An Israeli team playing a ball game in the Olympics? It sounds like a distant dream. Even the lacrosse team – a national project in a sport that isn’t even in the Olympics yet – is aiming for the 2028 Los Angeles Games, if at all. So to speak of an Israeli team in Tokyo 2020? Well, the Israel Association of Baseball is doing exactly that.
Baseball may not be popular in Israel, but it could be Israel’s only chance to send a team to Tokyo. The Israel Association of Baseball launched a project to persuade professional American players to come to Israel. And believe it or not, it worked.
Ball games, which were brought back to the Tokyo Olympics as one of five new sports, are really old-new. The sport entered the Games officially in Barcelona 1992, taken out after Beijing 2008, and now returns especially for baseball-crazy Japan. But what’s Israel got to do with it?
Apparently the connection is the United States. “When I was in college, the first World Baseball Classic, in which Israel took part in the qualifying matches, was held. I saw the team and said ‘Wow, I’ll be glad to play for Israel, it will be super cool, it’s a dream,” says Jonathan Moscot, an Israeli-American pitcher who played with the Cincinnati Reds in 2015 and 2016. But during his seasons there he was injured and played very little.
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A bigger stage
“The second world championship arrived, and then I was supposed to play for the team. I was injured just before that, so I couldn’t take part,” he says. “When I got the idea to be on the Olympic team I grabbed the opportunity. First, because I didn’t get a chance to play two years ago due to my injury and second, because it’s an even bigger stage – the Olympics. It’s a great chance for Israel and for Israeli baseball to grow.”
The World Baseball Classic’s laws enable anyone who is eligible for citizenship to register as a player, so Israel registered in 2013 with 22 Jewish Americans and three Israeli citizens. The team played in the qualifying matches but did not advance to the championship itself.
A similar number of top Jewish-Americans played in the 2017 championship, but by then the project attracted better players and Israel finished sixth in the world.
“Since the last world classic, interest in baseball has increased in Israel,” says association secretary-general Margo Sugarman. “People come to us, including Israelis with no connection to the United States, and want to play. Also, we’ve had a great response from professional players in the United States. Last year Robinson Cano (second baseman for the Seattle Mariners, eight-time All Star and veteran of the World Series champion 2009 New York Yankees team) visited here and spent time with our players.
He was followed by Andruw Jones, a five-time All Star and 10-time Golden Glove outfielder in a 17-year career, mainly with the Atlanta Braves. “He contacted us. He said he wanted to come and meet our players and have a training session with them. Others are on their way,” says Sugarman.
Olympic rules currently require players to be citizens of the country they’re representing for at least a year. So the baseball association brought 10 American players to Israel, including Moscot, and made sure they were sped through the immigration process. Thus, last week Israel gained 10 new citizens, who are also good at baseball, by no coincidence.
Moscot, one of these new Israelis, grew up in a Jewish home in Los Angeles. “I’m very connected to Judaism. We used to go to synagogue, but we didn’t keep kosher and such things. It’s much more difficult in the United States,” he says a few hours after landing in Israel, and before being joined by his team members.
“I have family in Israel and it’s very religious,” he says, “and I have a very strong connection with my faith and with Judaism’s cultural aspect. For me it’s huge. It’s refreshing to come here and feel like part of this nation.”
Moscot knows some of his teammates well. “One of them is even a close friend of mine, with whom I played in the senior league. He plays pitcher too,” he says. “There’s also a guy here from my high school – it’s a small world.”
Still, getting into the Olympics is a difficult mission. Since baseball is a new sport, it has received only six slots in the Tokyo games. In other words, to enter the Olympics, Israel must be among the six best teams in the world.
Surprisingly it has already achieved that distinction, but then it was an all-American team and in a far less complicated qualifying tournament. To advance to Tokyo, Israel must finish first in the second tier of European championships. Then it would join the final games among the first five in the top tier of the European Championships. Only then would it advance to the qualifying Olympic tournament, which will include five European teams and the African champion. If Israel won there too, it would advance to the Olympic Games. The team that finishes second will get to the “last qualifying tournament” due in April 2019, giving a last chance to the top six teams that didn’t make it.
Peter Kurtz, baseball association president, is aware that this is a complex challenge.
“I think that we can win in second tier, we can be among the five first in the first tier, but to win in the qualifying games – I’m not sure,” he says. “I want to get to Europe’s qualifiers and then I’ve done my part. If we’re lucky enough to get to the Olympics, it will really be a dream.”
In addition to all this, the Major League Baseball season will takes place simultaneously with some of the qualifying games, so not all the “purchased players” will be at Israel’s disposal.
“I hope some of the players are able to play with us, I can only put the best players on the field and the rest is up to the coach and players,” says Kurtz.
Coaching the youth
Apart from the 10 Americans’ naturalization, the association is using this meeting to let them train together and pass some American baseball skills on to the Israeli youths playing baseball. “We invited all the children registered as players in the organization, aged 9-17,” says Sugarman, who is also in charge of finding the best pub in which to hold the first evening’s briefing.
For Moscot, the Olympics isn’t everything. “An important part of spreading baseball in Israel is to show the children that there are Jewish athletes who are good at this sport,” he says.
“The World Classic was tremendous, but there hasn’t been an Israeli ball game team in the Olympics since the ‘70s (the Israeli soccer team in Montreal 1976) and I think this is our best chance,” says Kurtz.
Moscot, who is considering moving to Israel and advancing the sport here, says, “If there’s an Israeli team in the Olympics, it will be a big deal,” he says. “What is there here – basketball and soccer? The chance of baseball growing in Israel is huge.”