Home run: Olympic baseball players hope medal can revive sport in Israel

The success of Israel’s baseball team at this year’s Olympics could spark renewed interest in the sport in the country, where there is little local baseball presence, several players have said ahead of their Olympic debut this week.

During a video press conference for Israeli media from Tokyo on Tuesday, players Tal Erel and Shlomo Lipetz – two of the four players on the 24-man Israeli-born squad – said they would like to see baseball become popular at home.

“One of our hopes for winning a medal is to increase the sport’s presence in Israel,” Lipetz said, noting that the countries Israel will face in the tournament have well-developed local baseball scenes.

“If you fly to the Dominican Republic, South Korea, Japan or the United States, every few miles there is a baseball field, there are leagues, and in Israel there is no there isn’t,” he said.

Erel said the team’s success at the Tokyo Olympics would help “bring in more fields and more infrastructure so baseball can really grow in Israel.” Lipetz said that if the sport begins to gain popularity, “we can attract athletes from other sports to baseball and show young players that there is a path to success, whether it’s in college in the United States. United, in professional leagues or in the Israeli national team”. .”

Israeli sports journalist Maya Ronen, who is in Tokyo for the Israel Sports Channel, told The Times of Israel before she left for Japan that most Israelis don’t know baseball.

Israel’s Olympic baseball players take a break from the dugout during practice at Salt River Fields Spring Training Center May 12, 2021 in Scottsdale, Arizona. (AP Photo/Matt York)

“No one here can say he grew up with baseball,” she said. “But I think there’s an incredible opportunity to get exposure…if there’s a major success for the team, imagine what that will do for baseball in Israel. It could bring a revolution.

Israel’s baseball team will make its Olympic debut on Thursday against South Korea. A day later, the team will face the Americans, and those matches will determine next week’s clashes, when the Round of 16 begins. The team – made up largely of naturalized American Jews – was credited with a Cinderella-style trip to the Olympics, one of six teams to qualify. This year marks the first time that 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 height here in Tokyo two days before the first match. We had some great practices which really proved what level we are at,” Erel said. “Just like we have proven ourselves in the past , we are ready to prove ourselves at the highest level in the world at the Olympic Games.”

Peter Kurz, the team’s general manager, said the players were more than ready to take to the pitch.

“It’s not the first time we’ve competed in an international competition — we’ve competed in several so far — and the Olympics is basically a big international competition,” Kurz said.

Israel’s Olympic baseball players practice at the Salt River Fields spring training facility, May 12, 2021, in Scottsdale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)

And with six teams competing for three medals, hopes are high that Israel can step onto the podium in its Olympic baseball debut.

“There’s always a chance to win a medal,” Kurz said. “We didn’t come here to hang out with the Israeli delegation and play cards. “We came here to win and get a medal for the State of Israel. This is the goal and we will achieve it. »

While Israel are seen as an underdog in the tournament – the betting odds put them furthest from gold – the team are confident in their abilities.

“We’re up against some of the best teams in the world,” Eric Holtz, the team’s head coach, said in English, “but we’re pretty confident about that. We’ve prepared and we’ve got some great players from baseball – we’ve done our job in the back office to prepare, we’ve done a lot of scouting over the last couple months or so, so we’ll be ready to play anyone we walk onto the field with.

The players are in high spirits ahead of their first Olympics opening pitch.

“We are ready and we know what we are capable of achieving,” Erel said.

“The games start on Thursday and we expect a win,” added Lipetz. “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. was then.”

“Mentally and physically,” he said, “we’re on par with most other teams.”

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