The 2020 Olympic Games are finally taking place this month. Yes, it is July 2021, but that’s what a global pandemic will do to you. These games will be different for many reasons, mostly COVID related ones. Fans will not be allowed at the various venues in Tokyo, meaning even family members of the Olympic athletes will be banned from watching their loved ones go for the gold. There are a lot of negatives about these games for sure. But there is also one huge positive. It’s an underdog baseball team that shines as bright as the Star of David.
Olympic baseball is returning to the Summer Games for the first time since 2008. The usual powerhouses like the United States and South Korea are back in the medal hunt. Familiar squads like Mexico, Japan, and the Dominican Republic are also competing. But this time, they are joined by an unlikely ball club that is capturing the imagination of folks from Jerusalem to Brooklyn.
For the first time in history, Israel is sending a baseball team to the Olympics. The country has participated in the Games for years, sending athletes to every Summer Games since 1952 (except when they joined the U.S. in the 1980 boycott) and every Winter Games since 1994. During that span, Team Israel earned nine medals: seven bronze, one silver, and a lone gold. All of the hardware came in individual sports like Sailing, Judo, and Canoeing. Last week, Israeli taekwondo practitioner Avishag Semberg won a bronze medal at the Tokyo Games on the first full day of the Olympics, giving Israel ten medals all-time and its first ever in the field of Taekwondo. Now, Israel Baseball is attempting to make history by earning a medal in the ultimate team sport.
Four years ago, Israel was ranked just 48th in the world. Then, they seemingly came out of nowhere to qualify for the World Baseball Classic. The team did well, advancing to the second round of the tournament. In 2019, they continued to impress by qualifying for the Olympics. In reality, they didn’t come out of nowhere. They earned their spot through hard work and perseverance.
Just when things were rolling, COVID stopped everything in its tracks, but Team Israel continued to train and continued to believe. Now, their big moment is finally here. This group of eclectic ball players has a realistic chance to medal, something that would mean a lot more than just baseball.
Israel Baseball, managed by Eric Holtz, can give America’s best friend something to smile about. Considering the history of the country at the Olympics, that would be a welcomed result. In 1972, in Munich, eleven members of the Israeli Olympic team were murdered by Palestinians. ABC broadcaster Jim McKay’s chilling report of the killings, saying, “They’re all gone”, still stirs up emotions many decades later. That horrific event coupled with the current Gaza conflict makes the rooting interest for this baseball club all the more special.
Fans are loving this group…and many of those fans are Americans. Before departing for Tokyo, Israel Baseball played a nine game pre-Olympics exhibition schedule, barnstorming through New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. Those who showed up to see this historic team were not disappointed.
At FNB Field in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, home of the Senators (AA-Nationals), Team Israel took on a team of Ripken League All-Stars. The crowd was comprised of family, friends, synagogue groups, and regular baseball lovers. Israel put on an impressive performance. Dressed in their crisp, clean white uniforms with blue lettering and numerals, Israel pounded out a 9-3 victory. First baseman Nick Rickles, a former Harrisburg Senator, blasted a home run in the win, with his dad and fiancée in attendance. The team played well as a unit as they tuned up for the long journey to Japan.
Rickles is one of many players on the team with Minor League experience. Some players have played in the Major Leagues as well. Ian Kinsler is the most decorated vet on Team Israel. Kinsler played for five MLB teams, making the All-Star team as a member of the Texas Rangers and Detroit Tigers, while capturing a World Series in 2018 with the Boston Red Sox. Kinsler won two Gold Glove Awards and ended his career with 257 home runs. A player of his caliber gives Israel a real path to success at the Olympics.
Along with Kinsler, Israel also features former MLB players Jon Moscot, Josh Zeid, Ryan Lavarnway, Ty Kelly, and Danny Valencia. Four players on the roster are native to Israel. The rest of the crew consists of American players with Jewish roots. Each of the players has a different story, but all have the same goal. Baseball teams are often tight-knit groups. Team Israel is especially close.
Credit Peter Kurz, the team’s general manager, for having the vision to make this all possible. Kurz knew he had to think out of the box if he wanted a competitive baseball club from Israel to become a reality. After all, only a handful of people actually play organized baseball in the Holy Land. Israel hasn’t had a team sport that uses a ball qualify for Olympic play since its men’s soccer team back in 1976. But, Kurz knew the unique rules for Olympic baseball would allow him to tap into a pool of American players with Jewish roots.
Players are eligible for Team Israel if they travel there and obtain citizenship. Anyone with a Jewish parent, grandparent, or spouse qualifies. At least 18 American players have made the trip to Israel to make aliya, Hebrew for homecoming. Thus, the Olympic roster was born.
The feel at FNB Field and at all of the stops on Team Israel’s tour has been that of stepped up security. At most Major League games, you see police officers and security guards. At some Minor League games, you may only see one guard or sheriff’s office member the entire game. At games with ties to Israel however, it is a different story. Along with extra local law enforcement personnel, armed Israeli security agents are also on scene. Another reminder about the special obstacles this particular team faces. Jews continue to be persecuted. They are often at risk. Another reason to root for this unique team.
Despite the seriousness of world events and the focus it takes to play winning baseball, don’t think Team Israel isn’t having fun along the way. The players are often seen smiling and messing around with each other just like baseball players do in the States. After all, this team had a Mensch on the Bench as their mascot for the World Baseball Classic. Now, the official team store sells shirts and other gear with slogans like ‘Matzo Baller’, ‘Shalom Batta Batta’, and ‘Shlo Motion’, a tip of the kippah to pitcher Shlomo Lipetz. The 42-year old righthander, who was born in Tel Aviv and served in the Israel Defense Forces, even has a popular bobble head in his likeness. Team Israel has this baseball thing down on and off the field.
The Olympic games are underway and now Americans have another team to root for. Along with the US athletes in Tokyo there’s a band of brothers representing Israel that any American should be proud to support. And don’t worry, unlike some Olympians who claim to be representing America, if Team Israel does medal, they will stand proudly, not only for Hatikvah but during the Star Spangled Banner as well.
The 2020 Olympic Games will be unlike any other for many reasons. Just by getting there, Israel Baseball has already made history. Look for them to take full advantage of this rare opportunity when they hit the field in Tokyo. The world will be watching. Play ball! Chazak u’varuch.
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