Everything you need to know about the Israeli baseball team's journey to Tokyo 2020
A round-robin tournament this week provides an opportunity for the country to make its first appearance at the Olympics.
More than 200 countries compete overall at the Olympics, but only six will have what it takes to make it to the baseball diamond when the Summer Games arrive in Tokyo. Israel is hoping to achieve that elite status as it competes in an Olympic qualifying event in Italy this weekend.
Here's what you need to know...
What's the scoop with this tournament? Italy is hosting the event across two venues – one in Bologna and one in Parma. The first games will be played on Wednesday and will go through Sunday. Six countries have been invited to participate, based on wins in previous tournaments: the Czech Republic, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, South Africa and Spain. The event is set up in a round-robin format. Over the course of five days, each country will play each other once. The team that finishes first instantly qualifies for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. (If two teams are tied in the standings, the winner is decided based on who won when they played each other earlier in the tournament.)
Is this the only chance for these teams to make it to the Olympics? Not quite. There will be an intercontinental qualifying event – featuring six countries from across the globe – in the spring of 2020 in Chinese Taipei. The winner of that event will also get an Olympic spot.
Most Olympic sports – like cycling – feature athletes from dozens of countries, but not baseball. That's correct. Only six countries get to compete. Host nation Japan has already secured one of those spots, leaving room for only five more countries. Three other spots will go to teams from Asia and the Americas, leaving only two spots available for everybody else – including Israel.
Who won the gold medal in baseball at the last Olympics? Nobody. Baseball was absent from the past two Olympics – in 2012 and 2016. The last time baseball was played at the Olympics, in 2008, South Korea took home the gold medal. Cuba has won the most gold medals – three – since the sport was introduced at the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis.
What are Israel's chances? As good as any country currently competing. In 2018, Israel was ranked 19th in the world. But that statistic doesn't tell the whole story. In Germany last week, Israel competed in the European Baseball Championship for the first time. The team surprised oddsmakers by coming in fourth place – with wins over Britain, the Czech Republic, Sweden and Germany. The squad is also riding high from their historic outing at the 2017 World Baseball Classic where they stunned the international baseball community with four straight wins. If they do make it to Tokyo next summer, it will mark the first time that an Israeli baseball team has qualified for the Olympics.
What does the team's general manager think going into this week's tournament? "I am very proud of our players throughout this campaign that started in Bulgaria at the B pool, meandered through Lithuania, blasted into Germany and is now in Italy," Peter Kurz told From the Grapevine when we reached him this morning. "Our Under 18 players also won the European qualifiers this past summer and will be competing in the main tournament next year. Israeli baseball has come a long way in six years. Our goal was to reach the Olympic qualifiers, and we are here now, alongside European baseball powerhouses – the Netherlands and Italy – and we have every intention of competing for every run over every inning. The goal now is no less than winning this, and representing Israel in the Tokyo Olympics in 2020."
Lastly, has From The Grapevine ever interviewed a player from the Israeli baseball team and recorded it as a podcast? As a matter of fact, we did. Below, you can listen to our interview with Dean Kremer. He previously pitched for the Israeli team and in 2015 became the first Israeli to be drafted into Major League Baseball. He now plays for the Norfolk Tides, a AAA affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles.
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