WBC success gives Israeli baseball a boost
Ahead of their team's appearance in the World Baseball Classic, Israelis begin to embrace the sport.
The final team to qualify for the 2017 World Baseball Classic surprised some in the baseball community. Israel qualified for the field of 16 teams set to compete in the March tournament in South Korea after winning a qualifying round in Brooklyn last September.
However, among those not surprised by Israel's strong showing was Peter Kurz. The head of the Israel Association of Baseball (IAB) has come to expect strong play from the country's baseball players, and believes that the simple fact that Israel could garner an invite to the WBC in the first place speaks volumes to the growing reputation of its baseball acumen.
A recent visit to Israel by several of the team's American players, including current free agent first baseman Ike Davis, formerly of the New York Mets and Pittsburgh Pirates, and current major leaguers Cody Decker and Ryan Lavarnway, only helped to reinforce the excitement surrounding the team in the country.
"We're nowhere near where we want to be," Davis told From The Grapevine. "But it takes time and we're definitely heading in the right direction."
Baseball in Israel has generally been overshadowed by sports such as soccer and basketball. But concerted efforts have been made in recent years that have started to alter the equation.
"The big change happened 10 years ago this coming summer," Kurz told From The Grapevine. "That's when the IBL – the professional Israeli Baseball League – launched. It didn't last long but it had a big influence on the exposure of the game to Israelis."
At the time, only a few hundred people played baseball in the whole country. Today that number is around 1,000, with five different competitive age divisions and several national teams that travel to Europe for tournaments. Another 500-600 play softball.
In a country where basketball and soccer rule the sports landscape, baseball is slowly making inroads into popular culture as well. "There is the MLB Game of the Week which airs on Sundays, plus kids can watch the games online and a lot of kids, they go to the States in the summer and they're exposed to baseball there," Kurz told us.
Israel doesn't totally lack a pedigree. "We're getting better. We're advancing. We have college players in the States and the first Israeli playing for an MLB organization – Dean Kremer," Kurz said.
Kurz, a native New Yorker and longtime Mets fan, got involved with the IAB in the late 1990s because his son played baseball. Such was the dearth of coaching candidates at the time that within a few months he was managing one of the youth national teams alongside Shlomo Lipetz, a pitcher and current member of the World Baseball Classic team.
In 2013 he was named President of the Israel Association of Baseball. A volunteer position, he puts in the time to advocate for the sport because he's a firm believer in not only its athletic merits but also its social ones.
"Soccer especially, but also basketball, they are very male-dominated sports when it comes to the fans, and I think baseball is more family-oriented. We're trying to get more girls involved and instill leadership in kids," Kurz told us.
On the international level the country has made significant strides. The Under-21 European Championship was held in Israel this year, where Israel's team came in fourth. The senior team has battled its way into the B Pool in the European Championship standings, a significant step that makes qualifying for the championship tournament, held every other year, possible.
Then there's the WBC team. "If we can advance to Japan [the second round of the tournament], that would be incredible. We're guaranteed $150,000 which would go directly to field development in Israel. That's my main goal. To build fields here in Israel," Kurz said.
Part of Kurz's grand vision includes one day persuading Major League Baseball to come to Israel for winter baseball. "Weather-wise it's very comfortable and culturally it's also very similar, much more so than in places where it's currently played, like Venezuela," Kurz said.
But before winter comes, the team's focus is on the tournament in March.
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