By Sam Brief, correspondent

Some observers scoffed when Team Israel competed in the 2017 World Baseball Classic, noting that all but a handful of its players were American citizens.

Now, Israel’s baseball dreams are about to get a bit more authentic.

This fall, 10 Jewish-American ballplayers will acquire Israeli passports, making them dual American-Israeli citizens eligible to represent Team Israel in European tournaments. Still others are expected to follow in the coming months. It’s a step that could bring the 2020 Summer Olympics — once a preposterous fantasy — into the realm of possibility.

“Finding a needle in the haystack is just finding Jewish American ballplayers who can play for you,” says Peter Kurz, president of the Israeli Association of Baseball. “Finding ones with Israeli passports is like finding the head of a needle in a haystack.”

Kurz has been contacting American Jewish players to gauge their interest in becoming Israeli citizens. Initially, the chances of luring players to a foreign country thousands of miles away seemed slim.

It was easier than you might expect, however. One of the first on board was Jon Moscot, who has pitched for the Cincinnati Reds. Moscot has a number of relatives living in Israel, including an uncle and cousins. He was one of a handful of players who traveled together to Israel in advance of the World Baseball Classic, a trip he called “Birthright on steroids.”

“I saw what [baseball] was doing for the youth in Israel,” Moscot says. “And essentially, I wanted to be a bigger part of it. To be able to go back home to the roots of the religion and be a part of something bigger than myself in respect to baseball and the Jewish community — I thought that was a really cool opportunity.”


The minyan: 10 players obtaining Israeli citizenship

Player
Status
Corey Baker (P)*retired minor leaguer
Eric Brodkowitz (P)former college player
Gabe Cramer (P)*minor leaguer (Royals)
Jonathan de Marte (P)independent league
Blake Gailen (OF)*Independent league
Alex Katz (P)*minor leaguer (Orioles)
Jon Moscot (P)minor leaguer (Reds)
Joey Wagman (P)*independent league
Zack Weiss (P)MLB free agent
Jeremy Wolf (1B)retired minor leaguer
* Played for Team Israel in 2017 World Baseball Classic

Joey Wagman, a former Chicago White Sox and Oakland A’s prospect who pitched for Israel in the 2017 World Baseball Classic, is already in Israel, ready to declare citizenship.

“It was extremely easy,” says Wagman, speaking from Israel’s main baseball facility in Petah Tikvah. “It was easy to the point where [Kurz] starts talking with me about how it’s going to work, and at the end of it, I say, ‘What’s the catch? This almost sounds too good to be true.’ I decided to do it on the first phone call after talking for just a few minutes.”

Wagman was raised in a mixed household; his father is Jewish, and his mother is not. He chose to be raised Jewish and says his Judaism is important to him, hence the instant connection with Israel.

“Growing up in a very non-Jewish society in the Bay Area of California, I was out of the ordinary” Wagman says. “To now be a part of something that’s on the other side of the world, and to this point that I’ve worked very hard for, it’s validation. I see how excited the Israelis get. I see this look in their eyes, that someone from America who is a professional baseball player is coming to get citizenship.”

Because of their age, none of the ballplayers will have to serve in the Israeli army.

Acquiring 10 new citizens is a significant advance for Israel’s fledgling baseball culture. While the World Baseball Classic allowed non-citizens to play for Israel if they had at least one Jewish grandparent, European tournaments — and the Olympics — require athletes to be citizens of the country they represent.

Israel’s surprising play in the World Baseball Classic — considered a longshot underdog, it knocked off powers like Cuba and South Korea — has already boosted the sport’s profile in Israel. Kurz, the Israel baseball president, estimates that participation there has grown by roughly 25 percent over the last two years.

“If you had asked the average Israeli two years ago if there was baseball in Israel, they would probably have said no,” Kurz says. “I think today, they’ll say, ‘Oh, yeah. Israel was in the world championship. I remember that.’ If you’re able to reach the Olympics, even the Olympic qualifiers, it will be an incredibly big thing in Israel, because the Olympics are everything.”

Not all the players making aliyah have experienced Israel before. Alex Katz, a World Baseball Classic alum currently in the Baltimore Orioles organization, has never been to the country. His parents haven’t, either.

“I’m sure my grandparents, who passed away, would be proud of me,” Katz says. “My whole family is Jewish, so everyone in my family is proud of me.”

Moscot, the former Reds pitcher, says he can envision baseball in Israel rising to the popularity level of basketball, which is the second-most popular sport in the country. That would be a rather astounding leap forward. During the Israel Baseball League’s sole season, in 2007, the field at Kibbutz Gezer had a light pole in right-center field, wrapped in duct tape to protect players. It’s still there.

But baseball’s arrow points upward. The Israel Association of Baseball will build two new regulation-size fields this year, in Bet Shemesh and Raanana, on land donated by the municipalities.

And fueled by its soon-to-be American-Israeli comrades, Israel will compete in the European Championship B-Pool in the summer of 2019, which is the first tournament on the path towards Olympic qualification.

“I think there’s endless opportunity here,” Moscot says. “Not only do I think it’s great for the country, the kids and Israeli baseball, but I really think we have a chance to win. I don’t think people expect that, but we’ve got some dang good pitching and some good hitters.”

For former minor leaguer Wagman, the new reality is starting to settle in.

“I could never have imagined that I would be in a place like this,” says Wagman. “In a position to help an entire country get to the Olympics. It’s crazy.”

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