'It's a perfect match for me to stick to my roots'

Pirates analyst and southpaw pitcher heads to Tokyo Olympics with Team Israel

As the Jewish state qualifies for its 1st Olympic baseball competition since 1976, Jeremy Bleich, a grandson of Holocaust survivors, gets Israeli citizenship to join the squad

Team Israel pitcher Jeremy Bleich in a 2018 interview. (YouTube)
Team Israel pitcher Jeremy Bleich in a 2018 interview. (YouTube)

PITTSBURGH JEWISH CHRONICLE — Jeremy Bleich played professional baseball for 11 years before switching to pitching analytics for the Pittsburgh Pirates coaching staff. Now, the left-handed pitcher and veteran of two MLB games is preparing to head to Japan with Team Israel to compete in the 2021 Olympics.

The upcoming Olympics in Tokyo will mark the first time since 1976 that Israel’s national baseball team has qualified.

Bleich — who pitched for 14 different teams before finally playing his first game in the majors for the Oakland Athletics in 2018 — began working for the Pirates in 2020.

Joining the Pirates staff “has been a good transition,” Bleich, 34, told the Chronicle. “It’s been a great opportunity to look behind the curtain and see what baseball operations are like and how Major League Baseball functions, not only on the field, but also off the field. The whole Pirates organization has supported me on my quest to Team Israel.”

Bleich pitched for Team Israel at the 2017 World Baseball Classic, the 2019 European Baseball Championship and the 2019 Europe/Africa Olympic Qualifier, which Israel won to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics.

Depending on the tournament, players need to satisfy certain requirements to play on Team Israel. For the Olympics, Bleich explained, players must be Israeli citizens, so he and several other American Jews got Israel got their dual citizenship to play in the Tokyo Olympics.

Pitching for Team Israel “was a perfect match for me to stick to my roots,” said Bleich, whose grandparents were Holocaust survivors. Team Israel, he added, provides a space to connect his passion for baseball with his Jewish identity, joining teammates with similar backgrounds.

“Joining the Israeli Olympic team allowed me to be proud of my family and the path that my family has taken, while also playing baseball,” Bleich said.

The dynamic on Team Israel and the Pittsburgh Pirates is “totally different,” noted Bleich. “The Pirates are a Major League team and play 162 games. The Olympics is a six-team bracket pool play which can go any which way. The Israeli team is probably not built for 162 games, but we do have the opportunity to do damage in a short sprint. All of us are resilient, which I think works in our favor.”

Team Israel came in 6th place in the 2017 World Baseball Classic. (YouTube)

Team Israel is supported by the Jewish National Fund-USA, which created a baseball field between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv for national games and for training Team Israel, according to Lou Rosenberg, the lead professional in charge of JNF-USA’s Project Baseball. JNF-USA also raised funds to help finance Team Israel’s trip to the Olympics, he said.

“The guys are an amazing group,” Rosenberg said. “They’re bonded. They know that this is an amazing opportunity to create more of a positive international outlook on Israel.”

Rosenberg said he told Team Israel’s players to imagine the significance of seeing the Israeli flag on Olympics medals.

“It would make an amazing statement to the world to combat antisemitic and anti-Zionist hatred,” he said.

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