On Friday afternoon, a group of children aged 11 and 12 from Beth Shemesh arrive in a grassy area near the entrance to Moshav Mesilat Zion. His sharp new baseball uniform stands in contrast to a temporary field marked with four simple bases and a homemade backstop. With no actual infield or pitcher mound and only bushings to prevent a well-hit ball from leaving the field, it is not the greatest setting to prepare the next generation of Olympic-level athletes.
Still, the Israel Association of Baseball (IAB) is swinging to the fence, looking to build on the performance of the Israeli Olympic team in its first competition in 2021. The organization plans to send an unprecedented four youth teams to European competitions this summer; It is also hosting another team Israel for the World Baseball Classic (WBC) in March 2023. Like the Olympic team—which had only four Israeli-born players—the WBC team would consist mostly of American Jews.
Working tirelessly without full-time staff, IAB President Jordi Alter runs the organization with the help of a team of dedicated volunteers. Baseball is clearly a labor of love: Alter travels to his native New Jersey each month to manage his private dental practice.
But as baseball continues to grow in Israel, Alter, 59, wants to make sure players have state-of-the-art facilities to play in. The JNF-sponsored Ezra Schwartz Memorial Baseball Field – Israel’s second regulation-sized arena – opened in Ranana late last year. Meanwhile, Alter is overseeing the construction of another JNF project – a baseball complex in Beit Shemesh that will include a regulation area for young players with two smaller ones. Construction is expected to be completed in 2023.
Standing on the site of future home plate, Alter told The Times of Israel that “the facility will be the centerpiece of baseball in Israel” and will affect not only the game’s development here, but its ability to host international tournaments. will affect.
Last year at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (played in July 2021 due to the pandemic), Israel Baseball got its time to shine. Fans at home and in the diaspora proudly rooted for Team Israel, which played bravely but ultimately failed to win a medal. The long and costly effort to qualify for and play for the Olympics paid off with extensive exposure on the global stage.
Soon after the Olympics, however, the IAB had to transition from focusing on Tokyo to rebuilding baseball in Israel. Due to the COVID restrictions, the number of registered players decreased from 800 to 400 across the country. The activities of the league were drastically curtailed. Players lost an entire season in leagues across the country.
But the IAB points to success – and hope for the future of the original Israeli Olympic-level players – in examples such as 33-year-old Alon Leichtman. Now retired from the game, Leachman is a pitching coach for the Tacoma Rainiers, a minor league Triple-A affiliate of Major League Baseball’s Seattle Mariners. Leachman was born and raised in the center of the country in the kibbutz geyser.
A sabra woke up on the field of dreams
Literally carved out of a corn field on Leachman’s kibbutz, Israel’s first baseball field was built by immigrants from the United States in the early 1970s. Leachman grew up with a “dream field” in his backyard, and is now probably Israel’s best example of a home baseball professional.
Leachman had a successful pitching stint with the University of California San Diego Triton. He went on to play for and coach Team Israel at the 2017 World Baseball Classic, Olympic Qualifiers and Tokyo Olympics.
“I had the advantage of literally growing up next to Israel’s first real baseball and softball field,” Leachman said. “It was the only place in Israel where baseball was around all the time. My father was a softball pitcher and I was coached and had enough foundation to play college baseball.”
I had the advantage of literally growing up next to Israel’s first real baseball and softball field
While many elbow injuries put an end to his dream of playing in the majors, Leachman says, “Coaching is the next best thing in the big leagues.” Leachman visits the kibbutz geyser every off-season and plans to eventually return to Israel.
“I want to help raise the level of the game in Israel to help future generations of players reach their dreams and goals,” he said, adding, “It was great to see the Americans playing with us, but It was very tough for a talented Israeli. Players who didn’t make the team.”
An Impossible Olympic Trajectory
Alter is going to bat for Israel Baseball alongside Peter Kurz, Alter’s predecessor as IAB president who plotted the impossible road to Olympic qualification. After guiding the IAB for eight years, Kurz became the full-time general manager of the Olympic and national teams.
In the years before the Olympic run, 64-year-old Kurz had developed contacts in Major League Baseball, Minor League and College Baseball to recruit the best possible team of American Jewish players. Very few Israeli players were ready for the big stage. Team Israel competed in the WBC qualifiers in 2012 and 2017. In the latter competition, the team won a regional qualifying round played in Brooklyn in 2016, reaching the second round of the main event in Tokyo and finishing sixth out of 16 teams overall.
Even more challenging was putting together a team for the Olympics, where players are required to make a commitment to be citizens of the country they represent. As they progressed to Olympic qualification, all American players were granted Israeli citizenship – although they had gone but had never lived in the country.
The Israeli Olympic team put together by Kurz included a top coaching staff and an enthusiastic and talented group of professional or recently retired athletes, including former MLB stars Ian Kinsler and Danny Valencia.
Most of the team is now out of baseball and doing other things, and Kurz is putting together a new team made up primarily of American Jews to compete in the WBC in March. Israel is ranked sixth in the world in the tournament.
However, Team Israel’s replay of the Olympics is a long way off. Baseball is not a permanent Olympic sport. There will be no baseball in the 2024 Paris Olympics and a decision to include baseball in the 2028 Los Angeles Olympic Games has yet to be determined by the International Olympic Committee.
Kurz said that baseball’s non-inclusion in the 2024 Olympics meant “significantly less government support … From a financial standpoint, that’s a big difference.”
“If we qualify for the WBC or the Olympics it means a lot of funding and tremendous incentives for sport at the local level,” he said.
nurture domestic talent
The IAB leadership all say the goal is for the Israeli-born players to become good enough to replace the American Jewish players on the roster. The challenge to bring them up to top international standards lies in front of IAB head coaches Nate Fisch and Ophir Katz.
Fisch, 42, is a former IAB executive director who officially immigrated to Israel in 2013 before moving back to the US in 2016 to develop a startup. Although he lives abroad, Fish makes regular trips to Israel and joins the team as manager. Israel-born Ophir Katz heads the 100-player-strong Israel Baseball Academy operating in Petach Tikva’s Baptist Village.
Under the guidance of Fisch and Katz, an unprecedented four Israeli youth baseball teams will travel this summer for European championships and qualifying tournaments in the U12, U15, U18 and U23 age groups (“U” means “under”). There are few opportunities for local baseball fans to see Team Israel U18 in action, however, playing them at the Maccabiah Games this July when Israel hosts games against teams from Canada and the US.
Most of the players who fill the 15- to 25-player roster learned the game at the Israel Baseball Academy. Katz told The Times of Israel that if baseball is at the Olympics in 2028, he expects half the team to be made up of players who travel to Israel this summer to attend the academy.
“The goal is to play more Sabras in high-profile international competitions, but we’re not there yet. To compete in the World Baseball Classic or the Olympics, we have to load up on American Jewish talent to have a chance. It’s not a perfect equation.” If we’re using American professional players, Sabaras won’t get opportunities. We’re always looking for the right balance,” Fish said, speaking from his home in the Catskill Mountains, New York.
Fish struck a successful balance when a month after the Olympics he managed to finish second to Team Israel at the European Championships with a mixed team including the Olympians, but featuring mostly domestic talent.
With only 800 players and a small baseball academy, it’s hard to imagine Israel fielding a competitive team of Israeli-born players at the Olympics or WBC.
But, Alter explains, “it was hard to imagine Israel playing in the Olympics, and yet it happened. The development of world-class Israeli players is already underway.”