Israel revealed its Olympic baseball roster this week, and this collection of semi-retired major league veterans, minor leaguers, and patriotic amateurs. Team Israel aims to continue its steadily improving international baseball trajectory. The hatikvah (or hope) is for this team of Jewish ballplayers to perform well, bring a medal home, and inspire the next generation of Jews and Israelis to fall in love with baseball.
Israeli Baseball History
Baseball is not a major sport in Israel. Soccer and basketball dominate the team sport landscape, drawing most of the best Israeli athletes and the attention of fans.
Baseball’s roots, however, extend as far back as 1927. On American Independence Day, the children of the Sephardic Orphanage of Jerusalem played a version of the game using equipment handed out to them by the institution’s governess. In more recent times, American immigrants and American Jews have pushed to develop the American national pastime in the Levant. A short-lived professional league crowned its only champion in 2007, and the Israel Association of Baseball has hosted amateur leagues and development academies on and off since 1986.
However, this lower-level status in Israeli sports consciousness might be on the verge of changing.
Team Israel’s Recent Rise
With local player development improving but arguably not performing at a competitive level in international play, Team Israel elected to expand eligibility for its World Baseball Classic roster to include Jews living in the diaspora. The dream of some Jewish fans to see a contemporary all-star team of Jews became a reality (a nice corollary can be found in the all-time historic Jewish team).
This development of allowing all Jews the world over to be eligible to represent Israel is, in many ways, the embodiment of the idea of the Jewish State. Israel was founded, in part, based on the idea that the Jewish people are a nation, just as are the French, Chinese, Egyptians, Swazi, and Swedish. Just as those peoples have territory, so too should Jews. For nearly two millennia, the Jewish Nation survived without land but was routinely denied not only rights but participation in joyous activities. In modern times, the first fourteen Olympics did not feature a Jewish nation (though some nations allowed Jews to compete on their national teams).
With the established of the modern State of Israel in the historical homeland of the Jewish people in 1948, not only were certain rights guaranteed but also access to, for lack of a better term, international fun. Now Jews and resident non-Jews compete together with the Israeli flag in athletic competitions like the Olympics. The WBC approach of expanding eligibility to non-Israeli Jews fits the notion put into concrete action starting in Basel.
After narrowly missing out on the 2013 version, Israel made a captivating run in the 2017 Classic on the backs of big leaguers like Jason Marquis, Ike Davis, Dylan Axelrod, and Sam Fuld. With a fun-embracing team spirit (see Mensch on the Bench), Israel swept the first round, defeating powerhouses South Korea, Taiwan, and the Netherlands. The team defeated Cuba to open the second round before being eliminated with defeats to Japan and the resurgent Dutch.
Team Israel to Tokyo
Unlike the World Baseball Classic’s more lenient rules, the Olympics requires that all athletes representing a nation must be citizens of that state. In Team Israel’s case, this means a combined approach of drawing on more local talent and accepting diaspora Jewish ballplayers who have made aliyah (completed the citizenship process).
Despite its Asian geographic location, Israel typically competes in European sports confederations. For the 202
01 Olympic Games, Europe and Africa competed in one qualifying event, hosted in Italy, for one of the six baseball spots. The Israelis won four of their five games, besting the hosts, the Dutch, the South Africans, and the Spaniards and losing only to the Czechs. This will be Israel’s first appearance in Olympic baseball.
Team Israel Roster
The Olympic roster consists of 24 players, with Israel selecting twelve pitchers, three catchers, six infielders, and three outfielders. Players are listed by position alongside their most recent 2021 professional club, if any, and with parenthetical notes on experience.
- Jeremy Bleich (two-game major league appearance)
- Jonathan de Marte (seven years of minor league ball)
- Jake Fishman, Jacksonville Suns
- Alex Katz, Tennessee Smokies
- Jared Lakind, Lancaster Barnstormers
- Alon Leichman (Arkansas Travelers pitching coach)
- Shlomo Lipetz (American college, IBL, and international experience)
- Jon Moscot (a cup of coffee with the Reds)
- Joey Wagman (six years of minor league ball)
- Ben Wanger (college experience)
- Zack Weiss, Kansas City Monarchs
- Josh Zeid (some big league and a lot of minor league ball)
- Tal Erel, Lynn Fighting Knights
- Ryan Lavarnway, Columbus Clippers
- Nick Rickles (eight years of minor league ball)
- Scott Burcham, Albuquerque Isotopes
- Mitch Glasser, Sioux Falls Canaries
- Ty Kelly, Tacoma Rainiers
- Ian Kinsler, Long Island Ducks (and a lengthy MLB career)
- Zach Penprase, New York Boulders
- Danny Valencia, Long Island Ducks (and a respectable MLB career)
- Blake Gailen, Lancaster Barnstormers
- Assaf Lowengart, Mansfield Mountaineers
- Robb Paller, Colorado Springs Snow Sox
Israel will compete in Group B in the Tokyo Games. The team’s first game will be against South Korea on July 29, followed the next day by a contest against the United States. Yokohama Stadium will serve as the venue.
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