2020/2021 Tokyo Olympics Baseball Preview: Israel

Flag of Israel

With a team primarily of Jewish players from the USA who are eligible thanks to the infamously lax eligibility rules of international baseball, the Israeli baseball team will probably prove to be quite a curiosity to the world press. However, as the 2017 WBC showed, Team Israel is perfectly capable of pulling upsets and should not be underestimated. They are managed by Eric Holtz, the owner of a baseball training facility in Westchester County who played in Israel’s short-lived professional league and coached for college teams for decades. Israel’s 24-man roster can be found here.

About the Country: Sitting ever perilously at the center of both international politics and the world’s three largest monotheistic religions, the current state of Israel came into existence in 1947. Despite its decades of tumultuous history, Israel is also a leader in science and technology.

Baseball History: Although some may joke that Israeli baseball began “in the big inning” that can be found when the beginning of the Book of Genesis is read aloud (it’s a lame pun, think about it for a second), Israeli baseball didn’t really begin until some Americans who had moved to Israel played it a bit. However, that was about it until, in 2007, a small professional league was created in Israel by American businessmen. While it folded after one season, its level of play was apparently pretty good, although only a small handful of the players in the league were actually Israeli. In fact, it has been rare for actual Israelis to play for Team Israel. Thanks to lax eligibility rules as well as the fact that it is quite easy for those of Jewish descent to be eligible for Israeli citizenship, most of the Israeli national teams that have competed in large tournaments have been made up of Americans and Canadians.

Israel lost to Spain for a spot in the 2013 WBC before making the tournament in 2017, where they made it to the second round with a stream of upsets. Dean Kremer, a pitcher born to two Israeli parents and who has lived in Israel at times during summers where he hasn’t been pitching, became the first Israeli citizen drafted by MLB in 2015 and the first Israeli citizen to play in MLB when Kremer made his debut with the Orioles in 2020.

Olympic History: This is, of course, Israel’s first appearance in Olympic baseball. It isn’t the first time that there was an Olympic baseball team primarily made up of people from outside the country they were representing, however: the Greek national team in 2004 was made up primarily of Americans of Greek ancestry (most notably Nick Markakis).

For decades, Israel’s Olympic history had been (and continues to be) centered around 1972’s Munich massacre. It would not be until 1992 that an Israeli would win a medal, and to this day the country has won only one gold (windsurfer Gal Fridman in 2000). Every medal for Israel has come in either judo or a boating sport like sailing or canoe.

This year’s baseball team will be the first Israeli representation in a team sport since the Israeli soccer team made it to the quarter-finals of the 1976 Montreal games.

Road to Tokyo: Israel was actually the first team to qualify for the Olympics aside from the host nation of Japan. They came out on top of a 2019 qualifier in Italy for teams from Europe and Africa, winning the round robin thanks to holding a head-to-head tie-breaker against the Netherlands.

Notable Names: The former MLB players on Team Israel are, of course, Americans of Jewish heritage. The most notable is certainly Ian Kinsler, the four-time all-star second baseman and two-time Gold Glove winner. He was a member of Team USA’s WBC title team in 2017. He’s played a bit in the Atlantic League this year in preparation for the tournament.

Other players with MLB experience include Danny Valencia, who played third base for a variety of teams over a nine-year career and who is perhaps best known among degenerate baseballaholics like me for the fact that he always hit David Price exceptionally well (a career .600 BA) to the point where the Orioles, Red Sox and Blue Jays all made points of having him in the lineup for series against Tampa. Catcher Ryan Lavarnway played parts of 10 seasons in the big leagues and remains active in the affiliated minors on Cleveland’s AAA team in Columbus. Utilityman Ty Kelly played parts of three seasons between the Mets and Phillies and is a career .275 hitter in the minors. While less notable, the team also has MLB-experienced pitchers in Jeremy Bleich, Jon Moscot, Zack Weiss, and Josh Zeid.

Ones to Watch: First off, I want to the pay tribute to the actual people born in Israel that are on the team simply because on a team mostly of Americans they stand-out for… actually being from the country they are representing.

Shlomo Lipetz was born in Tel Aviv, fell in love with baseball during visits to New York, and later moved to the USA to pitch in college. He’s since played semi-pro ball and in the short-lived Israeli Baseball League while also working as a music booker at City Winery in New York City. Now 42, this is probably his last ride… but a ride it has been. Another Israeli-born pitcher on the team is Alon Leichman. Born in a kibbutz in the late 80s, Leichman fell in love with the game thanks to American relatives and moved to America to pitch in college. He’s since gone into coaching, where he is currently the pitching coach for Seattle’s AA Arkansas Travelers.

Among position players, there is catcher Tal Erel, born in Ramat Gan (near Tel Aviv). After playing in leagues in the Czech Republic and Netherlands, he moved to Florida where he played college ball on the JuCo and Division II levels. The final Israeli-born player is Assaf Lowengart, who now plays for DII Mansfield University.

Among the Americans on the team that haven’t played in the big leagues, names that stand out include LHP Jake Fishman (Miami’s AAA team in Jacksonville), LHP Alex Katz (Cubs organization), RHP Ben Wanger (University of Miami), SS Scott Burcham (AAA Colorado), utilityman Mitch Glasser (hitting .345 in independent Sioux Falls), and long-time minor league/indyball journeyman outfielder Blake Gailen.

Outlook: On paper, Israel is undoubtedly the worst team in the field. No other team in the tournament is rolling out college and semi-pro players to fill the back-end of their rosters, and most of their top professionals (such as Kinsler and Valencia) are in states of near-retirement. However, although it is unlikely that they can get to the medal stand they are still a good enough team where they may be able to pull an upset or two against stronger but potentially overconfident opponents.

You can find all the current Olympic Baseball previews here.