Tal Erel, 23, and Assaf Lowengart, 21, grew up in Israel Baseball. After finishing his service in the IDF as a baseball sportsman, Tal went to college in Florida to play baseball, and Assaf is currently completing his service as an IDF baseball sportsman, and just returned from a college stint the US. Now they’re back and will be representing Israel in the B Pool of the European Championships in Bulgaria next week, where the team will start its journey towards reaching the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. We caught up with the two of them.

Tal, tell us about your experiences as an Israeli player in college in the US
As an Israeli player, you are there as a double representative. First, you represent yourself as a player, a person and second, as an Israeli. Many people ask me about Israel and about baseball in Israel. You have to prove yourself there in order to play. Practices are six hours every day and there are five games a week. In addition, you also have to focus on academics to get your degree.

Assaf, what have you been doing over the past few months?
I reached an agreement with the IDF to get special leave that I am owed as a sportsman in the army for the fall season, and for the spring semester I received a service postponement, so I became a civilian for this period.
In the past year, I played at San Joaquin Delta College in California. I also worked out with the team, and I studied over two semesters to start my BA. The practices are very intense, in addition to the games and working out in the gym as a team. During the season, there are around 40-50 games, three games a week on average. My team finished in fourth place in California.
I’ve now returned to finish the rest of my army service. I will be released by October this year and I will return to college for the start of the 2019 fall semester. Assaf Delta

What was your experience of being a sportsman in the army?
Tal: To be a sportai in the IDF cannot be taken for granted. It’s difficult to attain and hard to maintain, but being a “sportai” gives you the opportunity to properly develop in baseball: planning practices on the field, in the gym and mental training without distractions. This enabled me to apply to schools and to be accepted to college.
Assaf: I had a very positive experience. I was given the rare opportunity to represent the State of Israel as a baseball player outside Israel’s borders while at the same time I represented the country as a soldier sportsman. There aren’t many IDF sportsmen, so to be part of this small group that is awarded this status makes me proud. I was also able to play abroad with local teams in several countries, including Czech Republic and Germany.

What are your plans now?
Assaf: After I am released from the army, I plan on returning to finish the second year of my degree and to transfer to a university with a four year program to finish my degree. I am in a junior college, which enables me to play for two years. When I finish my degree, I will continue with my baseball career.
Tal: In the short term, I am transferring to Lynn University in Florida. My goal is to win a championship with the university and to get my BA and MBA there. In the long term, I want to take all I have learned from everyone I’ve met and return to Israel to develop baseball here so that others can enjoy it as much as I have.

How do you feel about the European Championships?
Tal: Two years ago, I was injured, and I couldn’t play. Four years ago, I played in a position I don’t usually play in. This time, after many years, the time has come for me to prove myself, but ultimately, the team goal is to win the tournament.
Assaf: I am very excited. It’s been a long time since I’ve played with Team Israel and I can’t wait to get back into the blue and white uniform and represent Israel. Every moment I practice I imagine myself playing for Team Israel, so you could say that I have been planning for this tournament for eight years, since I first played for a national team. From the first time I played for Team Israel I didn’t want to stop, and I have wanted to represent Israel ever since. Tal1

What do you think about the players on Team Israel?
Assaf: I think this team has everything we need. The new players will give the team a great boost and I hope this will give us the push we need to finally win the championship. The player I most look forward to playing with in the tournament is (Team Israel veteran) Dan Rothem.
Tal: We all have the same goal – to win. We are all playing for Israel. We failed three times already to move up to Pool A, but this time I’m confident that we’ll succeed. I am most excited about playing with Alon Leichman. The last time we played together was six years ago in Slovenia. We have a great relationship that will prove itself on the field.

What are you most looking forward to in the tournament?
Tal: To win!
Assaf: I’m looking forward to singing Hatikvah before the first game, and then everything will be back to normal. It’s the same game as always. The pitcher is 60 feet and 6 inches from you, just as on any field.

Tal, you’ve been playing with Asaf for many years. What do you most admire about him?
I’ve been playing with Asaf for nearly 10 years, and we practice together as often as possible. Asaf played with me in Tel Aviv until I moved to the Premier League. Since then he started playing on the Ra’anana Raiders PL team, and we compete with each other, which results in healthy competition and improves us as players. Asaf doesn’t give up on me or on himself, and pushes both of us to improve as much as possible. But on thing he does give up on is collecting the balls in the batting cage…!

Assaf, what do you most admire about Tal?
Tal is older than me, so I always had to push myself to reach his level, and this helped me most to develop. I was always the youngest player on the national teams and so I always felt that I had a lot to prove. Tal and I have grown up since then and we started to compete with each other more. This pushes us to improve and brings out the best in both of us.

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