Israel baseball is only three months away from vying for a coveted spot at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. If successful, it will be the only team that Israel will ever have entered into the Olympic games. But the road to Tokyo is long, and Israel Association of Baseball President Peter Kurz, who is the team’s general manager, has a lot on his plate. He spoke to us about this exciting journey.
How is Team Israel shaping up as we approach the summer tournament?
I am quite confident that if we don’t have any further injuries (unfortunately our potential first baseman and closer had surgery for a torn hamstring) we will definitely be a competitive team. The B Pool tournament (of the European Championships) in July is shaping up to have a higher competitive level than half of the A Pool in September, with Ireland, Greece, Serbia and Russia having very strong squads. It won’t be easy to win this division, but we have also improved with our new immigrants from the US adding a much higher level of play that is pulling up the whole team. Add to that our younger Sabra ex-sportaim, who are now playing in American Junior Colleges and in Japan and are vastly improved, and we have a much stronger team than the team that came in second to Austria two years ago at the B Pool of the European Championships. I am very satisfied with our pitching staff and I feel confident that we have legitimate relief pitchers who can step in for our starters and be even more stingy. The guys are excited and Eric Holtz, the manager, will have a strong, committed and broad roster of players to choose from. This is the first tournament that I have been involved in where there will be real competition to see who will be on the roster. The advantage is that we will have four tournaments this summer and everyone will be in the mix.
How are the fundraising efforts going?
Unfortunately, they are not going as well as I had hoped. We are three months from the tournament and do not yet have the funds to send a complete team. I am thankful for the generosity of those who have already donated, but upset that I still need to deal with this issue and solicit help. I know that as the team wins and advances, it will be easier getting financial help, but if we cannot send the squad that we need to win, how will we advance? I am now in discussions regarding a number of fundraisers in the US in May, but we are still actively soliciting donations and anyone reading this who wants to donate can send funds via https://www.jewcer.org/project/israelbaseballolympics/
How do you think the US players who have made Aliyah to be on Team Israel will contribute?
As of now they are certainly raising the playing level with their professionalism, making the bar that much higher and requiring the other players to improve their play as well. I think it also exemplifies the possibilities for future collaboration between native Israelis and the American Jewish community, and how cooperation in the realm of sports can enable Team Israel to compete at international levels. The Jewish nation is only about 15 million people world-wide, more or less, and if we can compete as an international baseball powerhouse, together, under the Israeli flag, the old adage of Jews not being quality sportsman will be wiped away.
What do you think about the level of the Israeli-born players who are on Team Israel?
They are vastly improved. Let’s not forget, ALL the players on Team Israel are Israeli, but some are Sabras, some are veterans of European championships, and some are new Olim. The level of play of the entire team has increased rapidly and our young Israelis, led by Dean Kremer playing for the Orioles, but also Tal Erel and Asaf Lowengart in USA JuCos and Noam Calissar, now playing in Japan (and all ex-IDF sportaim), have improved ten-fold. In the local Israeli leagues, we also have some new players who are on the expanded roster, and most of our veteran players, both in Israel and the US, are back and in better playing shape than ever.
How do you think Israel baseball will benefit from the efforts being put into sending a team to the Olympics?
There is no doubt that the Olympics are the pinnacle of sports viewership in Israel. An Israeli baseball team, competing in the Olympics, will have the entire country riveted to their TV sets watching and learning the game, just as Maccabi Tel Aviv increased the exposure of basketball to the Israeli public in the 1970s. My goal is to have 2,500 baseball players in Israel by 2021, and with the potential exposure of the Olympics and the WBC, along with the opening of new fields in Ra’anana and Bet Shemesh, Israel Baseball will be on the “mappa” of the Israeli, and international, sports scenes.
If you had to choose between watching a Mets game or a Team Israel game, what would it be? (Kurz is a rabid Mets fan.)
No contest. The Mets play 162 games a year, but my dream is to see Team Israel play 30 games this summer and advance in 2020 to the Tokyo Olympics!