The game of baseball has been a true pioneering effort in Israel and – against the odds – it is taking root and growing in popularity in the Holy Land.
This could be due in part to the National Team’s outstanding sixth place finish at the World Baseball Classic in 2019, followed by the Olympic team’s history making fifth-place finish in the 2020 Summer Olympics (held in 2021).
Now, the next generation of players is making its mark on the sport after the Israeli Little League surged to a dramatic and unprecedented qualification for the Little League Baseball Europe-Africa Region Tournament taking place in the Netherlands next month.
Though the team is unable to travel to compete in the tournament this year for logistical and financial reasons, the league has its sights set on next year and is devising a strategy to establish the future of the sport in Israel.
FROM THE GROUND UP
Knowing the importance of building from the ground up, the Israel Association of Baseball (IAB) has just as much vision for the youth programs as for the National Team.
When Little League Baseball (LLB) announced the expansion of teams competing in the Little League World Series from 16 to 20 – including two international teams – the IAB started working on how to get its youth program involved.
Ken Sachs, a board member for the IAB, was put in charge of this effort. Sachs diligently studied the 90-page rule book and worked on a plan to get Israel’s program aligned with Little League International.
“We’re not set up for the age groups,” Sachs observed. “Some of the kids are in the wrong league for Little League Baseball.”
Currently, the LLB is divided into two divisions in Israel, Juveniles and Cadets, based on the school system’s age cut-off calendar. But even though some of the Cadets are the right age to play, they aren’t qualified to play in a higher league.
Looking at this as an opportunity for “whole system building,” Sachs said the league needed to think about the best way forward and that includes a new Little League division between Juveniles and Cadets for the 2022-2023 season.
But for this season, they needed a quicker solution for hopes of competing in the Little League Baseball Europe-Africa Region Tournament in the Netherlands in July.
Back in April, the Juvenile players within age range were invited to try out for three different regional All Star teams, North, South and Central in order to combine the best talent and allow the kids to get some game time in with LLB rules.
BUILDING TALENT, INSTILLING EXCITEMENT
The young ballplayers showed up enthusiastic about playing more – and the possibility of traveling.
“I wanted to know if I was good enough to be accepted to the All-Star team and play with other players I do not know,” Yahli Reemy said about why he tried out.
“My friends convinced me to try out for the All Star team and I’m happy I did,” Chaim Bodner said. “I really enjoy playing with the guys that I don’t normally play with because I get to meet new people and learn to work together as a team.”
After tryouts, the three All Star teams participated in a local tournament to determine which team would qualify to play in the Netherlands. The dynamics of competitive tournament games was new and exciting for most of the kids.
Aviel Mitchell, who made the South team from Jerusalem, said his favorite moment when players from Central came to cheer them on against the North.
“I felt energized that an opponent team was cheering for us. They wanted to play again and we had to win for that to happen,” he said.
The South All Stars landed in the win column with a 4-3 victory against the North, and then clinched the series, 7-2, in the second game against Central.
“I was so excited that I jumped the outfield fence!” said Jeshua Boland from Jerusalem.
Ofer Shoshani said the victory was significant.
“When we won that second game, we knew we were flying to the Netherlands!” he said.
The tournament was originally scheduled to take place in Poland, but was moved to the Netherlands since baseball facilities in Poland are currently being used to house a Ukrainian refugee softball team.
The change in location caused logistical issues that, unfortunately, prevented the team from traveling.
INVESTING IN THE FUTURE OF ISRAELI BASEBALL
As of now, there are about 900 players in the whole country at all levels. In some cases, for the youth divisions, sometimes it’s the first year the kids have played.
In Israel, “Baseball is not shown on TV. Some kids have never seen a game,” Ken Sachs explained. “And getting equipment is a challenge.”
Israeli baseball has both the struggles and the gritty charm of the movie "The Sandlot" – where a bunch of kids show up to makeshift overgrown infields, because something sparked a love for the game.
“Here in Israel we’re just glad to be on the field and have the opportunity to play baseball,” said Coach Joe Berg, the Beit Shemesh Operations Coordinator of Baseball. “Little League is a little bit different. There’s a little more expectation of the kids knowing the rules. They take it to the next level. There’s a respect for the game and a respect for the level of competition, and we’re trying to get them ready for that.”
An umpire and high school baseball coach in the U.S. before making aliyah, Berg calls games at all levels in Israel, and at international tournaments as the Israeli representative.
He’s just the right coach to help the kids catch a love for baseball and learn how the game works.
“We are planning to have practice twice a week,” Jerusalem Coach Isaac Johnston, a former pitcher for the University of Chicago, added. “Once where we work on individual skills, and once where we enter a game-like environment. We want to continue to develop the kids as athletes, ballplayers, and most importantly, teammates throughout this process.” Even with it not looking optimistic for the team to travel, the IAB still plans to send a few coaches to the tournament.
Sachs believes, no matter what, involvement with Little League International will make the entire league better, on and off the field.
“It's going to help our kids get better because of the competition they are up against,” he said. “Baseball is the only sport where you are an individual and a team player. You have to learn both sides, and in life you are both. No other sport brings that dynamic.”
“We’re going to go there and watch what the other teams do.” Berg added. “How the players hold themselves. How they deal with the ups and downs of the games. We’re going bring the whole experience back to Israel to strengthen and grow our game here.”
The structural changes the league is making to compete with Little League International is a good step in helping to form homegrown ballplayers for higher levels of play in Israel – and the possibility of playing in international tournaments in the future is also a tremendous opportunity for the kids.
“The little moments between drills or hanging in the dugout with teammates are the special memories that will last a lifetime,” Johnston said. “Meeting baseball players from across Africa and Europe is such a special and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I am incredibly excited for them.”
And the kids are excited for this new season in Israeli baseball, too.
Callie Mitchell is a "Baseball Mom" in Israel. She had the unique experience of being raised in ballparks where father had a career as a player, coach and manager in Major League Baseball. She has a Master of Architecture degree and lives in Jerusalem with her husband and four children.