In the recently published World Baseball and Softball Confederation (WBSC) rankings for 2017, Israel Baseball moved up a massive 22 places to 19th in the world. We chatted to Peter Kurz, President of the Israel Association of Baseball, about this and other great successes in Israel Baseball last year.
Israel rose 22 places in the 2017 world rankings to 19th place in the world. What were the factors that contributed to this rise?
One of the most important factors was the success of Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic where we came in 6th place in the WORLD, ahead of countries such as Cuba, Venezuela, Canada and South Korea. After sweeping the Qualifiers in Brooklyn in 2016, we miraculously swept the first round of the WBC tournament in Korea, defeating Taiwan, Netherlands and host South Korea. In the second round in Japan, we defeated Cuba, but then fell to the Netherlands and Japan.
But just as importantly, Team Israel finished second in the European Championships in Belgrade in July and our U12 and U14 teams finished in first place in tournaments in Italy. Although these Italian tournaments aren’t “official” WBSC tournaments, they do show the dominance of Israel baseball at the youth level.
What were your Israel Baseball highlights for 2017?
No doubt it was our showings at the WBC and European Championships, and even though at both tournaments we fell short of winning, we did reach the highest pinnacles that Israel baseball has ever reached. In fact, Israel’s 6th place finish in the World Championships, is the highest plateau EVER reached for any Israeli National team, in ANY sport. And it’s no mistake that it happened in baseball.
We also hosted the 2017 Maccabiah Baseball Tournament, which was a great success, with Team USA taking gold. We were fortunate to have Seattle Mariner Robinson Cano visit our Enrichment Program. He spent time talking to our playing and also showed his skills at bat.
At the same time, I still get a thrill when an 8-year-old’s face lights up when he successfully throws his first strike, or one of our Academy players makes a perfect play under the direction of Richard Kania, our constantly smiling coach from Czech Republic, or one of our IDF Sportaim as he hits a double into the gap at a Premier League game. Those are the real highlights for me and they happen every week in the IAB.
What impact did Israel’s great success at the WBC have on baseball in Israel?
The players who agreed to play for Team Israel WBC, guys including Sam Fuld, Ty Kelly, Jason Marquis, Ike Davis, Ryan Lavarnway, Josh Zeid, all had incredible experiences that they will remember all their lives, and that they still talk about on social media today. The visit of the 10 MLB players in January, and their intense enthusiasm at performing in the Baptist Village in Petah Tikvah for all the kids, hitting home runs, signing autographs, taking selfies, was awesome and spread throughout the association. Our performance in Korea and then Japan meant a lot more media coverage with each win, from newspapers, radio, TV, nightly news shows – exposure that we wouldn’t have had any other way. There’s no-one in Israel today who can say they haven’t heard about Israel baseball unless they spent March in a cave!
The result was that we got a lot of new kids wanting to play and there is a definite increase in Israeli interest in baseball. There’s also serious interest from American Jewish players who want to be in a team that can compete in the Olympic qualifiers in 2020 with a team of Israeli passport holders.
You’ve been IAB President for 4 years and previously you served as Secretary General for 8 years. What have been the major changes you’ve seen over these years?
First off, the number of players. When I started we had less than 400 and today are close to 1000, so I think that’s an achievement.
I also think the professional level of play has improved dramatically. Today we have the Israel Baseball Academy, we have much more IDF sportaim. The coaching and umpiring has also improved dramatically, and we bring in many visiting coaches to give clinics, and coach teams and coaches.
There is a lot more buzz, more media coverage and a lot more knowledge of baseball in Israel. Awareness of Israel Baseball among the baseball community in the US and among the Jewish community is much greater today.
President of the IAB is a volunteer position. What motivates you to dedicate so much time to this demanding role?
I LOVE it. I LOVE baseball, I LOVE watching the kids and adults play and love bringing something meaningful to the youth of Israel. It means a lot to me to be a trailblazer and I want to see the first Israeli play in the MLB! I also feed off the other volunteers, on our Executive, our Board and our coaching staff.
What can we expect in the coming years for Israel baseball?
The MOST important thing is in 2018 to build two new fields! If you build it, they will come is not a cliché but a way of life for me. That our the most important mission right now and it will happen this year in Bet Shemesh and Ra’anana.
We are also looking to add more players and leagues, locations and fields, coaches and umpires. We want to send more national teams to international tournaments, and our goal for the Senior National Team is to win the European Championships B pool, place in the top 5 in the A pool, and reach the Olympic qualifiers.
My goal is to have 2,500 players in the IAB by 2021.
And finally… your favorite MLB team and favorite player?
New York Mets of course…no favorite players, just anyone who was ever a Met!!