It was fun — and surprising — while it lasted, but Israel’s baseball bubble finally burst with the national team’s 9-7, 10th-inning loss to Spain on Sept. 23, in the final game of the World Baseball Classic Qualifier.
Israel had gone 2-0 in its two previous games: a dominating 7-3 win over the Republic of South Africa on Sept. 19, followed by a 4-2 pitchers’ duel against Spain on Sept. 21.
The ball club, led by former Major Leaguer Brad Ausmus, was competing for a chance to play in the World Baseball Classic to be held in March 2013, during spring training. Also on the Israeli team’s roster were Shawn Green, Josh Satin, and Adam Greenberg, who also spent time in the Majors. Greenberg, who was hit in the head in his only big league at-bat as a member of the Chicago Cubs in 2005, was a last-minute addition to Team Israel, subbing for an injured Gabe Kapler.
Three Israeli pitchers — Alon Leichman, Shlomo Lipetz, and Dan Rothem — were also on the team, which was comprised of mostly minor leaguers. Nate Freiman, a six-foot-seven first baseman in the San Diego Padres farm system, led all batters at the tournament in home runs (four), total bases (17), and two other categories. He drove in all his team’s runs against Spain on Sept. 21.
Despite the loss, Israel Association of Baseball secretary general Peter Kurz is optimistic about baseball’s chances in the Jewish state. He noted that since the professional Israel Baseball League’s one season in 2007, the number of kids playing baseball in Israel has grown 30 percent, to approximately 1,000. Kurz expected the growth to accelerate whether Team Israel qualified for the WBC or not.
“The only reason we’re playing in this tournament is to promote baseball in Israel,” he said. “The only reason the WBC invited us to compete in this tournament is all the hard work our senior national team has done over the past 20 years.”
The WBC bid is not the first time Israel has fielded a national team in international competition. It regularly sends teams to tournaments in Europe and the United States, and Israel recently hosted the qualifying tournament for the European Championship, where it placed second.
Kurz also is counting on a proposed baseball stadium in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ra’anana to boost the sport’s popularity in Israel. The $4 million project would include a gym, “a clubhouse, a place where guys want to come. You’ve got to have a place where guys can hang out, talk to each other, learn,” he said.
Unlike Kurz, Leo Robbins, who coached youth teams for more than a decade and now umpires games in Israel, doesn’t see success in the WBC as a catalyst for growth there. Rather he envisions a program that would bring baseball to schools through a team of coaches. The league will “start to snowball” if a few thousand children nationwide get a taste of baseball, he said.
“It’s getting out there and showing those kids how much fun it is,” Robbins said. “You’re not going to do it by having them see the game. They have to feel what it’s like to catch a ball, to hit a ball.”
Watching games can help, though, said Arye Zacks, who coaches two teams in central Israel’s Modi’in, because it exposes young fans to the array of possible scenarios in baseball.
“There’s a lot of baseball situations that the kids don’t recognize because it hasn’t happened to them in a game before,” he said. “A kid growing up surrounded by baseball, they’re familiar with it because they’ve seen so many games on TV.”