The success of Israel’s baseball team at this year’s Olympics may spur a wave of interest in the sport in the country, where there is little local baseball presence, several players said before the Olympic debuts this week.
At an Israeli media press conference from Tokyo on Tuesday, players Tal Erel and Shlomo Lipetz – two of only four players on the 24-man team born in Israel – said they would love to see baseball become popular at home.
“One of our hopes of winning a medal is to increase the presence of the sport in Israel,” said Lipetz, noting that the countries Israel will face in the tournament have well-developed local baseball stages.
“If you fly to the Dominican Republic or South Korea or Japan or the United States – a few kilometers it is a baseball field, there are leagues, and in Israel it is not,” he said.
Erel said that the success of the team at the Olympics in Tokyo would help “bring more fields and more infrastructure so that baseball can really develop in Israel.” Lipetz said that if the sport begins to grow in popularity, “we can attract athletes from other sports to baseball, and show young players that it is a path to success, whether in college in the United States or in professional leagues or the Israeli national team. ”
Israeli sports journalist Maya Ronen, who is in Tokyo and reports for the Israeli Sports Channel, told The Times of Israel before they went to Japan that most Israelis are not familiar with baseball.
“No one here can say they grew up on baseball,” she said. “But I think it’s an incredible opportunity for exposure … if it’s a great success for the team, imagine what it will do for baseball in Israel. It could lead to a revolution. ”
Israel’s baseball team will watch its Olympic debut on Thursday against South Korea. A day later, the team will face the Americans, and these games will decide matchups for next week, when the knockout rounds begin. The team – which largely consists of naturalized American Jews – has received a Cinderella-like trip to the Olympics, one of only six teams that qualified. This year is the first time Israel has sent a baseball team to the Games, and the first time since 1976 that Israel has qualified for any team sport in the Olympics.
“Our excitement is at its peak here in Tokyo two days before the first match. We have had some good exercises that really proved what level we are at, ”said Erel. “Just as we have proven ourselves before, we are ready to prove ourselves at the highest level in the world at the Olympics.”
Peter Kurz, general manager of the team, said that the players were more than ready to hit the field.
“This is not our first time in an international competition – we have participated in several so far – and the Olympics is really a big international competition,” said Kurz.
And with six teams competing for three medals, there is great hope that Israel can get on the podium in their Olympic debut in baseball.
“It’s always a shot at a medal,” Kurz said. “We did not come here to hang out with the Israeli delegation and play cards. “We came here to win, and to get a medal for the state of Israel. That is the goal, and we will achieve it. ”
While Israel is considered something of an underdog in the tournament – betting places it furthest away from gold – the team is confident in its abilities.
“We play some of the best teams in the world,” said Eric Holtz, the team’s head coach, in English, “but we feel pretty confident about this. We have prepared and we have some good baseball players – we have done our job in the back office to be prepared, done a lot of scouting the last two months or so, so we will be prepared to play with everyone we go on the field with. ”
All the players are in a good mood ahead of their first opening course for the Olympic Games.
“We are ready and know what we can achieve,” Erel said.
“The games start on Thursday and we expect a victory,” Lipetz added. “I think our chances are good; many of our teammates have an international background, a professional background. ”
Lipetz noted that in 2017, Israel beat the South Korean team at the World Baseball Classic – “and their team was stronger then than it is now, and our team is better now than it was then.”
“Mentally and physically,” he said, “we are on par with most other teams.”