‘Miracle Team Israel:’ On The Road To Competing In The 2020 Tokyo Olympics

Original Article Published On the Jewish News Syndicate

The five top teams in the European Baseball Championships, plus South Africa, have advanced to the Olympic Qualifiers taking place in Parma and Bologna, Italy, through Sept. 22.

When the Miracle Mets won the World Series in 1969, baseball was virtually unknown in Israel. Israel had come out victorious in the Six-Day War only two years earlier, the first field was built at Kibbutz Gezer in 1979, and the Israel Association of Baseball (IAB) would be established less than a decade afterwards, in 1986.

Fifty years later, the New York Mets may need to share their “miracle” nickname with Israel’s National Baseball Team. Team Israel shocked the world in last week’s European Championships and now has its sights on the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan.

Israel got off to an unexpected 4-0 start with victories over the Czech Republic, Sweden, Germany and Great Britain. Israel then lost on Sept. 11 to current European champions, the Netherlands.

Israel finished second in its pool with a record of 4-1 and advanced to the quarter finals, held last Friday through Sunday in Bonn, Germany.

On Sept. 13, Israel faced France, which Pool B with three wins and two losses. Team Israel handily beat France 8-2 in the quarter finals, securing a coveted place in the Olympic Games qualifiers for this week in Italy.

But over last weekend, Israel dropped two games to Italy and Spain, finishing fourth overall in the European Championships. This was the first time that Israel has even gotten that far.

A Team Israel pitcher in its victory against France in the European Championships. Photo by Margo Sugarman.
A Team Israel pitcher in its victory against France in the European Championships. Photo by Margo Sugarman.

“We faced some extremely strong teams this week,” says general manager and IAB president Peter Kurz. “The fact that we were able to beat these tough competitors is a great credit to all the players and the staff. We are ready for the next phase, and look forward to representing Israel in general and Israeli baseball in particular with pride.”

The five top teams in the European Championships, plus the already qualified South Africa, advanced to the Europe/Africa Olympic Qualifiers, which take in place in Parma and Bologna, Italy, through Sept. 22. Israel beat Spain on Wednesday in a 3-0 complete game by Joey Wagman. Israel now faces the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Italy and South Africa.

One Olympic spot will be awarded to the winner of the Europe-Africa qualifier tournament in Italy, which will feature the five European teams and South Africa, the winner of the 2019 African Baseball Championship. The second-place team in Italy will get another qualification opportunity for the Olympics in the final world qualifying event.

Continuing its storied run

The Miracle Israel Team continues its storied run, which started with the World Baseball Classic qualifiers in September 2016. Israel won all three of their games in Brooklyn, N.Y., beating Great Britain twice and Brazil once. It then advanced to Pool A, playing in South Korea in March 2017 against South Korea, Taiwan/Chinese Taipei and the Netherlands.

Israel then advanced to the second round (Pool E), playing Tokyo in March 2017. In that first game, Israel beat Cuba, then lost to the Netherlands and Japan. Israel’s storied World Baseball Classic run to the quarterfinals is chronicled in the recent documentary, “Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel.”

The team is currently qualified for the 2021 World Baseball Classic.

While the World Baseball Classic only requires that players be eligible for citizenship of the country they represent, for Olympic qualifying tournaments (and for the actual Olympics players themselves), they must be actual citizens of the country they represent. Several American Jewish players, including Valencia, Blake Gailen, Ty Kelly, Corey Baker, Jeremy Bleich and Jeremy Wolf, recently got Israeli citizenship. Most will continue to reside in America.

Despite Team Israel’s incredible success thus far, competing in the Olympics is still a distant dream. The winner of the qualifier tournament will get a bid to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The runner-up will have another opportunity to qualify for Tokyo at a future qualifying event.

In an interview from Germany with JNS following the team’s Sept. 13 victory, Kurz deconstructed the meaning of the team’s recent success for Israel, as well as the experience of playing in Europe.

Q: What does the team’s recent success mean for Israel, for the players and for baseball?

A: When any Israeli sports team excels in international tournaments, it excites the country. While baseball may not yet be a mainstream sport, when Team Israel starts grabbing headlines for exceeding so many expectations, people take notice.

This is a team that has worked hard to achieve their goals. We have players who have left their wives, their young children and their full-time jobs to come and represent Israel at the tournament. They are all committed to winning.

When our teams excel abroad, the first and most palpable result is that it raises the professional level of our players in Israel. We saw this phenomenon after the excellent sixth-place result of Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic in 2017. In the two years since, our youth players have become more dedicated and have understood the need to focus on increasing their skills. In July, our Under 18 national team competed in the European Championships Qualifiers for the first time and won the tournament. The success of our Senior National Team will give our players a lot to strive for. Our teenage players now have a goal: to be a member of the SNT in the coming years.

This can only be positive for Israeli baseball. The great results of this team are also being noticed outside of the immediate community. This type of exposure increases awareness of baseball in Israel and can attract new players who may not have thought about the sport. We are building two new fields in Beit Shemesh and in Ra’anana; this will only add to the excitement we are generating here in Europe now.”

Q: Can you describe the experience of playing games these past two weeks in Europe?

A: Most of Israel Baseball’s international competition takes place in Europe. Israel is a member of the Confederation of European Baseball, or CEB. It is a tight-knit baseball community, and a good atmosphere exists between the players once the games are over. In most of Europe, baseball is also still a niche sport, so the players share a common love of it and work to support one another.

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