Federation Focus: Baseball underdogs Israel played in Olympics for first time ever

Federation Focus: Baseball underdogs Israel played in Olympics for first time ever
The November episode highlights a baseball miracle. Israel had never participated in a European Championship before 2019. Less than two years later, they fell just three outs short of the Olympic medal round.

In July 2019, Israel swept Lithuania (12-2, 15-0) and qualified for the European Baseball Championship for the first time in its history. At the time, the news was little more than a footnote in European baseball reports.

Israel finished fourth and advanced to the WBSC Europe/Africa Olympic Qualifier. They won the six-team tournament, defeating European powerhouses Netherlands, Italy and Spain, to earn a spot in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

The man behind the success is Peter Kurz, the general manager of the Israeli National Baseball Team.

"As a young boy growing up in New York, there were two events that have placed me where I am today," recalled Kurz through an e-mail. "I visited Israel with my parents as a 10-year old in 1967, and the Miracle Mets won the 1969 World Series."

Israel won the Six-Day War in June 1967 against an Arab coalition led by Egypt, at the time known as the United Arab Republic.

"We arrived two weeks after the war," recalled Kurz. "There was incredible euphoria in Israel. That was one event that made me fall in love and eventually move to Israel."

The 1969 World Series made young Peter fall in love with baseball. Kurz moved to Israel to do his Master's degree and met his wife. The couple moved back to New York, had two kids, but decided to go back to Israel in 1989.

"I have three kids now," commented Kurz, "and one granddaughter. They are all living in Israel."

Kurz got in touch with the Israel Baseball Association (IAB) in the late 1990s.

"It was 1998, I believe. My son Amit was ten and brought him to the field in Tel Aviv. Leon Klarfeld was the coach. He was also the President of IAB."

Klarfeld asked Kurz to help as a coach.
"I told him I had never coached baseball, but he replied that for sure I knew more than those 10-year olds. Two months later, Leon moved up north, and I had to take over. Two months later, he asked me to take a team of juveniles to a European Confederation (CEB) tournament in the Netherlands."

Klarfeld understood that Kurz was not that confident about his role and decided to appoint someone to help him.

"This is how I met Shlomo Lipetz, a 19-year old kid with the army at the time. We lost all of the games, but the kids had fun. Five of the members of that delegation are still involved in Israel Baseball as of today: myself, my son Amit, Shlomo, Alon Leichman and Ophir Katz."

Leichman, at the time a nine-year-old, is now the pitching coach for the Seattle Mariners of Major League Baseball (MLB) at the Double-A level. Katz, the son of former IAB President Haim Katz, runs the IAB Academy in Tel Aviv. Amit Kurz is on the IAB Board.

Lipetz, now 42, is still playing, and, as he made clear in an exclusive interview with the WBSC, he doesn't plan to retire anytime soon.

In 1998 baseball was only a two-decade-old sport in Israel. The first baseball field in the country was built in 1979 in Kibbutz Gezer and the IAB was established as a non-profit organization in 1986. The Kibbutz Gezer hosted international baseball at the Maccabiah Games 1989.

Israel didn't start competing at the European level until 2010. By the time, Kurz had become the IAB Secretary-General and had witnessed the first baseball failure in Israel.

"In 2007, the Israel Baseball League (IBL) developed. It was two months of lots of baseball. It involved six teams, 120 players. After the summer, it went bankrupt. But it got us known among the American Jewish baseball population."

Israel was invited in 2011 to the World Baseball Classic (WBC) Qualifiers.
"I met in California with Brad Ausmus, Gabe Kappler and Shawn Green, who had recently retired as MLB players. They hear my story and showed interest."

Israel put together a team, but lost the final of the Qualifier against Spain in Jupiter, Florida.

Israel was given another opportunity to participate in the World Baseball Classic in 2016. Kurz, now the IAB President, assembled a team that included manager Jerry Weinstein, Jason Marquis, Ike Davis, Ryan Lavarnway and Josh Zeid.

"They became eligible thanks to the WBC Heritage rule," commented Kurz. "There was a big debate within the IAB at the time about the need to add more native Israeli players. I believed it was more important to do well."

Lipetz, Leichman and Dean Kremer, a future MLB player, were the only Israeli natives on that team that shocked the baseball world and advanced to the second round of the WBC. The accomplishment is narrated in a movie called Heading Home.

The WBC Heritage rule would not help put together a team for the European Championship, let alone the Olympics.

"Israel has the Law of Return," said Kurz, "which allows any Jew anywhere in the world to become an Israeli citizen, but you need to go through a vetting process which is not simple at all, prepare a lot of documentation, get a rabbi to certify you. It takes a few months. I spoke to 10 players from the WBC team, guys I knew who were closely in touch with their Jewish heritage, and they all agreed to go through the process. Four more guys, including former major leaguer Danny Valencia, went through the process in the summer of 2019."

"It was a glorious summer," concluded Kurz, who stepped down as IAB President to focus on his duty as the National Team's General Manager. Currently, Jordy Alter is serving as the IAB President.

No one at the time was anticipating the COVID-19 era.
"That set us back a long time. There was total and absolute confusion in the beginning, we couldn't play or have leagues, and things fell apart in Israel. We tried to hold on as best as we could, as happened all over the world."

The baseball team was the first National Team to represent Israel in team sports at the Olympics since the soccer National Team in 1976.

"We even won the first game of any Israeli [Olympic] ball team ever, defeating Mexico. But not making it to the medal round hurt," commented Kurz, "and losing our top pitcher, Jon Moscot, after 11 pitches in the first game was a big blow for us."

Israel took Korea to the extra-innings and was three outs away from the medal round before the Dominican Republic reversed the lead in the ninth.

The best was yet to come. Israel participated in the European Championship and eliminated host Italy in the semifinal. They lost the final against the Netherlands.

"I can tell you upfront that I am most proud of the achievement of these 18 guys," stated Kurz. "We didn't have much of a budget to get to Turin, and many of the Olympic players just could not take off another two weeks."

Some key players, like Ty Kelly, Joey Wagman, Mitch Glasser, Ben Wanger, did participate. But the bulk of the team was made of native Israeli players.

Shortstop Assaf Lowengart (23) hit four home runs. He was born in Timorim, attends the Mansfield University of Pennsylvania. The roster also included switch-hitting catcher Tal Erel (25, born in Ramat Gan). He attended Miami Dade College and Palm Beach State College in the US; played in the Czech Republic and the Netherlands. Pitcher Orr Gottlieb (38, born in Tel Aviv), catcher Ophir Katz (34, born in Tel Aviv), outfielder David Ibn Ezra (born in Tel Aviv) played for the Bay College Norse in the US. Ivri Margolin (18, pitcher), Itai Goldner (19, utility), Shaked Baruch (19, infielder), Ido Peled (19, pitcher) are in the special army department for top-level athletes.

And now? What does the future of baseball look like in Israel?

Shlomo Lipetz said: "We still have basic aspirations. We would be happy if we could attract 10 good athletes. Our aspirations are modest, if compared to other countries: having baseball fields, kids playing the game, paying spectators."

Let's finish it by talking about baseball fields with Kurz.
"Our best field is in the Baptist Village, 20 minutes East of Tel Aviv. It's the home of our National Team. The field in Kibbutz Gezer used to be a softball field and has a light pole in the outfield. There's a field in Tel Aviv, it is public, and every Friday, there are fights with football players who want to use it."

The recent success of the Israel National Baseball Team has opened up new possibilities.

"We have done fundraising for 10 years to build two new fields. One in Raanana, 20 minutes North of Tel Aviv, and the other is in Bet Shemesh, about halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem."

Things are moving faster now.
"The fundraising has taken on new life, and we raised enough money and began work on both fields earlier this year. Raanana is almost done, and they have laid down the artificial turf, and the opening ceremony is on Wednesday, 1 December. Bet Shemesh will also be ready by the end of the year, but only for youth in phase one, as we are waiting for government money for phase two to put in lights, lay down turf, and maybe even build a real stadium so we can have a clubhouse and offices. That will take a while longer, but eventually, the National Home for the IAB will be in Bet Shemesh."

Kurz was a man with a dream. Now he can proudly state: "My dream is coming into reality."