In a baseball story that parallels Jamaica’s 1988 Olympic bobsled team, Israel will compete in an Olympic team sport this summer for the first time since 1976.
And though Israel’s baseball team might not inspire a Hollywood movie as the Jamaicans did with “Cool Runnings,” Israel’s team also had humble beginnings, success and a late plot twist.
One could start in 1999, when a group of 9- and 10-year-olds competed for Israel’s first national baseball team. Or in the winter of 2017-2018, when Peter Kurz, the manager of that kids’ team, recruited Israel’s current manager, Eric Holtz, by mapping out a potential route to the Tokyo Olympics on a napkin.
“We met in New York City for breakfast. He asked if I’d be interested in taking over the national team of Israel,” Holtz said. “I had no idea what that meant, and if we just did these four or five things we could potentially end up in the Olympics. I laughed at him and said, ‘Peter, are you out of your mind? What are you saying?'”
Kurz produced some names of potential players, some Holtz had heard of — but no big baseball names. Kurz had organized Israel’s World Baseball Classic teams in 2013 and 2017 — when Israel qualified for the main tournament and was dubbed the “Jamaican bobsled team of the WBC” by ESPN.
In the 2017 WBC, however, Israel thrived, reaching the quarterfinals in Tokyo and finishing sixth overall. The success earned some press in a country where baseball is not even a novelty, but Kurz said the response was not all flattering.
“Unfortunately, they were also saying, ‘This is not really an Israeli team. It’s made up of American Jewish ballplayers playing for Team Israel.’ I got quite upset about that. These players sacrificed their careers. They took two weeks out of their lives to play for Israel. They came to Israel,” Kurz said.
Kurz showed Holtz a list of 10 Jewish players he’d targeted who would need to acquire Israeli citizenship and make that life commitment if Israel were to have a chance.
“He did say, ‘You’re crazy, but I’m with you,'” Kurz said. “And I said, ‘Fantastic. Let’s do it.’ And I approached these 10 players, and right away they all did it. It’s not an easy process. There’s a lot of paperwork, a lot of legwork. You have to go to the FBI, get an FBI report. You have to go to a rabbi, there’s a process.”
Holtz’s team won European Championship Pool B to qualify for the main 12-team draw, when reinforcements arrived: former major leaguers Danny Valencia and Ty Kelly, and minor leaguers Nick Rickles and Jeremy Bleich.
Joining Israel was a win-win situation for the players, Kurz said, a chance to enrich themselves personally by reconnecting with their heritage while pursuing an Olympic opportunity.
“The difference between us and other countries is that to be Jewish is to be a heritage,” Kurz said. “All the guys have totally bought into this. All of them have been back at least twice.”
The headliner has been a recent addition, Ian Kinsler, a four-time major league all-star with 1,888 major league games on his resume.
“He (Kinsler) spent three days here,” Kurz said. “In those three days, he must have seen at least 200 kids on the field. The connection was incredible. He was teaching them, they were loving him. This is a guy who wasn’t really connected to his Jewish heritage, but they (the players) are connected and they are going to help us develop a program in Israel.”
Israel’s epiphany, Kurz said, came at the European championships in Germany, where Jews had once been ruthlessly persecuted.
To be a Jewish team, an Israeli team playing in Germany was extremely meaningful for a lot of the guys,” he said. “My parents are Holocaust survivors. A lot of the guys had grandparents who were Holocaust survivors. … To be representing Israel after what happened 80 years ago. It was our saying to our ancestors, ‘Here we are, we’re doing this with pride and we’re proud of our heritage.’ We were all proud of that.”
Israel finished fourth in Germany to earn a spot in the European-African Olympic qualifying tournament. There, Holtz’s squad started 3-0 with impressive wins over two powerhouses, the Netherlands and host Italy. Israel entered its final game 3-1, needing only to beat South Africa to clinch an Olympic berth.
“Five minutes out from the stadium, I stood up on the bus and said, ‘We’re the only team that controls our own destiny,'” Holz said. “‘If we just take care of what we need to do today, we’re going to leave the hotel as a baseball team and we’re going to return to the hotel as Olympians.’ And the bus goes crazy.
“We put a spanking on South Africa and we were the first team to qualify other than (host) Japan.”
Success, however, came with a catch. The Israeli Olympic Committee, which has won nine individual Olympic medals overall, was unprepared to field its first team sport since dispatching a soccer team to the 1976 Montreal Olympics.
“Israel has not had a stable government in two years, and the (Olympic) budget is from 2018,” Kurz said. “In 2018, there was not an Israeli national baseball team going to the Olympics, so there was no government financing or funding.”
The team raised money, essentially through crowdfunding, asking supporters to be Israel’s “25th man” in Tokyo. Now, with funding secured and schedules in place, Holtz’s promise on that bus in Italy in September 2019 has come true.
“What started out as a meeting on a scrap piece of paper in a cafe in New York City has turned into the Jamaican bobsled story,” he said.
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