The pandemic that brought the whole world to a halt delayed the steadfast celebration that many of us may have previously taken for granted. One year later, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games are ready to begin and baseball returns to the Olympics for the first time since 2008. Each team will get a preview article where we discuss a bit about baseball in the country, the team’s route to Tokyo, and which players to look for on the Olympic stage. For a refresher on the rules and format of the tournament, please refer back to Nicole Cahill’s preview article, which can be found here.
Qualification and Significance
Since baseball was added to the Olympics as an official sport in 1992 — and removed from competition after Beijing in 2008 — Team Israel has never even come close to qualifying for the Olympic baseball competition. Israeli baseball has faced an uphill battle to relevance in its own country, as Israel does not have a professional baseball league, nor is baseball nearly as popular as basketball and soccer among Israeli sports fans. Baseball is considered a “niche” sport in Israel, so the player pool to draw from has always been quite small for a country that is already quite small, with a landmass roughly equivalent to New Jersey and a population of 8.7 million. A lack of interest, along with a small player pool, has led to a lower standard for practice facilities and equipment. One of the native Israeli players on the roster, Shlomo Lipetz, spoke with Ken Rosenthal about the low quality of baseball fields in Israel recently, saying “You play on soccer fields. You play with old, soggy baseballs. And if it rains a couple of drops, the fields can’t (hold) water.” So, it is quite understandable that Israel struggled to reach the baseball Olympics for so long.
Israel did not enter into qualifications for the World Baseball Classic (WBC) in 2006 or 2009, either. They competed in qualifiers for the 2013 WBC but did not make the final tournament, as the WBC qualifying rounds took place in September 2012, right in the middle of the MLB season, which prevented several interested MLB players from playing for the team. The talent pool in Israel is not deep enough that the team could qualify for the tournament without those MLB players, who could have added some thump to the Israeli lineup.
Then, Israeli baseball showed some life in 2016. Team Israel was able to win enough games in their qualifying tournament — despite that tournament once again being played during the MLB season — to qualify for the 2017 World Baseball Classic. Thanks to the WBC rules, which only required players to be eligible to become citizens for their country, Team Israel gained several key contributors, including Ty Kelly, Craig Breslow, Dylan Axelrod, and Sam Fuld (and one surprising bench coach), who would spur the 41st-ranked team in the world to a 6th place finish in the tournament.
They were able to join Team Israel because the country has a special citizenship path for Jews, called the “Law of Return.” The Law of Return allows anyone with a Jewish parent or grandparent or is married to a Jew the right to return to Israel (known as “making aliyah“) and become citizens. So, virtually every Jewish baseball player, regardless of their country of residence, became eligible for the Israeli WBC team. This year’s Olympic team does not include Breslow or Fuld, among others, because the Olympics require players to have a passport issued by their home country, meaning every player must be a true citizen of their country to participate. And, Fuld and Breslow are a little bit busy running MLB teams of their own to play ball during the trade deadline.
Despite the stricter eligibility requirements for Tokyo, several players from the 2017 World Baseball Classic team remained on Team Israel’s roster for the Tokyo qualifying rounds in 2019. In fact, just 4 members of the qualifying roster were naturally-born Israeli citizens. The rest of the team did this by making aliyah and becoming citizens between 2017 and the qualifying tournaments. And, the mostly-intact core from 2017, along with some new welcome additions (more on that below!), finished in the top 5 of the 2019 European Baseball Championship, which earned Team Israel the right to compete in the Europe/Africa Olympic Qualifying Event in September 2019. The winner of the Qualifying Event automatically qualified for one of the 6 spots in the Olympic tournament.
Israel cruised through the Qualifying Event, finishing with a 4-1 overall record after beating the 8th-ranked Netherlands, 16th-ranked Italy, Spain, and South Africa while falling to the Czech Republic for its lone loss. Israel, by virtue of its run differential and head-to-head record against the Netherlands, clinched a spot in Tokyo.
Now, Team Israel, ranked 24th in the world, will finally participate in the baseball Olympics for the very first time. This tournament represents an important moment for Israeli baseball at all levels. The visibility of the Olympics provides an incredible opportunity to build enthusiasm for baseball in Israel, and show the international baseball community that Israeli baseball can compete with the best.
Israel’s roster is comprised of a small handful of MLB veterans (8 have major league experience), along with several longtime minor league players, and a small batch of other players with a variety of semi-professional experience. The most notable addition to the squad is the 14-year MLB veteran 2B Ian Kinsler. Kinsler made aliyah very recently and arrived in Israel just before the COVID-19 pandemic, so he did not participate with the team in any of the qualifying games. Another player to keep an eye on is Danny Valencia, who enjoyed 9 seasons in the MLB as a third baseman before retiring in 2018. Valencia was the most productive member of Israel’s lineup during the Qualifying Event, leading the team with a .375 batting average and 3 home runs across the team’s 5 games. Kinsler and Valencia figure to slot into the top of Israel’s lineup.
The team returns 10 players from the 2017 WBC squad, including Twitter jokester (and IF) Ty Kelly, Ps Josh Zeid and Jeremy Bleich, and C Ryan Lavarnway. Israel has also switched managers since 2017, with Eric Holtz replacing Jerry Weinstein at the helm.
Note: (*) denotes players who played on the 2017 WBC roster.
Notable Players Missing: MLB limited its Olympic participation by prohibiting players on their team’s 40-man roster from joining their country in competition. This rule affected players like Dean Kremer and Ryan Sherriff, who are both on 40-man rosters for the Orioles and Rays, respectively. Curiously, Ryan Braun did not attempt to join the roster, despite being eligible to play via the “Law of Return.” Braun is not currently on a major league (or 40-man) roster.
Fans of the team will have to keep dreaming about a lineup with Joc Pederson, Alex Bregman, Rowdy Tellez, and Kevin Pillar (and a pitching staff with Kremer and Max Fried). They are all eligible to become citizens via the “Law of Return” and could participate in the next World Baseball Classic for Team Israel.
On Wednesday, Carlos Marcano will preview Team Mexico. Nicole Cahill will preview Team Korea on Friday.