Israeli Baseball’s Fantastic Voyage to the 2020 Olympics

The blue and white’s ticket to Tokyo following their strong showing in the 2017 World Baseball Classic shows that this squad is no ‘Jamaican bobsled team’

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Players on Team Israel celebrating during an 8-2 defeat of Italy in the baseball qualifiers for the 2020 Olympics, Parma, Italy, September 20, 2019.
Players on Team Israel celebrating during an 8-2 defeat of Italy in the baseball qualifiers for the 2020 Olympics, Parma, Italy, September 20, 2019.Credit: Margo Sugarman

When the news broke this week that the Israeli athletes marching into the stadium for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics would include a baseball team, it came as such an unlikely proposition that many Israelis didn’t believe it.

Even the players, days after the victory over South Africa that qualified them for the Games, are finding it hard to take in.

“It was amazing. It was euphoric,” says pitcher Alon Leichman of Sunday’s triumph in Parma, Italy. “It still really hasn’t sunk in that we’re going — that we’re Olympic athletes.”

Leichman, whose father built Israel’s very first baseball field in 1983 — on Kibbutz Gezer — says the experience is surreal because “the Olympics isn’t really ever a goal for a baseball player. Sure, everyone in baseball wants to make it to the U.S. major leagues. But the Olympics? Being an Olympian is just not something a baseball player even thinks about.”

There’s good reason modern baseball players don’t cultivate Olympic dreams. Since 1904, the sport has had an on-and-off Olympic history, usually as a demonstration sport. It finally became an official Olympic event in 1992, but was dropped from the London Games in 2012 and hasn’t been played since.

Sure enough, Tokyo 2020 may well be a one-time opportunity for a generation of players. For now the sport isn’t included in the 2024 Paris Olympics and nobody knows whether it will return for Los Angeles 2028.

Israel's national baseball team, summer 2019.Credit: Margo Sugarman

But even far more unlikely than the return of baseball is the fact that Israel has become the first country to qualify as one of the six competing teams. (Japan, as host country, is in automatically.) Israel’s appearance in Tokyo will mark the first time the country has been represented in a team sport at the Olympics since its soccer team in 1976.

The achievement is the result of both determination and luck. Its roots lie in the passion for baseball that American immigrants brought with them since they began arriving in significant numbers in the years after the 1967 Six-Day War.

In the ‘70s, a group of American 20-somethings moved to Kibbutz Gezer in the center of the country. Sure they had Zionist ideals, but that didn’t mean abandoning America’s national pastime. After all, they had brought their baseball gloves and bats with them.

Among that group was David Leichman, Alon’s father. First, he helped improvise a sandlot on the kibbutz, where he and his friends began playing softball in 1979 — recruiting other American immigrants through a newspaper ad. After a few years, he convinced his fellow kibbutzniks to let him clear out a cornfield — “Field of Dreams”-style — “though the movie hadn’t even come out yet,” Leichman laughs. Out of that came Israel’s first proper baseball field in 1983.

Technically, what the kibbutzniks built was designed for softball. But softball fields have the same specifications as baseball fields for younger players — and so, pretty soon, Israeli baseball was born, Little League-style. The first young Israeli-born players — including little Alon — took the field.

Three years later, in 1986, the Israel Association of Baseball was born to develop baseball in Israel, and eventually five leagues were formed, from 6-year-olds to adults, with nearly 1,000 players taking part regularly in international youth tournaments. It remains staffed largely by volunteers, mostly parents of baseball-playing kids.

Its growth was hampered not only by the fact that Israelis — like most of the world outside the United States — have little interest in the game, saving their enthusiasm for soccer and basketball. There was also that lack of proper facilities. Only one baseball field at Baptist Village in Petah Tikva — owned by the Southern Baptist Church and leased by the IAB — even comes close to qualifying as a regulation field. Most baseball in Israel is played on improvised diamonds on soccer fields.

The Israel national baseball team celebrating after defeating South Africa in Parma, Italy, to qualify for the 2020 Olympics, September 22, 2019.Credit: Margo Sugarman

Get that passport

Just two of the 24 players on the Olympic-bound team grew up playing ball in Israel. Along with a handful of baseball-playing American Jews born to Israeli parents, seven players have long-standing personal ties to Israel.

The rest of the players on Team Israel are American Jews who have played in the United States in college or in the minor or major leagues. They were recruited to play for a country that many of them had never visited.

The recruiting effort began after the IAB was invited to take part in the qualification tournament for the 2013 World Baseball Classic — an event born after the sport was dropped from the Olympics.

“In 2011, we were approached and asked if we wanted to participate,” says IAB President Peter Kurz, a businessman who jokes that the two formative events of his American childhood were Israel’s victory in the 1967 war and the New York Mets’ victory in the 1969 World Series.

Kurz said it was clear from the beginning that the only way Israel could hold its own was to draw on Jewish talent in the United States. The wording of the World Baseball Classic’s rules made this possible. Participating players only had to be “eligible” for citizenship in the country they played for — they didn’t have to be citizens. This meant that anyone Jewish enough to qualify for citizenship under Israel’s Law of Return — which requires a Jewish grandparent, or even marriage to a Jewish spouse — would be able to play.

The IAB leadership discussed whether the effort and expense of bringing in non-Israeli players was worth it, and decided that a team strong internationally might be the key to growing the sport in Israel.

And so the quest was on to scout Jewish players with the requisite talent and experience, culminating in a team that included college and minor league players who competed in the World Baseball Classic qualifying tournament in 2012 in Jupiter, Florida. The team did well but ultimately suffered a bitter loss to the Spanish team, which, like its Israeli counterpart, had few players from the mother ship. Rather, there were lots of Venezuelans. In any case, Israel did not reach the World Baseball Classic.

Israeli pitching let up only 11 runs in the blue and white's five games in the September 2019 Olympic qualifiers in Italy.Credit: Margo Sugarman

“That was a gut-wrenching game,” says Jordy Alter, the IAB vice president. “We were shocked; we really thought we would win and qualify.”

The team came close enough to success for the IAB leaders to redouble their efforts to build a roster that would qualify for the 2017 World Baseball Classic. Kurz now brought in some high-level talent — some of them experienced players on the down side of long and successful major league careers, others up and coming.

He worked hard convincing the players — and for some of the younger players, their parents — that representing the Jewish state would be meaningful both personally and professionally. Kurz also needed proper documentation of their Jewishness, things like bar mitzvah certificates, parents’ wedding contracts and photographs of grandparents’ gravestones.

In 2016, the supercharged team qualified for the World Baseball Classic in a tournament held in Brooklyn where the blue and white were cheered on by local yeshiva students.

Their moment of glory came at the final tournament in 2017 in South Korea and Japan. After being mocked as the “Jamaican bobsled team” of baseball, full of has-beens and wannabes, they upset some of the world’s strongest teams in a mid-tournament winning streak — including South Korea, Taiwan, the Netherlands and Cuba. The Israelis ultimately came in sixth — a triumph for the team described by The New York Times as being “tied together not only by its underdog status, but also by its heritage.”

The experience was chronicled in a touching, if schmaltzy, movie, “Heading Home,” which gave a special star turn to the team’s mascot, a life-sized stuffed doll in the form of a bearded Jewish man called the Mensch on the Bench.

The film also showed the players — most of whom had only one Jewish parent and minimal religious background — getting the full Birthright experience — from the Western Wall to the Dead Sea, Yad Vashem, the Jerusalem markets and a Tel Aviv graffiti tour. Ahead of the January 2017 World Baseball Classic, they had been brought to Israel for the first time (on Sheldon Adelson’s jet), practicing in front of star-struck youngsters at Baptist Village.

The good cheer of the 2017 experience — and the news that the 2020 Olympics would include baseball — got the IAB to go for Tokyo. But there was an obstacle: The players had to be citizens.

Thus the athletes were asked to apply for citizenship under the Law of Return and obtain an Israeli passport. To the IAB’s delight, 18 agreed, though some of the biggest stars of the 2017 tournament didn’t sign on.

Alongside the bigger names were players like Jeremy Wolf, 25, a Phoenix native with an Italian mother and a Jewish father. He was a baseball star in high school and college, where his Trinity University team won a Division III national championship, and his baseball dream came true — he was drafted by the Mets.

After two years of minor league ball — and playing on the 2016-17 Israeli team — Wolf suffered a back injury, stymieing his professional career. In 2018, he was working in marketing and had founded the charity More Than Baseball when he volunteered to Kurz to help the IAB. “What can I do?” he asked. He was surprised when the response was: “Do you want to play outfield?”

And so, two years after his last professional game, and with his new Israeli passport, Wolf took the field in July, playing for Team Israel in Bulgaria at the European Baseball Championship qualifiers.

Danny Valencia batting in Israel's 3-0 victory over Spain in the Olympic qualifiers, Bologna, Italy, September 18, 2019. Credit: Margo Sugarman

“I never thought I would have an opportunity to play on a field again,” he says. “But I stayed in shape and my body went right back to normal as if I had never stopped. I was overwhelmed that I could do it, that I was playing again, and that I was playing for Israel.”

Victories in Germany and Italy

The first challenge for the team was moving out of the group of 12 “B Pool” teams at a tournament held in Bulgaria and Lithuania in July. After defeating Russia and Lithuania, the Israelis made it into the European “A Pool,” clinching a spot at the European Baseball Championship, where the battle for the Olympic spot would begin in earnest.

That contest, held in Germany from September 7 to 15, posed a major challenge: The Israelis now faced high-level competition. But once more, they made it into the top five — and could now take the last step to the Olympics — winning the final tournament for the European/African slot, which began in Italy on September 18.

Despite his faith in the team, Alter confessed that the victory Sunday in Parma was “shocking.” He was in “disbelief” when Israel beat three of the teams it had just lost to in the qualifying rounds: Spain, Italy and the Netherlands — and then defeated South Africa for the Olympic berth.

Some of the competing countries were also stunned — and a little resentful. There was grumbling online about Israel’s dependence on American Jewish “ringers.” At one point, the German team trolled the Israelis by playing “Born in the U.S.A.” when their team was announced.

Alter calls this sour grapes; the participation of the Americans was perfectly legitimate, he says, noting that Olympic athletes often compete for countries they don’t live in. “We have followed the rules to a T,” he says.

Wolf adds: “Israel says that it’s a state for all Jews and that all Jews can be citizens, so it should apply to baseball and we should be able to represent the country in the Olympics. We weren’t fortunate enough to be born in Israel but now we’re fortunate enough to play for it.”

Unlike the other newly naturalized players, Wolf decided — since he had left his job in the United States to play in the tournaments — that he would spend the year living in Israel — and is currently job hunting in Tel Aviv. As he sees it, “it’s an opportunity; I get to be here as an Olympian, I get to experience Israel in a unique way.”

His teammate, Israeli native Alon Leichman, will soon be joining him in Israel. Like Wolf, Leichman’s dreams of major league glory were hampered by injury. But Leichman remains part of professional baseball in coaching. He’s currently a pitching coach in the Seattle Mariners organization and spends the off-season back on Kibbutz Gezer, and by playing and coaching tournaments for Israeli teams.

Kurz and Alter are looking ahead to a year of intense activity — planning for Tokyo and fundraising for the Olympic team and Israeli baseball in general.

The miraculous success of the past summer came at a high price. The IAB raised a quarter of a million dollars over the summer from both donors and online crowdfunding to cover the team’s travel expenses for the various qualification tournaments. There was little government assistance, but promises of support if the team succeeded.

Now the club will also be relying on additional help from the Culture and Sports Ministry and the Olympic Committee of Israel. With the addition of baseball, the committee now has a Tokyo delegation twice the size it had originally planned and budgeted for.

Kurz is optimistic. As unfamiliar as Israeli sports officials may be with baseball, the committee members “love winners, and they love medals,” Kurz says. With only six teams in contention in Tokyo, Israel’s chances of winning a medal in baseball are decent.

But while the prospect of a medal — or simply participating — is exciting, Kurz and Alter say they see Olympic success as a means to an end: increased popularity of the game in Israel and helping it grow into a future where Diaspora players are no longer necessary.

They have two new baseball diamonds planned — a major facility in Beit Shemesh near Jerusalem and another in Ra’anana near Tel Aviv. They believe upgraded conditions and the expected Olympic excitement will add up to “hundreds of new players.”

“We have everybody’s attention, now,” Alter says. “With the Olympics, we are now squarely on the map when it comes to sports in this country. And it’s very, very exciting.”

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