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Israel's baseball team prepares for Tokyo Olympics as players worry about situation at home

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — They are finally back together, playing baseball for the first time since qualifying for the Olympics nearly two years ago, but that elation and joy has turned to fear and anxiety.

With violence surging this week back home, some 7,500 miles away, you try telling Team Israel to focus on baseball.

Jordy Alter, president of the Israel Association of Baseball, spent one morning this week walking around the back fields of the Arizona Diamondbacks’ spring-training complex, watching video on his cell phone of rocket launches and air strikes in Israel and Gaza.

“Obviously, we’re really concerned,’’ Alter said. “It’s really stressful. Kids are playing ball one minute, and they’re in a safe house the next. They’re used to this type of lifestyle, but when it happens, it shakes you to your core.

“So that fact that we’re here, instead of being there, you feel a sense of guilt."

The players, all of whom have their Israeli citizenship, arrived in Scottsdale on Monday for workouts and two exhibition games, with an MLB security team protecting them. Social media messages, pictures, videos and stories were strictly prohibited until their final exhibition game Friday. Security, including the Israeli secret service. will be heightened in July when they go on a two-week barnstorming trip in New York.

“You look at what’s going on right now, and it’s a reminder that life is precious," says Jeremy Bleich, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ major-league staff assistant, who will pitch for Israel in the Olympics. “It’s a volatile situation. Things can change in a second. To some, Israel can be considered a targeted country, and every time there is a huge stage, there’s always a little bit of concern and worry.

“There are several guys in our dugout that are of high training and high security, and they would never let you know. There’s this ownership to serving, there’s this ownership to protecting the person next to you and the citizen next to you. It’s not something that’s a burden. It’s an honor.’’

“You’re feeling something most countries don’t feel, or ever feel.’’

The Israel baseball team gathers for group pictures before a game on Thursday in Arizona.
The Israel baseball team gathers for group pictures before a game on Thursday in Arizona.

This is part of the fabric of Team Israel, making it one of the most unique Olympic teams in history.

They have a 42-year-old pitcher (Shlomo Lipetz) who works for a New York City winery. They have a pitcher (Eric Brodkowitz) who works for Goldman Sachs. They have a pitching coordinator (Josh Zeid) from the Chicago Cubs’ front office who last pitched professionally four years ago. They have a pitcher/first baseman (Ben Wanger) who graduated with a degree in economics and environmental engineering from Yale, earned his Master’s degree in entrepreneurship and innovation from USC and is now studying for his second Master’s in international business at Miami. And they have a World Series champion and four-time MLB All-Star (Ian Kinsler).

“There’s so much pride here with the Israeli guys, especially the guys who were born there,’’ said former major leaguer Danny Valencia, raised by a Jewish mother and Cuban father. “We grew up with the Jewish ideology. We went to synagogue on the High Holidays. Bar Mitzvah. Hebrew school. Everything.

“I’m proud to make Aliyah (emigrating to Israel) and becoming a citizen. It’s just so hard to see what’s going over there with the bombs and missiles being shot from Gaza. We have a lot of guys’ families living over there, and it affects everybody. It makes it unnerving.

“Guys that live here in the States kind of take it for granted. We never experienced anything like that. But when you go over there and experience it first-hand, and hear the incoming missile sirens go off, and see families go in their own bunkers, it really opens your eyes to realize we are very blessed to live where we are and take our peace for granted.

“There’s a lot of anti-Semitism in this world, and with our team, and the history of the Israeli Olympic delegations and what happened in Munich, they don’t let their guard down."

It was at the 1972 Olympics in Munich where 11 Israeli athletes and coaches were murdered by a group of terrorists. No one on the Israeli baseball team had yet been born, but there’s not a soul who’s unaware of the tragedy.

“It’s remembered all of the time," Team Israel GM Peter Kurz said. "We meet about it. We talk about it. It’s very much important for them to know and remember as well.

“There’s a lot of anti-Semitism. We saw that when we were in Germany playing for the European championship. We have to have the Israel secret service with us. We have to stay together when we go out for meals and things. We have to be so careful.’’

These players understand baseball is nothing compared to the life-and-death issues in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank, but reaching the Olympics is a powerful gesture for them and their families.

“I have been dreaming for this for a long, long time,’’ said Zeid, who clutched his Israeli passport for the first time Tuesday. “My grandfather passed away a few months ago and it was his last wish was for me to get to go to the Olympics and for him to be alive for the Olympics. One of the last things he said to me was, 'Take me out to the ballgame.' "

It’s why Kinsler, an advisor in the San Diego Padres front office, will play 10 days for the independent league Long lsland Ducks just to hone his skills, helping his timing at the plate.

“For me, the goal is to continue to put baseball on the map in that country," said Kinsler. “If we can play well, and create some buzz and some energy towards the sport through the Olympics, it will be huge for the kids there.’’

Cody Decker holds the Israel baseball team's mascot during the 2017 World Baseball Classic.
Cody Decker holds the Israel baseball team's mascot during the 2017 World Baseball Classic.

It’s why Lou Rosenberg, executive director of the Jewish National Fund-USA Project Baseball is trying to raise $1 million for the Olympic team while building baseball and softball fields for kids in Israel.

This is a country where only 1,000 kids play baseball. They have won nine Olympic medals in their history, all in sailing, Judo and canoeing and this is the first time Israel has had a team sport qualify for the Olympics since 1976.

Former MLB Commissioner Bud Selig flew in Thursday from his Milwaukee home to catch them in action. Ryan Braun, the six-time All-Star and former National League MVP, said he gave serious consideration to joining the team before deciding to stay home with his family. Future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols even got a text from trainer Barry Weinberg asking him if wanted to hurry and become an Israeli citizen to play for the team.

“It’s going to be so emotional, the colliding of a lot of worlds,’’ Bleich said. “Bringing a medal back to Israel, I don’t even have the words. It would be the most special moment of my life."

There have already been special moments. Lipetz, who is the unofficial godfather of Israeli baseball, was handed the ball to get the final out in the Olympic qualifying championship.

Lipetz, who pitched collegiately in San Diego, played semi-pro baseball, and professionally in the Israel Baseball League in 2007, induced a fly ball for the last out, and in the process, may have lost consciousness in the euphoria while holding his head in disbelief.

“This is a dream I never really had. This is just an unreal journey" said Lipetz, vice president of programming and music director at City Winery in New York City.

"I’m going from playing catcher with ragged softball gloves under a bridge on a soccer field to winning four tournaments in one summer and getting to the Olympics."

Just two months away from the Olympics, Lipetz hopes his team can win as the underdog again, this time in Tokyo.

“We could have played in those tournaments 100 times, and we probably would not have won it one time, but we did when it counted," Lipetz said. "It was just one of those magical runs where we had a lot of Bad News Bears players coming through.

“I’d love to have that feeling again.’’

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Israel Olympic baseball team prepares for Tokyo with tensions at home