Israel baseball team to compete in the Olympics

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Quick Trivial Pursuit question: “How many Israeli teams have competed in the Olympics?”
by LUKE ALFRED | Sep 26, 2019

None? Two? Three? Well, from Sunday, the correct answer is four, because on Sunday, Israel’s baseballers won a six-nation Europe/Africa Olympic qualifying tournament in Italy, making them the fourth Israeli team after basketball (1952) and football (1968, 1976) to make it to the Olympics.

For the record, in Israel’s final game, they beat South Africa, who finished last in the qualifier, 11-1, to book their ticket to Tokyo in 2020.

Also featuring the hosts, the Netherlands, Spain, and the Czech Republic, the qualifier was co-hosted in the Italian cities of Parma and Bologna over five days from Wednesday to Sunday. After three straight wins against strong European opposition, the Israelis lost 7-4 to the Czech Republic on Saturday, putting their Olympic dream in jeopardy, but their win against South Africa combined with wins against Italy, Spain, and the Netherlands meant they have achieved a rare and precious honour. Israeli Baseball Association President Peter Kurz said he had “no words” after qualification. He was almost moved to tears.

Truth be told, Israel’s passage to Tokyo took place in rather low-key surroundings. On a soggy Sunday afternoon in Parma, in front of an empty stadium, leftie first baseman Danny Valencia hit a three-run home run in the eighth innings for Israel to seal a comfortable victory over the South Africans, Africa’s sole representative in the competition.

Valencia has Major League Baseball experience with a variety of franchises including the Boston Red Sox, the Toronto Blue Jays, and the Oakland Athletics, the latter team immortalised in Michael Lewis’ famous book, Moneyball. He is considered by many to be the team’s best player. Appropriately, he scored the runs that sealed Israel’s passage. “What we did was huge,” said Valencia as team Israel gathered round for photographs, post-tournament interviews, and celebrations. “It shouldn’t go unnoticed.”

“I just try to do my part,” he said. “I couldn’t hope to be around a better bunch of guys. We worked really hard, and the preparation required a lot of work and time. We came here to perform a task, and we did it.”

Valencia, who turned 35 on the second day of the qualifying tournament, has an impressive baseball resumé, but is currently a free agent, so he’s hoping that the Tokyo qualification might put him back in the shop-window and re-ignite his career. He said as much after the tournament’s conclusion, mentioning that he would be interested in exploring any offers that came his way as Israel starts preparing in earnest for the four-yearly spectacle.

The son of a Jewish mother, Mindy, and Michael, a Cuban father who converted to Judaism, Valencia was born in Miami, Florida. He turned professional in 2010 after initially playing shortstop for four years in high school with the Spanish River High School Sharks.

His starring role for team Israel is not without controversy, with critics pointing out that this is an assembled team made up mainly of Jewish-Americans and lacking in home-grown Israeli talent, where the sport remains minor. Although Jewish, Valencia obtained Israeli citizenship only earlier this month, ahead of the European Baseball Championships in Bonn, Germany. Israel reached the semi-finals in Germany, losing 6-7 to Italy, and losing their third-placed playoff game against Spain 16-11.

As a result of finishing in the top four of the championships, however (the eventual winners were the Netherlands), Israel earned a place as one of four best-placed sides in last weekend’s Olympic qualifiers in Italy. The rest, as they say, is history.

Like Valencia, pitcher Joey Wagman, who played a major pitching role in team Israel’s success in the Italy tournament, has only recently become an Israeli citizen, earning citizenship last October. The son of Californian parents, Wagman has significant minor-league experience and, like Valencia, he also played for team Israel during their fourth place in Bonn.

Right-handed pitcher, Shlomo Lipetz, is another member of team Israel, but his is a slightly different story to those of Valencia and Wagman. The “senior citizen” of the team at 40, Lipetz was born in Tel Aviv in 1979, although now lives and works in New York, where he manages a chain of city wineries.

On a boyhood vacation to New York, he was taken to see the New York Mets play, and fell in love with the game. An accomplished all-round sportsman, he played for Israel in the Little League World Series aged 10, and after serving in the Israeli Defense Forces, went on to play college ball in the United States.

After his university education in California, he played semi-professionally in New York, and even played a season of ball in Mexico. Unlike Valencia and Wagman, Lipetz has been playing for team Israel since 2008, with several European qualifiers and European Championships under his belt.

Having qualified for the Tokyo Olympics, Israel now find themselves alongside the world’s baseball elite. Olympic baseball was held in neither Rio (2016), nor London (2012), the last time it appeared was Beijing (2008). The International Olympic Confederation decided to re-introduce the sport in the Tokyo games, however, with South Korea being the current gold medal holders from Beijing.

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