has an Israeli mother; Shlomo Lipitz, who grew up in the Tel Aviv system, went to University of California, San Diego and lives in New York; and player-coach Dan Rothem, who grew up in Israel and played Division-1 at Gardner-Webb University in North Carolina. The foursome gives Israel a "solid pitching core for a short tournament," says Kurz.
Israel's hitting in Prague was better than two years ago but was still weak, says Kurz. The hope is to find foreign legionnaires with a blue-and-white connection, he says.
"We're looking for a couple of more guys who are children of yordim with Israeli passports," says Kurz, referring to Israelis who have moved abroad. One prospect is Eitan Maoz, a catcher from Canada who bats .400. Kurz says that although Maoz didn't play in Europe, the Israel Association of Baseball is talking to him about playing in next year's European qualifiers.
Some of the children of Israelis living abroad are more than just hired hands, says Kurz. Playing for the national team and seeing how the game is developing in the Holy Land has them thinking about moving back to Israel.
Kurz says his goal to improve the offense is for every senior national team member to get in 700 swings a week of batting practice over the next 12 months. "The only way to make them better hitters is to swing," he says. The team will also be looking for more tournaments to improve its endurance and be better able to play day after day. He adds that Israel is seeking to host a tournament of its own in March.
As his association prepares to meet next week to plan out a strategy for the coming year in preparation for next summer's qualifiers, the budget remains a key concern. "We got enough to fund the past trip, but we need about $50,000 to $60,000 for the coming year to do everything that we want to do," says Kurz. "We've got about 10 percent raised."The next generation
The Israeli men's team was not the only national squad playing abroad this month. The national cadet team became the first Israeli contingent to take part in Cooperstown Baseball World, a youth tournament held near the Baseball Hall of Fame.
The Israeli team finished 2-6 over five days, but head coach Amit Kurz says the second-to-last-place showing belies the team's performance. "We were a hit away from a couple of more wins," he told Anglo File Sports yesterday.
Akiva Schwartz pitched well, though he didn't pick up any wins in the tourney held from July 11 to 15. He held his own against the Florida state champions, dropping a 4-2 decision in which Israel had the bases loaded in the final inning.
He also contributed on defense at shortstop. The team's other standout was catcher Tal Erel, who according to Kurz did "a fantastic job of blocking the ball and hitting."
Kurz says the team may play again in the States but the real goal is to prepare for European competition, Israel's main peers, and to develop players for the senior program.