Team Israel is currently battling it out in the World Baseball Classic in Miami, where it’s part of a grouping with powerhouses the Dominican Republic, which many are picking to win; Venezuela and Puerto Rico. Nicaragua rounds out the five-team Pool D, whose games will be held from March 11 to March 15.
Still, the team’s coach and general manager are optimistic. “We will be the underdog like always, and we will be overlooked,” former professional baseball player Ian Kinsler, who coaches the Israeli team, told JNS. “I have a pretty easy message for the players. We are showing up to win, not just to participate.”
Peter Kurz, the team’s general manager, told JNS that he has a lot of confidence after Israel’s “incredible run” in the 2017 World Baseball Classic. Israel was the lowest-ranked team “by far” to make the Olympics, and it won Israel’s first-ever Olympics team game.
It also came in second in the 2021 European Championship “on a team that was over 50% locally grown sabra ballplayers,” he said. “Those were incredible achievements, and they have certainly put Israel baseball on the map.”
This year, Israel’s team has 13 current or former Major League Baseball players and eight Minor League prospects, who might play in the majors next year. Ten hold Israeli citizenship. “Team Israel will surprise a lot of people,” said Kurz.
‘It was a great trip for the family’
JNS reached Kinsler—himself one of the most decorated professional baseball players—in early March before he left his home in Texas to fly to Miami with his son, Jack.
A former four-time All-Star and holder of a World Series ring, Ian Kinsler won two gold gloves at second base during his 14-year career: eight with the Detroit Tigers. He won the World Series in 2018 with the Boston Red Sox. Throughout his career, he stole 243 bases, recorded 1,999 hits, belted 257 home runs and batted in 909 runs. In 2022, the Texas Rangers Hall of Fame inducted him.
Kinsler grew up in Tucson, Ariz., the son of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother. He has told reporters often that he did not grow up religiously observant but that playing for Israel, including going through the process of making aliyah in 2020 to be eligible for the Olympics, has connected him more strongly with his Jewish relatives.
He was one of five torchbearers at the Maccabiah opening ceremonies in Jerusalem in 2022 and threw out the opening pitch at a Maccabiah game. On that trip, he told JNS, he and his family spent Shabbat at the home of Jordy Alter, president of the board of directors of the Israel Association of Baseball.
“We got to experience Jerusalem and Tel Aviv,” he said. “It was a great trip for the family.”
Experiencing the history in Israel made Kinsler feel more connected, and it “brings out feelings of lineage and heritage—that it is really your people,” he told JNS. “The more you experience Israel, the more you feel connected.”
Kinsler’s 14-year-old daughter, Rian, felt like she was participating in a high school learning field trip, and his 11-year-old son, who answered every question with “King David,” ended up being right half the time, he said. At Israeli sporting events, Kinsler appreciated how relaxed it was.
The Israel team arrived in Miami on March 6 before nightfall and the start of the Jewish holiday of Purim. On Tuesday, Jordy Alter arranged a Megillah reading for the team, which also watched the 2022 film “Israel Swings for Gold,” about Israel’s baseball team competing in the Olympics in 2021.
After exhibition games on Wednesday and Thursday, the team will work out on Friday at the Miami stadium, take Shabbat off and play the first game on March 12 at noon against Nicaragua.