“Next year in Tokyo!” the public address announcer cried after the team recorded the final out of an 11-1 win over South Africa, playing off the traditional Jewish expression, “Next year in Jerusalem.”
In a change from the past, all 24 of the team’s players have obtained Israeli citizenship and a number are contemplating making the country their home, at least part time. And a country of 8.7 million people with only 1,000 ballplayers, according to the Israel Association of Baseball, has gone crazy for the game, at least in some quarters.
“My uncle who lives in Jerusalem is like a celebrity now,” said pitcher Jon Moscot, a former Cincinnati Reds starter, in a phone interview. “He’s getting calls from friends of friends. It’s all over the news. He was beside himself.”
“The last few days have been a whirlwind tour,” said IAB President Peter Kurz.
There are limits, though. Outfielder Jeremy Wolf asked a cabdriver outside his Tel Aviv apartment if he’d heard about the baseball team as he climbed into the back seat.
“What’s baseball?” the driver answered.
The sport’s boosters hope the national team’s success and the spotlight from a first Olympic appearance will help the game blossom in the desert.
Already, Israeli baseball has attracted a number of MLB stars with name recognition. Former Angels manager Brad Ausmus coached the team in the 2013 World Baseball Classic. Current Phillies manager Gabe Kapler and retired Dodgers outfielder Shawn Green were player-coaches. Dodgers outfielder Joc Pederson, at the time still a minor league prospect, played right field and batted second.
In the 2017 WBC, journeyman pitcher Jason Marquis led the starting rotation. Big league catcher Ryan Lavarnway was behind the plate. Former Mets and Pirates power-hitting first baseman Ike Davis batted third. Sam Fuld, a defensive specialist in an eight-year MLB career, played center field.
Kurz said he’s tried to recruit perennial all-stars Ryan Braun and Alex Bregman, who are both Jewish.
“The ballclub that I could build could definitely compete,” he said.
Baseball has been played in Israel since the 1980s, according to the IAB, but mostly in American expat communities. In a country roughly the size of New Jersey, there is only one full-blown baseball field, according to the IAB. When youth teams show up to soccer fields and try to set up bases for a game, soccer players sometimes shoo them away even if the baseball teams have the permits to use the field.
But when Major League Baseball began planning the 2013 World Baseball Classic, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred directed the IAB to try to field a team. Without many professional-caliber Israeli-born ballplayers to choose from, Kurz recruited American Jews for the team. The prospects were eligible to play under the WBC’s “heritage” rule, which allows athletes to compete for a country if they were legally capable of gaining citizenship there. (Israel grants citizenship rights to all the world’s Jews, as defined by the country’s “Law of Return.”)
After scraping together a team that just missed WBC qualification in 2013, word spread among Jewish ballplayers in the U.S. that Israel was looking for players for the 2017 tournament.
Ahead of the competition, Kurz flew 10 of the players and their families to Israel for a “nation-building” trip. They toured the country, signed hundreds of autographs and held a public practice.
By the time of the 2017 WBC, they were the talk of the tournament. ESPN compared Israel’s baseball team to the long shot Jamaican bobsled team. Disgruntled opponents after losses complained that they’d faced the United States’ junior varsity team, not Israel’s national team.
Nonsense, said Shlomo Lipetz, a right-handed reliever and the team’s only native-born Israeli.
“Israel has this kind of history of Jews coming and going through the process of becoming Israelis,” he said. “That’s part of the identity of what Israel is. That’s part of the culture.”
And in the lead up to the Olympics, where rules about “heritage” eligibility are tougher, all of the team’s 24 players have gained Israeli citizenship, a process in Hebrew called “aliyah,” or ascending.
“My family was ecstatic about it. My dad was so proud that his son made aliyah,” Moscot said. He plans to explore splitting time between the U.S., where he is a player-coach in the Reds farm system, and Israel after the Olympics.
Wolf already picked up and moved to Tel Aviv. He’s the only member of the team to live in Israel full time. He moved into his apartment in the middle of the city’s commercial district two days before heading to Germany for Olympic qualifying games.
“I was there on Birthright,” he said, referring to a free trip to Israel for young adults, “and I was with a bunch of my friends walking around Tel Aviv and I said, ‘I could do this. I could live here.’”
Wolf founded the nonprofit More Than Baseball when he thought his playing days were over. The organization in the U.S. has been working with minor league players to defray the cost of living expenses while chasing their MLB dream.
Now in Israel, Wolf and teammates say they have another purpose: To convince more Israeli kids to pick up a ball and bat. That starts with the Olympic team acting as role models for a generation that has never seen ballplayers wearing Stars of David on their uniforms.
On Friday nights while the team is away competing, the team gathers for shabbat dinner. When the Israeli national anthem plays before the start of a game, the players stand on the baseline with their ball caps off but “kippot,” skullcaps, still fastened in place. (Not all the players are religious, but they still wear the kippot.)
“I grew up with pictures of Sandy Koufax on my wall. He was my dad’s favorite player. He would tell stories about him. I loved Shawn Green. Anyone who was Jewish made it real for me,” Moscot said. “Being on this team means a lot. It’s not just playing the game. You represent that deep heritage and culture and the feelings of that Jewish kid who wants to be an athlete one day.”
Kurz said he hopes this moment will help the IAB fund two more fields in Israel and double the number of kids playing in recreational leagues.
“As they say in baseball,” he said, “if you build it, they will come.”
Correction: A previous version of this article said Brad Ausmus was the current manager of the Detroit Tigers.