In a different world, Eric Holtz would be a household name in Israel – the manager of the Israeli baseball team, one of only six national teams that will compete, for the first time, in the Olympics this summer in Tokyo. But Israel is not the United States, and the status of baseball in Israel is light years away from what it is overseas.
Holtz, the person responsible for an Israeli ball team – in any sport – appearing in the Olympics for the first time since 1976, is unknown. But maybe that will change soon. Holtz told Haaretz, during his visit to Israel last month with the team, that no one gave his team a chance in any of the tournaments they’ve played in so far, and look where they are now. So anything is possible, too, in the Olympics, he says.
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Holtz has been a manager in college baseball for 20 years. He grew up in New York, in a Jewish family and had his bar mitzvah at the Kotel. His connection with Israel began in 2007, he says. He was part of the Israel Baseball League, where it began, and he participated in the Maccabiah Games as the manager of the U.S. team in 2013 and 2017. He won the gold medal on Tuesday, and on Wednesday he was already the manager of the Israeli national team, he says.
Over the last three years, Holtz has been an integral part of the mission to bring Israeli baseball to the Tokyo Olympics – the mission led by Peter Kurz, president of the Israel Association of Baseball and the national team’s general manager. While he may have fulfilled this mission, Kurz is not stopping there. When baseball, which was one of only five sports added to the Tokyo games – and there is no guarantee it will return in 2024 at the Paris games – returns for the Los Angeles games in 2028, the Israeli team will arrive wearing its medal from the Tokyo games, says Kurz. Holtz is in charge of fulfilling this dream, which up until less than a year ago seemed an almost ridiculous possibility.
It’s very different coaching a national team compared to a regular one, because the manager doesn’t get to spend that much time with the players, says Holtz. Some of them are professionals and play in the minor leagues, or in independent leagues. That is one of the reasons the story of the Israeli team is so special – they only had two and a half days together before they played their first game, he says. So how did they do it? Holtz doesn’t want to say that he improvised, because that’s his job and he’s been doing it for 20 years. He says it was more like trying to understand the pieces of a puzzle, not really improvisation. He had a couple of days to understand, more or less, where everyone was most appropriate for the team, who plays where – though who would be the pitcher was more of a challenge, he says.
The national team went about its mission taking one step at a time. First, in 2017, it earned a place in the 2019 European Baseball Championship tournament. Then it took fourth place in that competition last year, which provided it with a ticket to the Olympic qualifying tournament. Then it won the Africa/Europe qualifying event – beating all the odds and winning an Olympic berth.
Holtz says he wasn’t surprised: Grateful and happy, but not surprised. The team is composed of a group of very special people, who became a very special team – without egos, everyone dedicated to be part of something bigger than themselves, to represent Israel, says Holtz. No one gave up, even when they were losing, they always found a way to come back and win. They refused to lose, he says.
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Almost the entire team is made up of American Jews who hurriedly made aliyah to Israel – but it has four native-born Israelis too. Holtz says it’s strange because the Israelis are both the youngest and oldest players. One is Shlomo Lipetz, whom Holtz knows from his days in the Israeli league – whom he calls incredible. At the same time, two of the youngest players, Assaf Lowengart and Tal Erel, just finished their army service and are playing in college in the United States. They are wonderful players, but Holtz says it is unfair to compare his players to one another – they all have a role on the team and that is what makes it a team sport.
Holtz wants to continue developing baseball in Israel after the Olympics. He has been able to fit in practices with kids and teenagers. Maybe this is how they can have more than four native-born Israelis on the team in Los Angeles in 2028. He says his dream is to stay in Israel after the Olympics and continue to develop Israeli baseball – and he won’t just disappear one day. It’s an even bigger dream than the one he had when they started – because no one thought then that they would ever make the Olympics, he says. His goal was really to teach children how to play baseball, Olympics or not, says Holtz.
Holtz is teaching his own children too. During our interview, his son Brad came into the room – and he plays baseball. Holtz, the father, proudly announces that after the Olympic campaign his son will make aliyah too, and become an Israeli baseball player in every way. His dream, and that of the Israel Baseball Association, is much bigger than just the Olympics – and surprisingly it may very well come about. They want to turn baseball into a legitimate sport in Israel, one whose rules Israelis know. If they can persevere with this goal, in the same way they made it to the Olympics – maybe they can succeed at it too.