For Team Israel, WBC success is both on and off the field

“This will be the most celebrated Israeli sports event since David faced Goliath” — Haim Katz, president of the Israel Association of Baseball (IAB), is definitely excited these days.

And for a good reason: in June 2011, team Israel has been invited to compete in the first ever World Baseball Classic (WBC) qualifiers. Since then, Katz and the rest of the IAB have been busy travelling in three different continents – North America, Europe and Asia (where Israel is, after all) – recruiting coaches, finding players and harnessing supporters. For the IAB, this is its biggest challenge to date. But even if team Israel eventually does triumph on the field, it would be only one of the criteria to define the project as successful.

“Our goal remains to develop the sport in Israel”, says Katz, who is the man in charge of finding the balance between putting the best team on the field, while also catering to Israeli fans. WBC rules permit players who are eligible for citizenship to represent their respective countries, and for Israel, this means every Jewish baseball player on the globe is a prospect for its squad. Still, the IAB insists of prioritizing players who either already have a strong connection to Israel or show interest in a long term relationship. “Bringing the baseball community and Jewish community together would be another important aspect of this project. And no doubt that qualifying for the WBC would be huge for baseball fans, but cashing in on it, in terms of dramatically furthering our reach in Israel, is not at all trivial.”

Baseball in Israel

The interest is there, in the holy land. Last year – in yet another “first time ever” – Israel hosted the European Championship qualifiers. The senior national team (SNT), which consists of only Israeli citizens, lost the ticket to the championship in a heartbreaker to Great Britain, but the tournament drew an average of more than 600 fans per game – 5 times the amount of similar tournaments in Europe (the qualifiers are played simultaneously in 4 locations across Europe).

Between the foul lines, the level of talent has improved dramatically. Some one thousand baseball players now practice and play in Israel under the auspices of the IAB, and Israel can now send competitive national teams in all age groups to Europe’s top tournaments. But while this is a good start, it is not enough to produce the amount of top tier players that are needed to take Israel to the top of European baseball.

“We have made great progress with the SNT, and this is always a work in progress. On the field, this team will practice with the minor and major leaguers who are invited to the WBC squad, and the best will get their shot on that team. For the rest, we hope this experience provides another motivational building block for the future.” Said Peter Kurz, Secretary General of the IAB, and the man in charge of its national teams.

But there is another benefit in managing the complicated and grueling task across three different continents for the biggest global baseball event: know-how.

The next big thing

This know-how, of operating very efficiently and within the tight restrains of limited funds, is already being put into use: The WBC team is viewed as part of a larger project of finding a new home for Israeli baseball. You know, the good old “if you build it, they will come”. But will they?

Well, history has at least one lesson to learn from: American football has been growing in astonishing rates in Israel over the last five years. The tipping point for Israeli Football? A state of the art football venue in Jerusalem – built 7 years ago by the Kraft family, owner of the New England Patriots.

Now, the IAB has its aims on a mammoth project: building its home in Raanana, just 20 minutes north of Tel Aviv. The cost of this project is estimated at some US$ 3 million. About a sixth of it has been pledged. “Winning the ticket and having major leaguers in Israel will open new doors for us, and bring in new investors. Once we can give the green light and have the construction under way, we will have made another huge step for having Israelis competing for spots on the next WBC squad on basis of merit, and not because of their place of birth.” Katz concluded.