In Olympics baseball qualifier, Team Israel seeks to catch trip to 2020 Games
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Interview'We’re looking to make a good showing. Anything can happen'

In Olympics baseball qualifier, Team Israel seeks to catch trip to 2020 Games

Winner of the tournament, which runs through Sunday, goes to Tokyo; Peter Kurz, team president and general manager, tells TOI hopes are high, as team makes a flying start

  • Illustrative: Infielder Cody Decker #14 of Israel holds team mascot The Mensch after the World Baseball Classic Pool A Game Five between Netherlands and Israel at Gocheok Sky Dome on March 9, 2017 in Seoul, South Korea. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
    Illustrative: Infielder Cody Decker #14 of Israel holds team mascot The Mensch after the World Baseball Classic Pool A Game Five between Netherlands and Israel at Gocheok Sky Dome on March 9, 2017 in Seoul, South Korea. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
  • Israel's Zach Borenstein is forced out at home as South Korea's catcher Yang Eui-ji tries to throw to first during the eighth inning of the first round game of the World Baseball Classic at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, March 6, 2017. (AP /Lee Jin-man)
    Israel's Zach Borenstein is forced out at home as South Korea's catcher Yang Eui-ji tries to throw to first during the eighth inning of the first round game of the World Baseball Classic at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, March 6, 2017. (AP /Lee Jin-man)
  • Ten American baseball players show off their new national identity cards after receiving Israeli citizenship at the Population and Immigration Authority offices in Jaffa on October 17, 2018. (Israel Baseball via JTA)
    Ten American baseball players show off their new national identity cards after receiving Israeli citizenship at the Population and Immigration Authority offices in Jaffa on October 17, 2018. (Israel Baseball via JTA)
  • Illustrative: Israel players line up for the national anthem prior to the World Baseball Classic Pool E Game Three between Netherlands and Israel at the Tokyo Dome on March 13, 2017 in Tokyo, Japan (Matt Roberts/Getty Images/JTA)
    Illustrative: Israel players line up for the national anthem prior to the World Baseball Classic Pool E Game Three between Netherlands and Israel at the Tokyo Dome on March 13, 2017 in Tokyo, Japan (Matt Roberts/Getty Images/JTA)
  • President and general manager of the Israeli national baseball team, Peter Kurz. (Courtesy Israel Association of Baseball)
    President and general manager of the Israeli national baseball team, Peter Kurz. (Courtesy Israel Association of Baseball)

NEW YORK — Ten years ago, Peter Kurz had a vision. He wanted Israel to not only have a competitive international baseball team, but to do so by winning early and often. It’s a shame Jewish baseball legend Hank Greenberg wasn’t around to see it.

The 2017 World Baseball Classic proved to be the start of an unprecedented rise for Team Israel. They entered the tournament as a true underdog, placing just 41st in the global rankings. However, with the help of a string of former MLB players, the Jewish team excelled.

To even get into the major tournament for the first time, Israel had to defeat Pakistan, Brazil and Great Britain in the 2016 qualifying rounds. Once the Jewish team made it to the World Baseball Classic, they were ranked last of 16. They played South Korea in Seoul, followed by Taiwan and the Netherlands.

They defeated Soul Korea in Round 1, Chinese Taipei the day after, and the Netherlands after a day off.

Round 2 began against Cuba, as Israel beat them 4-1. But the Netherlands bounced back in Round 2, defeating Israel 12-2, followed by an Israeli 8-3 loss to Japan. It sent Israel home, but it was the tale of a true underdog team.

Israeli third baseman Ty Kelly (L) arrives at the home plate next to Cuban catcher Yosvani Alarcon after a single hit by right fielder Zach Borenstein at the top of the sixth inning during the World Baseball Classic Pool E second round match between Cuba and Israel at Tokyo Dome in Tokyo on March 12, 2017 (AFP PHOTO / TORU YAMANAKA)

Recently, a documentary entitled, “Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel,” started making its way across American theaters after a soft release in December 2018.

Now, the Israel Association of Baseball is taking on its next challenge. Kurz, president and general manager, has recruited former major leaguers to play for the team, even convincing them to move to Israel under the auspices of the Israeli Law of Return.

Overall, 12 players have gotten citizenship to officially qualify for the Olympic team, including Danny Valencia, Ty Kelly, Nick Rickles and Ben Wanger.

Team Israel advanced to the current Olympic qualifier in Italy after beating France in the European Championship on September 13. Overall, the white and blue crew finished fourth in the competition.

Israeli right fielder Zach Borenstein hits a one-run single at the top of the sixth inning during the World Baseball Classic Pool E second round match between Cuba and Israel at Tokyo Dome in Tokyo on March 12, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / TORU YAMANAKA)

The Europe/Africa qualifier began Wednesday, and Israel got off to a flying start, with the first match against Spain seeing Israel triumph 3-0. Israel then smashed The Netherlands 8-1 on Thursday. It was next scheduled to play against Italy, the Czech Republic and South Africa.

Whichever team wins the qualifier gets an automatic Olympic bid. The second-place team gets a chance to make the Olympics through the final world qualifying tournament.

President and general manager of the Israeli national baseball team, Peter Kurz. (Courtesy Israel Association of Baseball)

The Times of Israel spoke to a determined Kurz, who discussed his lofty goals, speaking realistically and firmly stating why he knows this team can make the Olympics.

Times of Israel: What is it like to know Israel has a shot at making the Olympics?

Kurz: It’s been a dream come true for me. I’ve had a vision for the last 10 years to win the European championship. It’s the first time team Israel was in the Championship A pool. To be able to do it when there’s an Olympic qualifier is an incredible feeling. It’s a lot of fun.

How do you feel this team has grown to be so successful?

I’ve been working on this since before the World Baseball Classic [WBC] qualifier in 2012, when we first qualified for that. We started making contact with ex-major leaguers and minor leaguers. Today, 12 of those guys are Israeli citizens playing for Israel on the field, and it’s been exciting. They’re committed to play for Israel and be with us as part of our program. Each of them has been in Israel for at least a couple of weeks, running clinics. There are three guys coming to live in Israel afterwards. We have an academy in Israel and we’ve built fields in Israel with our WBC winnings. Our under-18 team came in first place in the European qualifiers. A lot of guys in Israel are watching this and it’s exciting.

Israeli infielder Ike Davis (R) is congratulated by his teammate Blake Gailen (#2) after arriving at the home plate by a double of catcher Ryan Lavarnway during the World Baseball Classic Pool E second round match between Cuba and Israel at Tokyo Dome in Tokyo on March 12, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / TORU YAMANAKA)

What are your expectations moving forward?

My goal was to make the Olympic qualifiers. Now that we made it, with a five-game round-robin, each game is crucial. We have really good pitching, and we’re looking to make a good showing. Anything can happen.

Who has stood out as a leader on this team?

There is no doubt Blake Gailen is our leader. He’s done things quietly, but he’s been our best hitter. Mitch Glasser and Zach Penprase have been incredible. We have five Israeli sabras on the team, and three of them started the last game of the European championship against Spain. They’re sabras who grew up in Israel and in the program.

Israel players line up for the national anthem prior to the World Baseball Classic Pool E Game Three between Netherlands and Israel at the Tokyo Dome on March 13, 2017 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images via JTA)

What’s it like to work with them compared to the former major leaguers?

We’re certainly the smartest team, with Yale and Harvard graduates

Ty Kelly and Danny Valencia are professional ball players who know to act, what to do and how to entertain. It’s a fun adventure for them because representing Israel is important for them. They’re very proud to have that uniform on their chests, especially when Hatikva is sung. We have different layers of players. We’re certainly the smartest team, with Yale and Harvard graduates.

What would it mean to you to see this team make the Olympics?

Wow. It would be an incredible 11 months of being an Olympic team. It would be 11 months of fundraising, leveraging that, being in the news, bringing the guys to Israel for practice sessions and clinics. It would be an incredible experience.

It would help baseball grow incredibly in Israel. They heard about the WBC, but going to the Olympics would be a greater experience for Israelis because they would appreciate it more. Israel hasn’t won a team sport since the 1970s.

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