Team Israel is launching an American organization to support baseball’s growth in Israel


(JTA) — The love affair between Jews and baseball stretches back decades. But it hasn’t always extended to the Jewish state.

The Israel Baseball League, launched in 2007, folded after only one season. The country’s national team, which often features a large contingent of American Jewish players, has had a mixed record at the World Baseball Classic — a Cinderella run in 2017, an early exit in 2023.

Unlike soccer and basketball, two games that are popular in Israel, there’s no word for the sport in common Hebrew parlance (Israelis usually just say the English word “baseball”).

But over the years, Nate Fish, a coach and leader in Israel’s national baseball program, has noticed that the program does have a fan base: Kids and young adults from the United States, he said, keep contacting the team and saying they want to play.

“We get a lot of inquiries from kids in college or indy ball or high school and they’re like, ‘Hey, my name is so and so, it’s my dream to play for Team Israel one day,’” Fish told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “There’s kids who, their dream isn’t to play for the Red Sox, it’s to play for Israel Baseball one day.”

That stream of interest is one of the reasons Fish is spearheading the launch of a new affiliated organization, Israel Baseball Americas, or IBA, that aims to expand the Israeli baseball program’s offerings and fundraising in the United States. It’s part of an effort to support the Israel Association of Baseball, the volunteer-led organization that runs the national team and works to promote the sport in Israel.

The new U.S.-based nonprofit, which officially launches Monday, will focus on building a pipeline of American Jewish baseball players who may one day take the field for Israel by offering clinics and camps throughout the country, and by feeding players into a Jewish baseball database that will support Israel’s national team. Fish will serve as its inaugural CEO.

The group will also raise money — primarily through donations at first — to fund its work and funnel financial and institutional support back to the Israeli association, some of whose leadership is also involved in the American group.

“Our mission with Israel Baseball Americas is to represent Israel Baseball in the States, anywhere in the world outside of Israel, according to our agreement, and also to provide the human and financial resources to support the national team,” said Fish.

Adam Gladstone, who has helped Team Israel with logistics and contacts in the MLB since 2012, is the new group’s COO. He’s a former professional umpire who has worked in baseball operations in independent leagues, and who served as the Baltimore Orioles’ first-ever instant replay coordinator in 2014.

Gladstone said part of the impetus for creating the new entity was to maintain the momentum that Team Israel generates every three or four years between the WBC and the Olympics. While Israel’s Olympic and WBC teams have recruited prominent American players like All-Star outfielder Joc Pederson, Israel’s national team competes in and occasionally hosts smaller tournaments with teams largely composed of native Israelis who get far less exposure.

Nate Fish and Danny Valencia

Third base coach Nate Fish, left, celebrates with Danny Valencia during a game against Team United States at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, July 30, 2021. (Yuichi Masuda/Getty Images)

“We have such a great roster of players… Guys have gone on to hold prominent positions in Major League organizations,” Gladstone told JTA. “We don’t want to keep stopping and starting every three or four years. We want there to be a consistent organization.”

Fish and Gladstone said starting a group based in the United States does not hinder the goal of growing a crop of Israeli baseball players, and may in fact help. Gladstone said that “in a perfect world, Israeli-born players are representing Israel in the future.” But in the meantime, Fish said, bringing American players into the Israeli system will raise the sport’s profile and strengthen links between American and Israeli players.

“A very, very small percentage of the kids that we’re working with in the States will eventually make aliyah and sort of matriculate into the national team program,” Fish said, using the Hebrew term for Jewish immigration to Israel. “So there’ll be a slow trickle of the American players into the actual national team program.”

Gladstone pointed to the ascension of players like Ryan Lavarnway and Dean Kremer, American-born players with Israeli citizenship who have enjoyed success in the MLB, and Assaf Lowengart, who recently became the first Israeli-born player to sign a professional baseball contract in the U.S. All three of those players will be involved with the IBA.

“We’re doing all the right things to get these guys the opportunities that they can, and hopefully that opens up some more doors,” Gladstone added.

Beyond Fish and Gladstone, many other names involved in the IBA will be familiar to Jewish baseball fans.

The group’s board of advisors includes Ian Kinsler, a former MLB All-Star who has played for and managed Team Israel; Kevin Youkilis, the former MLB star who joined Kinsler’s coaching staff at the 2023 WBC; Brad Ausmus, an MLB and Team Israel coach; and Shlomo Lipetz, the Israeli pitcher who has continued playing well into his 40s.

“Couldn’t be more excited and proud to see the next generation of young Jewish baseball players coming together on the diamond,” said Youkilis, who played 10 MLB seasons, mostly for the Boston Red Sox. “The growth of baseball in the Jewish community is at an all-time high and the future is bright. Honored to be a part of it.”

Fish, who played with Youkilis at the University of Cincinnati, said having support from prominent former stars is crucial for the new organization.

“Everyone’s really proud to be a part of the team, as much as they are to have been former big leaguers and former Tigers, Red Sox, and Padres and Rangers and all that,” Fish said. “We want to give them a chance to publicly represent the organization — first of all, because they want to, but also, those guys are just legit borderline Hall of Famers who still work at a high level in baseball, and provide us a level of legitimacy right out of the gate.”

Despite the roster of famous names, Fish said the IBA is largely “starting from scratch” financially. The initial phases of fundraising will rely on friends, family and fans of Team Israel. The group will also sell merchandise.

From there, Fish said, the IBA will begin conversations with Jewish foundations and organizations to discuss funding and partnerships. The Jewish National Fund has financially supported Team Israel, and Fish named groups such as Maccabi USA, the Anti-Defamation League and the JCC Association of North America as potential partners.

Gladstone said he’s hopeful that “it’s not a hard sell” for baseball fans who support Israel to get involved with the IBA — especially in the wake of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel and the ensuing war in Gaza.

“I think it’s imperative for everybody to understand, the events of Oct. 7 weren’t the impetus to start this program. This has been in the works before that,” Gladstone said. “But it’s giving an outlet to people who have a passion for Israel and have a passion for baseball to get on board with something and be a part of it.”

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