With Team Israel’s 11-1 win over South Africa in the Olympic qualifiers in Parma, Italy, on Sunday, the startup nation became the baseball nation.
The Israel Baseball team will be the first team sport to represent Israel at the Olympic Games since 1976, when the Israel National Soccer team competed in the Montreal Summer Olympics. Israel will be one of six teams to play in the baseball competition at the Olympics.
“This is the ultimate dream come true,” said Peter Kurz, Israel Association of Baseball President and general manager of Team Israel. “It was almost too impossible to imagine, but with the astounding performances of a dedicated team that always believed in itself. Even when we were beaten on Saturday night by Czech Republic, it didn’t dampen anyone’s spirits because we knew we were capable of achieving this goal.”
Within minutes of their historic victory, the Israel Association of Baseball posted “Heading to the Olympics” in all caps on their Facebook page, and almost instantly received 236 likes and comments. The “Follow Team Israel” Facebook group, started in 2012 by a group of olim (new immigrants) to provide information on Israelis and Jewish athletes in the 2012 London Olympics, and which continues to raise awareness and enthusiasm for Israeli and Jewish athletes, similarly received 532 likes in response to its post: “Do you believe in miracles? They did it!”
Israel’s success last week, where it came in fourth place in the European Championships held in Germany (the top five teams advanced to the qualifiers) and in the Europe/Africa qualifiers, held this past Wednesday through Sunday in Parma and Bologna, Italy, earned them a spot in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Israel becomes the first nation in the world to qualify for the Olympics in baseball. Israel joins host nation Japan. Four more countries will ultimately qualify for the Olympics as baseball makes its return after being voted off the Olympic program after the Beijing 2008 Olympics. Two additional teams will qualify at the global Premier12 in November. One team from the Americas and one more from another qualifying tournament taking place later in the year will make it to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Israel began showing the world in 2017 that it needs to be taken seriously as a baseball nation. Israel won all three of its World Baseball Classic qualifiers in Brooklyn, N.Y., advanced to Pool A in South Korea in March 2017 and advanced again later that month to the second round in Tokyo. The team is currently qualified for the 2021 World Baseball Classic.
The Blue and White team, including some former Major League Baseball players who recently became Israeli citizens in order to play for Team Israel, faced three of the teams in the qualifiers it had lost to in Germany just last week, including Spain, Italy and the Netherlands (the European champions). Israel got off to an impressive 3-0 start in the qualifiers, which included an exciting 8-2 blowout Friday night against Italy. Their only loss came against the Czech Republic on Saturday night, where they lost 7-4.
In Sunday’s decisive game against South Africa, which allowed Israel to punch its card to the Olympics, Joey Wagman, who hadn’t given up a run or walk in his previous 15 innings pitched throughout the European Championships or Qualifiers, held the South Africans to six scoreless innings, allowing one run in the seventh.
Israel got on the board in the bizarre top of the second inning, which featured a sacrifice fly, three walks and two batters hit by pitches. Catcher Nick Rickles scored on a sacrifice fly by OF (outfielder) Simon Rosenbaum. With shortstop Ty Kelly on third, DH (designated hitter) Benjamin Wanger on second and third baseman Zach Penprase on first after being hit by a pitch, second baseman Mitch Glasser walked for another RBI. A single from OF (outfielder) Blake Gailen allowed Wanger and Penprase to score.
Israel was up 4-0.
In the top of the third, a double from Wanger brought Rickles home, and a sacrifice fly from Rosenbaum added another run by Kelly for a 6-0 lead.
South Africa scored one run in the bottom of the seventh inning. Israel answered back with four more runs in the top of the eighth—three coming from a home run by Team Israel’s best-known player, Danny Valencia, whose career includes stints with nine Major League teams. When Valencia’s homer brought the lead to 10 runs, the 10-run mercy rule was invoked, and Israel was permitted to break out the champagne one inning early once South Africa was unable to score in the bottom of the eighth inning.
Tel Aviv native, and current New York resident and music director at City Winery in New York City Shlomo Lipetz, now 40, came in to close the game. Lipetz, who has been affiliated with Israel baseball for more than 30 years, allowed no runs, and was on the mount when Israel won the right to move on to Tokyo. JN