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October 5, 2012 1:53 pm

How Team Israel’s WBC Loss May Be The Country’s Long-Term Gain

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avatar by Yossi Goldstein

Israel's loss to Spain ended its bid to qualify for the 2013 World Baseball Classic. Photo: screenshot.

The past couple of months of baseball in Israel certainly have been exciting. However, in the short term, the World Baseball Classic qualifying round was certainly a build up to another Israeli let down.

I’m not referring to a game played on a random sandlot in a country that doesn’t have any real proper baseball facilities. I instead call your attention to the outcome of Team Israel’s failed attempt to qualify for the 2013 World Baseball Classic in Jupiter, Florida.

There was the first game where Israel trounced the South African representation, 7-3. In their second game, the Israelis bested the Spanish squad, 4-2, in a pitching dual.

However, it may have been that very game that undid Team Israel.

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In the qualifying game, Spain had already seen Israel’s pitching on display just two days prior, and was aware of the overall Israel club atmosphere that said “we already qualified”, and took the opportunity to pounce, defeating Israel 9-7 in extra innings to qualify for the WBC tournament in March, 2013.

After going up 3-1 by the third inning, Team Israel seemed to fall apart. Their starting pitcher, Eric Berger, found too much of the plate (eight hits; four runs) and failed to get out of the fourth inning.

The Israeli pitching staff did their utmost to keep Spain in contention, when they had the opportunity to put the game away early, by surrendering a total 13 bases-on-balls. Free passes will kill any team, and it surely did Team Israel version 2012.

Of the other lessons Israel learned at this tournament was that it cannot rely on one player as its main power source. Yes, San Diego Padres prospect Nate Freiman led everyone in the tournament with four home runs and 17 total bases, but he was limited to a lone single in the qualifying game by the armada of Spanish pitching.

There were many “ifs” that left people wondering what could have been. Less walks. More timely hitting. Had Dodgers prospect Joc Pederson hit the ball a few feet to the right or left of  Spain’s right fielder instead of straight into his glove, I would be writing about an Israel victory, and possibly a movie-in-the-making.

But, alas, all doesn’t end in the fairytale manner. And by “all” I mean that which was left on the field.

Off the field is another story.

Israel as a nation has never fielded a national team to play for such a trophy as the World Baseball Classic.

The team itself required some ingenuity and creativity to come together. Only three actual Israelis made the club — pitcher Shlomo Lipetz being the only one to actually see game action, when he gave up three runs to South Africa — and the rest of the cast comprised of players from various minor league teams in the United States.

Nevertheless, the camaraderie these athletes showed was as astounding as it was an astute learning experience.

“”It was an unforgettable experience” Pederson said. “We were only together for 10 days, and I’ve never seen a group of guys have so much team chemistry.

“The coaching staff were wonderful. They gave anyone who asked the inside view of what they had to go through as players, and what helped them become better in all parts of the game. Maybe I’ll learn quicker going through the ranks, because they helped me understand things better at the tournament.”

In it of itself, the loss shouldn’t completely dampen the mood of Israeli baseball enthusiasts.

Part of the reason the Israel Association of Baseball accepted the invitation to the WBC qualifying round was to plant a seed for future baseball growth in the Jewish State. Even though the national team lost their opportunity to participate in the 2013 Classic, there is no such thing as negative press.

“The only reason we played in this tournament was to promote baseball in Israel,” IAB senior official, Peter Kurz admitted. “The only reason the WBC invited us to compete in this tournament is due to all the hard work our senior national team has done over the past 20 years.”

Indeed, the press coverage this team garnered was astounding, given that baseball is a fledgling sport, at best, in Israel. In a nation where soccer, basketball, and grid-iron football have taken hold, the diamond sport certainly has had its challenges.

There are still the nay-sayers who claim that Israeli baseball had its best chance at success in 2007, but flushed it away with the failed one-year wonder that was the Israel Baseball League.

Nevertheless, one cannot ignore that baseball is on the rise in the Jewish Homeland. Kurz explained that the game’s growth since the failed league five years ago has increased by nearly 30%, to over 1,000 kids participating in little leagues throughout the country.

The IAB is placing its bets on the account that a new, $4M baseball facility in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ranana will aid the growth of America’s pastime. The organization hopes the proposed space will be a “place where guys will want to come and learn more about the game.”

Whether or not the qualifying round will help directly increase the growth of baseball in Israel remains to be seen. Some local baseball coaches and umpires think not, as it’s very difficult to replicate the feeling of hitting a home run, or fielding a double-play by watching it on TV. Yet, what everyone will agree on is that the recent added exposure to the game due to this tournament, certainly won’t have an ill affect on the prospective newcomers to the sport.

Lessons were certainly learned at this tournament, and baseball interest will likely increase in Israel due to the game’s exposure. The only question remaining is if growth will be enough to spur the funding for the first baseball facility in Israel and to bring the future stars of baseball to the forefront of today.

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