Israeli Baseball Comes Roaring into Europe

Israeli homegrown baseball teams battle in youth tournaments in Prague. Under-14 team will battle Spain for 5th place on Sunday.

Gedalyah Reback,

Strike One! Israel baseball player, 2007.
Strike One! Israel baseball player, 2007.
Israel news photo: Flash 90

Israel - and its European neighbors for that matter - is hardly the first country people consider when they talk baseball. The United States, Japan, Cuba and the Dominican Republic would likely top the list. But things are changing, and fast; youth leagues are springing up around the world thanks to a concerted effort to expand exposure to the sport around the world.

"There are 250,000 players in Europe total," says Nate Fish, the Director of the Israel Association for Baseball, who cites statistics from the Cenfederation of European Baseball. "Every country has a baseball program and they vary in quality from first tier to second and third" says Fish, who notes later that there are three primary pools for youth teams in the European leagues: pools A, B and C.

Israeli u14 and u16 baseball teams tour Prague during trip to European tournaments Courtesy

"Italy, Holland and Germany have really good programs for example, then it starts going toward the 2nd and 3rd levels."

Fish says that the capabilities of each country largely corresponds with the country's size, perhaps indicating a larger pool of potential players to draw from. 

When asked by Arutz Sheva if that number was as large as it sounded, Fish said that European baseball and youth aprticipation in organized leagues has been growing steadily and consistently year to year.

"A country like the United Kingdom for instance has about 10,000 players at this point; Israel however has somewhere between 800 and 1,000 players."

Israel has a large number of American immigrants, many of whom have enlisted their kids in Israeli baseball teams.

Right now, both the under-14 (u14) and under-16 (u16) teams are competing in a continental tournament in Prague, Czech Republic. The tournament is a round robin format with a week-long, 16-team event where teams will play for various rankings. Israel's u14 team won its first game against Russia on Thursday. Since then, it has advanced the 5th place game against Spain, which will take place Sunday in Prague.

Fish is optimistic about the prospect of a homegrown penchant for baseball in the Holy Land. Due to a strong commitment by organizers, families and definitely by the players, Fish says that the Israel Association for Baseball (IAB) has grown tremendously in the last year alone.

"The program here in Israel grew 25% last year alone, from 600 players up to over 800," says Fish. When asked if its international competition this year was unique, he said hardly.

"We've always competed in Europe. What is different this year is that the international team last year won the C pool of the European championships, and so we moved up to the B pool this year."

Israel has seen a steady effort to expand its native baseball playing pool since the effort to create a professional Israeli baseball league several years ago. The Israel Baseball League (IBL) was a short-lived, single-year effort to establish the sport here. Unfortunately, games were sparsely attended and the league garnered only token attention. Fish implies that the effort was an uphill one from the start back then, not because the league relied on a largely foreign group of players, but because there was no native Israeli group of players to draw from at the time.

“They just could not have operated a professional baseball league with more Israelis at that point,” says Fish. Fish mentions that like Israel’s much more established basketball teams, there are a number of foreign players – particularly Americans – who play with the professional franchises. Yet, those teams tend to have about three or four foreign players and a majority of Israelis.

“The IBL was the opposite where few Israelis were actually in the league,” says Fish, where there might have only been two or three Israelis on a roster of about 13 or 15 players.

He also notes that in other countries there is a much more entrenched culture for the sport at this point, where professional leagues have begun starting their own youth-affiliate teams. Those teams are the ones competing in the u14 and u16 tournaments right now in Prague.

“Professional leagues operate under a club system [in Europe]. Most of those professional teams have youth leagues and bring in foreign players from countries where they have a lot of baseball, like the Dominican Republic for example.”

As youth leagues expand in Europe and in Israel particularly, Fish looks forward to the day today’s younger baserunners are swinging for the fences in a more established professional Israel baseball culture.

“It grows a bit all the time. There's been baseball in Europe for about 50 years. It grows slowly with all the different federations working on development.”

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