Israel's Baseball Team Has a Secret Weapon – and It May Get It Into the Olympics

Local association has arranged citizenship for over a dozen U.S. players, some of them former major leaguers like Danny Valencia, Ty Kelly and Jon Moscot

Nick Rickles, far left, and Ty Kelly, center with ball, holding a workshop for young baseball players at Baptist Village in Petah Tikva this week.
Margo Sugarman

A crop of newly-minted citizens headed by three ex-major leaguers is looking to push Israel’s national baseball squad closer to reaching the Olympics for the first time.

Danny Valencia, an infielder with seven MLB clubs and the team’s newest citizen, picked up his passport in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, just ahead of the team’s departure Thursday to compete in the European Baseball Championships beginning this weekend in Bonn, Germany. Former major league utilityman Ty Kelly; Nick Rickles, a former minor league catcher; and Yale graduate Ben Wanger, a pitcher and first baseman, also were in Israel for the past week to finalize their citizenship status.

Danny Valencia holding his new Israeli passport in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, September 4, 2019.
Margo Sugarman

As with Israel’s squad that shocked the global-baseball community with seven straight wins in the World Baseball Classic in 2016 and 2017, the team chasing the Olympics is dominated by American Jewish players.

Under WBC rules, players must only be eligible for citizenship in the country they represent; for the Olympics and its run-up tournaments, players must be citizens. This requirement led to collaboration between the Israel Association of Baseball, the local governing body, and immigrant-assistance organization Nefesh B’Nefesh so the new recruits could officially immigrate and become eligible to play on Israel’s team.

Rickles, a coach on the Rocky Mountain Vibes, a Milwaukee Brewers farm team, sweated it out early last week waiting for documents to reach his home in Las Vegas so he could depart for Israel. Rickles, 29, took the papers to the Interior Ministry’s Tel Aviv office and emerged with a passport, a symbol of his new citizenship.

The mail-driven excitement “made me realize how important this was” and that “I really, really want to do this,” Rickles said Monday while purchasing iced coffee and croissants at a shop along the Tel Aviv Port.

By “this,” Rickles didn’t mean only the Germany games or, if Israel winds up in the top five in Bonn, advancement to Italy for additional games in Parma beginning September 18. Finishing first in Italy would land Israel in next summer’s Olympics in Tokyo, an enormous accomplishment for a country where baseball is far off the sports radar.

The IAB arranged Israeli citizenship for 18 American Jews over the past year, three of whom are injured and unavailable in Europe. None intend to live in Israel, although one, outfielder Jeremy Wolf, resides in Tel Aviv, plans to stay for up to a year and is seeking a job in marketing.

Another American, Jake Rosenberg, a college outfielder from Pennsylvania, immigrated to Israel on his own, and seven players have been citizens from birth: four sabras and three American Jews whose parents are Israeli. An eighth Israeli might be added before Friday’s finalization of EBC rosters.

Besides Valencia and Kelly, pitcher Jon Moscot is a former major leaguer who figures to play a key role in Europe.

Several of the players held hitting and fielding practice at Tel Aviv’s Sportek and at the Baptist Village complex in Petah Tikva, ran baseball clinics for youngsters, toured Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, met Israeli soldiers and enjoyed Tel Aviv’s culinary offerings.

L-R: Ty Kelly, Danny Valencia , Ben Wanger, Nick Rickles, Jeremy Wolf and Tal Erel at a workshop for young baseball players at Baptist Village in Petah Tikva this week.
Margo Sugarman

“I came here to play baseball, first and foremost,” Valencia, 34, said after hammering multiple home runs into the trees beyond Baptist Village’s left-centerfield fence on Monday evening. “It wasn’t about coming here as a tourist, although it’s great to be in Israel. It’s to be an Olympian.”

He and Wolf, 25, an Arizonan who played two years in the New York Mets’ system, then retreated with five boys to the batting cage behind first base, while Kelly, Rickles and Wanger worked with other youngsters on fielding, pitching and base running.

Most players were recruited by IAB president Peter Kurz. Wolf, though, reached out, wanting to help promote baseball in Israel. When Kurz asked him to play in the Olympics-qualifying games, “I was honored,” Wolf said. “I’m very lucky to represent Israel and the Jewish people.”

Once on-board, each American dealt directly with Nefesh B’Nefesh, which handled their citizenship-related paperwork.

Valencia, who played in the majors from 2010 to 2018, said he’s honoring his mother, Mindy, “the driving force” in shaping his Jewish identity.

“She was definitely excited,” Valencia said of joining Israel’s team.

Being away from home is difficult, said Valencia, a Miami resident, while his wife, their one-year-old son and his parents faced Hurricane Dorian. The storm, by then weakened, hit southern Florida on Tuesday night.

Valencia said he doesn’t see much advantage to possessing an Israeli passport in addition to his American one. For Kelly, the document holds great meaning.

“I want it to feel like more than: Here’s your passport; go play,” Kelly, a member of the Mets, Toronto Blue Jays and Philadelphia Phillies from 2016 to 2018, said over breakfast on Monday.

In Israel, he’s been learning the Hebrew alphabet, trying to read street signs, using new words in conversations and struggling with a written language that seldom prints vowels. He plans to follow Israeli news back home in Los Angeles.

“I feel more invested in what’s going on. I wasn’t born here, but I feel part of the group, part of the people who [live] here,” said Kelly, who visited in 2017 with several WBC teammates. “Spending time here makes me feel more connected, reflecting on what it means to have that passport. This pushes me into feeling like I belong.”

FILE PHOTO: Israel's national baseball team
Margo Sugarman

Locals learning that he’s on the team striving for the Olympics are supportive or perplexed that a foreigner may represent Israel. No one’s been antagonistic, Kelly, 31, said. He’d just returned from the Interior Ministry and met a clerk who had lived in Cincinnati and become a Reds fan. The man was rooting for, even expecting, Kelly’s team to win and carry along other Israelis to an Olympics appearance.

“I feel like people just want [us] to succeed. Maybe some people would rather have all Israelis on the team,” Kelly said. He caught himself and added: “Well, I guess they will, since we’re all getting citizenship.”

Beginning with the 2012 WBC qualifiers, IAB board members have debated whether to be so reliant on non-Israeli players.

The association decided throughout to recruit American collegiate and professional players, figuring that attaining success in key international tournaments would draw more Israeli children to play the game and attract financial support for building additional baseball diamonds, Kurz said.

Reaching Tokyo could be a game-changer because “the Olympics are so big in Israel,” Kurz said.

He urged restraint, citing Israel’s not advancing beyond Europe’s B pool before recent wins in Bulgaria and Lithuania vaulted it into the A pool and a spot in this month’s high-stakes games.

“My goal is to make it to [Italy],” Kurz said. “That would be a success. I don’t want to raise expectations too high. If we make it to the Olympics, that’s icing on the cake. I’d be ecstatic.”