Israel's national baseball team lost 9-4 to the Netherlands on Sunday in the final of the European championship, surprising many with their homegrown roster.
Ostensibly, this was the same team that represented Israel in the Tokyo Olympics this summer. But in reality, only a handful of players who were in Tokyo stepped onto the field in Italy.
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Israel’s Olympic roster was comprised almost entirely of Jewish Americans who were naturalized especially for the Games. After the Olympics, most of them returned to the United States, apparently finished with their job representing the blue and white.
So for the European tournament, Israel had to build a new roster, made up mainly of players born and raised around the country. On Friday, this squad defeated Italy 11-5 in the semifinals, making history before ultimately losing to a heavily-favored Dutch side.
Speaking by phone from Turin, where the tournament is taking place, starting catcher Tal Erel is one of the few Israelis to play both in Tokyo and Turin.
Erel says that just like anywhere else around the world where baseball is popular, Israeli children learn the game at a local little league. The good ones may be invited to represent the national team at different age groups.
“The highlight of the year for an Israeli player are the tournaments in Europe, usually in Italy or the Czech Republic,” said Erel, who grew up on youth teams that reached the European finals. But now it’s the adults, an achievement even more incredible considering that the team isn’t relying on U.S. ringers.
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The local baseball scene’s ability to develop players at this level may also seem surprising considering the facilities available back home. The country has only one regulation baseball field, in Baptist Village near Petah Tikva. The rest are makeshift.
Erel, who saw far better conditions when playing professionally in Europe, thinks that in some ways this may be an advantage.
“In Israel there isn’t even a pitching machine, and we have a big shortage of balls and bats,” he says. “But the fact that there’s only one field brings all the best players in the country to practice with the best coaches.”
The hope is that the successes in Tokyo and Turin, along with the construction of new fields in Beit Shemesh and Ra’anana back home, will attract more young people to the diamond.
The Orange have won the tournament now for the 24th times, the fourth year in a row. Despite the loss, Erel and his teammates proved many doubters wrong by taking Israel as far as they did.