In a first, Israel’s national baseball team has qualified for a spot in the Olympics, with the team set for the 2020 summer games in Tokyo.
The squad of mostly Jewish American college players and minor leaguers rolled to an 11-1 victory over South Africa on Sunday, the final day of the Europe/Africa Qualifier tournament in Italy.
Starting pitcher Joey Wagman, who graduated from Monte Vista High School in Danville, had a shutout going until allowing one run in the seventh inning.
Israel first baseman Danny Valencia, whose nine-year major league career included 177 games with the Oakland A’s in 2015 and 2016, blasted a three-run homer in the eighth to enact the 10-run mercy rule.
The Israeli team finished the tournament with a 4-1 record, also beating Spain 3-0, Italy 8-2 and the Netherlands 8-1, and losing 7-4 to the Czech Republic.
“What we did was huge,” Valencia, 35, said on the tournament’s website. “It shouldn’t go unnoticed.”
Only six national teams from around the globe will qualify for the 2020 Olympics, where baseball will be a featured sport for the first time since 2008. Japan gets one spot as the host nation, and now Israel has the second spot. The remaining four spots will be determined in a handful of upcoming tournaments.
Former Stanford University pitcher Gabe Cramer, a 24-year-old Santa Rosa native, is part of the Israeli squad. He pitched in one game in the qualifier, tossing 3⅔ scoreless innings against Italy on Sept. 20. Cramer played parts of three seasons in the Kansas City Royals organization but was released after the 2017 season.
Wagman, 28, was drafted by the Chicago White Sox in 2013 out of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He went on to spend parts of four seasons in the Oakland A’s organization, but never rose above Class-A Stockton, and has pitched for teams in independent leagues the past two years. In the tournament in Italy, he posted a 2-0 record and 0.52 earned run average, striking out 14, walking none and allowing nine hits in 16 innings.
Israel advanced to the qualifier in Italy by finishing fourth in the European Championships.
In 2017, the Israeli team surprised many by qualifying for the 16-nation World Baseball Classic, then beating host South Korea, Chinese Taipei and the Netherlands to make it to the second round in Japan. There, Israel opened with a stunning 4-1 win over Cuba before losing its next two games to end its run.
While the WBC requires only that players be eligible for citizenship of the country they represent, for the Olympics players must be actual citizens of the country they represent in qualifying tournaments and for the actual Olympics. Wagman and Cramer became Israeli citizens, along with eight other U.S. baseball players, in October 2018.
“We are all Israeli citizens,” Valencia assured reporters in Italy, where the local press criticized Team Israel because most of its players were born and developed as players in the United States.
The Israel Association of Baseball runs five leagues throughout the country for players ages 6 to adult. Its Israel Baseball Academy is recognized by Major League Baseball as the elite program for 14- to 21-year-old players in Israel, and its Baseball Le’Kulam (For Everyone) program brings together Jewish- and Arab-Israeli sixth-graders three times a year to learn the game and get acquainted.