Israel’s national baseball team on Sunday beat the South African team 11-1 in the pre-Olympic tournament held in Italy, and qualified for the 2020 Olympic games in Tokyo, Japan. It was the first time an Israeli sports team reaches the Olympics since 1976.
Israel has had an amateur baseball league for several years, but many of the national team’s players are Americans who made aliyah only recently.
The team consists of four Israeli-born players, three olim from the US, and the rest are Americans who received Israeli citizenship to play on the team. At least two of the players have played in Major League Baseball (MLB) teams: Danny Valencia (Minnesota Twins, Boston Red Sox, Baltimore Orioles, Kansas City Royals, Toronto Blue Jays, Oakland Athletics, and Seattle Mariners), and Ty Kelly (Philadelphia Phillies and the New York Mets).
Reports on Israeli radio and television praised the amazing achievement of the national team, then wondered: what is baseball, really, what are the rules, and who knew there was a baseball league in Israel?
The Israeli baseball team is the first to secure its place in the Olympic games, except for the Japanese national team which is guaranteed a spot as the host country.
“I’m in the clouds,” said Peter Kurtz, president of the Israel Baseball Association, the man behind the idea of starting an Israeli national baseball team from scratch and getting it to Tokyo in less than four months.
“The feeling is tremendous, seven years of doing, of a dream I had and which two years ago began to develop,” Kurtz explained. “I worked very hard and did a lot of PR and raised a lot of money, and there were great efforts to talk to players and to build the team, to create baseball in this country.”
Kurtz’s plan—which worked stunningly—was to recruit Jewish American players, get them to make aliyah in an accelerated process with the help of Nefesh B’Nefesh, then become the best team in Europe.
“Everything was planned in advance – we knew the steps,” Kurtz recalls. First – the European Championship Rank B in Hungary, then rise to rank A in Lithuania, then the European Championships in Germany, and finally, the pre-Olympic tournament in Italy.”
Kurtz’s team did all that in less than four months.
“The execution was perfect,” he says. “We didn’t want to be European champions, we wanted to reach the Olympic qualifiers. So we finished in fourth place in Europe, but in the Olympic qualifiers we beat the number 1, 2 and 3 champions.”
The Europeans were shocked, Kurtz explains, “because all three of them – the Netherlands, Italy and Spain – had beaten us a week ago. That was the plan and we executed it perfectly.”
By next summer, four more teams will qualify for the Olympics in tournaments to be held in Tokyo, USA and Taiwan. They will play each other in three stages: first in two, 3-team groups; then against teams from the opposite groups; then the medal games.
With the baseball team, this will be the largest ever Israeli delegation to the Olympic games.