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Tokyo 2020

Home run: Olympic baseball players hope medal can boost the sport back in Israel

The 24-man team will see its debut in Tokyo on Thursday with a game against South Korea, a day before it faces the US

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel.

Israel's national baseball team at a team practice in Tel Aviv, January 14, 2020. (AP/Ariel Schalit)
Israel's national baseball team at a team practice in Tel Aviv, January 14, 2020. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

The success of Israel’s baseball team at this year’s Olympics could spur a surge of interest in the sport in the country, where there is little local baseball presence, several players said ahead of their Olympic debut this week.

At a video press conference for Israeli media from Tokyo on Tuesday, players Tal Erel and Shlomo Lipetz — two of only four players on the 24-man team who were born in Israel — said they’d love to see baseball become popular at home.

“One of our hopes in winning a medal is to raise the presence of the sport in Israel,” said Lipetz, noting that the countries Israel will face in the tournament have well-developed local baseball scenes.

“If you fly to the Dominican Republic or South Korea or Japan or the US — every few kilometers there’s a baseball field, there are leagues, and in Israel there aren’t,” he said.

Erel said success for the team at the Tokyo Olympics would help “bring more fields and more infrastructure so that baseball can really develop in Israel.” Lipetz said that if the sport begins to grow in popularity, “we can attract athletes from other sports to baseball, and show young players that there’s a path to success, whether that’s in college in the US or in professional leagues or the Israeli National Team.”

Israeli sports journalist Maya Ronen, who is in Tokyo reporting for Israel’s Sports Channel, told The Times of Israel before departing for Japan that most Israelis are unfamiliar with baseball.

Israel Olympic baseball players take a break in the dugout during practice at Salt River Fields spring training facility, May 12, 2021, in Scottsdale, Arizona. (AP Photo/Matt York)

“Nobody here can say they grew up on baseball,” she said. “But I think that there’s an incredible opportunity for exposure… if there’s major success for the team, imagine what that will do for baseball in Israel. It could bring a revolution.”

Israel’s baseball team will see its Olympic debut on Thursday, against South Korea. A day later, the team will face off against the Americans, and those games will determine the matchups for next week, when the knockout rounds begin. The team — made up largely of naturalized American Jews — has been credited with a Cinderella-like journey to the Olympics, one of only six teams to qualify. This year marks the first time Israel has sent a baseball team to the Games, and the first time since 1976 that Israel has qualified for any team sport at the Olympics.

“Our excitement is at a peak here in Tokyo two days before the first game. We’ve had some great practices which really proved what level we’re at,” said Erel. “Just like we’ve proven ourselves in the past, we’re ready to prove ourselves at the highest level in the world at the Olympics.”

Peter Kurz, the general manager for the team, said the players were more than ready to hit the field.

“It’s not our first time at an international competition — we’ve been at several so far — and the Olympics is essentially a big international competition,” said Kurz.

Israel Olympic baseball players work out at Salt River Fields spring training facility, May 12, 2021, in Scottsdale, Arizona (AP Photo/Matt York)

And with six teams competing for three medals, hopes are high that Israel can make the podium in its baseball Olympic debut.

“There’s always a shot at a medal,” said Kurz. “We didn’t come here to hang out with the Israeli delegation and play cards. “We came here to win, and to get a medal for the State of Israel. That’s the goal, and we’ll achieve it.”

While Israel is considered somewhat of an underdog in the tournament — betting odds place it furthest away from gold — the team is confident in its abilities.

“We’re playing some of the best teams in the world,” Eric Holtz, the team’s head coach, said in English, “but we feel pretty confident about this. We’ve prepared and we have some great baseball players — we’ve done our work in the back office to get prepared, done a lot of scouting over the last two months or so, so we’ll be prepared to play with anybody that we step on the field with.”

Tthe players are in excellent spirits ahead of their first opening pitch of the Olympic Games.

“We’re ready and we know what we’re able to achieve,” said Erel.

“The games start on Thursday, and we expect a victory,” added Lipetz. “I think our chances are good; a lot of our teammates have an international background, a professional background.”

Lipetz noted that in 2017, Israel beat the South Korean team at the World Baseball Classic — “and their team then was stronger than it is now, and our team is better now than it was then.”

“Mentally and physically,” he said, “we are on equal ground with most of the other teams.”

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