Israeli baseball team has sights set on 2020 Tokyo Olympics
The players are chasing history as they hope to qualify for the Summer Games for the first time.
In Israel, where most of the residents are usually obsessed with basketball and soccer, a sport like baseball can often be overlooked. But you wouldn't know that if you were watching this week's European Baseball Championship, currently taking place in Bonn, Germany. Twelve countries are competing in the tournament, and Israel is entering this weekend's final matches with a 5-1 record – with wins over Britain, the Czech Republic, Sweden and Germany. They are guaranteed at least fourth place, if not higher, after their 8-2 win against France on Friday.
This is the first time Israel has even competed at this tournament, and they're already finishing at the top of the pack. "That progress is impossible to quantify," said David Wiseman, co-founder of Follow Team Israel, a popular Facebook group that shares the stories of Israeli athletes. If their winning streak continues, this could mark the first time that Israel sends a baseball team to the Olympics.
We caught up with Peter Kurz, president of the Israel Association of Baseball and general manager of Team Israel, in the dugout on Wednesday, shortly before their game against the Netherlands. From Germany, he said, the team will likely head to a round-robin tournament next week in Italy. Depending on how well they perform there, they will either instantly qualify for the Summer Games in Tokyo, or will try again to qualify in the spring of 2020 at an intercontinental tournament.
Before this week's tournament, Israel was ranked No. 19 in the world. Only six baseball teams will compete at the 2020 Summer Olympics, and Japan, the host nation, has already secured one of those spots. Three other spots will go to teams from Asia and the Americas, leaving only two spots available. This will mark a return for the sport, which was absent from the 2012 and 2016 Olympics. Cuba has won the most gold medals – three – since the sport was introduced at the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis. The last time baseball was played at the Olympics, in 2008, South Korea took home the gold medal. "Let's put it this way," Kurz told us. "When baseball was last in the Olympics, I'm not sure if baseball was even in Israel then."
At the 2017 World Baseball Classic, the Israeli team stunned the international baseball community with four straight wins, bringing a sense of history to the tournament. The Israeli team beat Korea in extra innings, shocked Chinese Taipei, defeated Cuba and played the Netherlands (twice!) before falling to Japan in their final game. ESPN dubbed the underdog Israeli team as "essentially the Mighty Ducks, Hickory High and the Jamaican bobsled team all rolled into one.” That winning season is now the subject of a new documentary called "Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel."
Dean Kremer, who pitched for Israel during that historic World Baseball Classic run, now plays for the Baltimore Orioles. He's the first Israeli to be drafted into Major League Baseball. Kurz is hopeful he can get Kremer to re-join the Israeli team if they qualify for the Olympics. "We're still trying to get him," Kurz said. "He would be a huge addition for us."
We spoke with Kremer last year about his young and storied career so far. You can listen to our conversation with him below:
Win or lose, Olympics or not, Kurz is especially excited to see the growth of the sport in Israel. "I think the accomplishment that I'm most proud of is our under 18 players," he said. "This past summer, they won the European qualifiers in Sweden. The goal is to really make the game big in Israel." This has been a lifelong dream for the native New Yorker, who first visited Israel during the summer when he was 10 years old. "I was in Israel for two months and it had a huge influence on me." Two years later, when he was 12, he watched his beloved New York Mets win the World Series. "So those two events have certainly put me where I am today."
As for Wiseman, who runs the Follow Team Israel page, he's also seeing an uptick in interest in baseball among his followers. "Awareness is increasing all the time," he told From The Grapevine. "But locals don't have a strong connection to the sport and that's OK. They don't have to. Just as Americans don't have to like cricket and Kenyans don't have to love golf. The purpose isn't to convert them. This is about building up the sport for whomever wants to play it. It's about building awareness and infrastructure. If that's Dutch, American, Japanese and Cuban ex-pats – not only is this not an issue, it's what Israel is all about. People from all over the world come here with a shared love of the country as well as their particular sport."
MORE FROM THE GRAPEVINE: