Joey Wagman delivers a pitch during a Team Israel win over South Africa in an Olympic qualifying game, Sept. 22, 2019. (Margo Sugarman/Israel Association of Baseball)
Joey Wagman delivers a pitch during a Team Israel win over South Africa in an Olympic qualifying game, Sept. 22, 2019. (Margo Sugarman/Israel Association of Baseball)

Locals on Israeli baseball team looking toward Tokyo Olympics

A construction worker. A substitute teacher. An insurance salesman.

In their day jobs, the players on Israel’s national baseball team look like your average 20- or 30-somethings. Some are recent college graduates, some have young children.

But after winning an Olympic qualifying tournament in Italy in September  — which included victories over Spain, South Africa, the Netherlands and Italy  — the overachieving group of mostly American Israeli (and a few Israeli-born) Jewish ballplayers now has the opportunity of a lifetime: to become Olympic medalists.

But they need some help.

The team is trying to raise money to help prepare for the 2020 Summer Games in Japan, where six nations will participate in baseball’s return to the Olympics after a 12-year absence. The games will be played in Fukushima and Yokohama starting on July 29.

While the Israel Association of Baseball will pay for travel, lodging and expenses in Japan, the training leading up to the Olympics is self-funded.

“The money is helping level the playing field,” said Team Israel starting pitcher Joey Wagman from Danville, alluding to the fact that the Japanese team is loaded with talent. In fact, Japan’s top professional league, he noted, will be pausing its 2020 season “so that the best players in the country can play” for Japan in the Olympics.

That’s why Wagman is so gung-ho about fundraising. Money raised will go toward things such as professional training, physical therapy and, most importantly, time. “Our guys still have day jobs,” Wagman said.

Japan, Mexico, South Korea and Israel have nabbed the first of the six Olympic baseball spots, with two more to be determined. The United States lost an opportunity to advance by losing an important game to Mexico last month, but can still qualify in March, as can teams from strong baseball nations such as Cuba, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic.

Wagman, 28, is a right-handed pitcher who played at Monte Vista High School in Danville. Drafted by the White Sox, he played a handful of seasons in the Oakland A’s organization, making it as high as Double-A. Before joining Team Israel, he played for the Milwaukee Milkmen, an independent pro team in Wisconsin.

Though hampered by a shoulder injury in recent years, Wagman was stellar in the Africa-Europe Olympic regional qualifier in Italy, starting two out of five games and hurling a complete-game shutout against Spain in Game 1.

We’re trying to build a community around this team. There are so many aspects to this story that are really incredible.

Now, in seeking to raise funds for the Israeli squad, he has been talking to just about anyone who will listen.

“I’ve called every synagogue in the Bay Area,” he said. “Lots of networking, cold calling, meeting with congregations, synagogues, rabbis.” He even spoke from the bimah once, addressing congregants at Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland.

“We’re trying to build a community around this team,” he said. “There are so many aspects to this story that are really incredible.”

In addition to Wagman, players across the U.S. as well as the Israel Association of Baseball are trying to raise funds. As of Dec. 8, the IAB had raised about $52,000 on the crowdfunding website Jewcer, and Wagman had raised about $6,700 on his personal GoFundMe page.

That money has allowed Wagman to take time off from his job as a substitute teacher to train at a tech-athletic center in Menlo Park and work on his pitching at a high-level training facility in Pleasanton.

The fundraising efforts go well beyond crowdfunding, Wagman said. For example, earlier this month he met with David Katznelson, a former music industry executive and CEO of Reboot, a Jewish arts and culture nonprofit.

Team Israel’s goal on its Jewcer page is $200,000, and Wagman hopes to raise $30,000 via the GoFundMe campaign he created on Nov. 17.

Gabe Cramer, a 25-year-old pitcher from Santa Rosa who played at Stanford University, pitched three scoreless innings against Italy in Game 3 of the qualifier.

Gabe Cramer delivers a pitch during a Team Israel win over Italy in an Olympic qualifying game. (Margo Sugarman/Israel Association of Baseball)
Gabe Cramer delivers a pitch during a Team Israel win over Italy in an Olympic qualifying game. (Margo Sugarman/Israel Association of Baseball)

Cramer is still working his day job in New York City, at a college consulting firm. But he’s been able to train at a nearby facility, plus he is going to physical therapy during his off hours.

“I’ve been trying to find a balance between working and training,” he said. “My job’s been flexible.”

Much of the team is made up of Jewish Americans who recently gained Israeli citizenship under Israel’s Law of Return. That’s because the Olympics have much more stringent “heritage” rules than other tournaments, such as the World Baseball Classic, which grant eligibility to anyone who could become a citizen.

Still, the Israeli team does include at least one native Israeli, Shlomo Lipetz, a 40-year-old sidearm pitcher from Tel Aviv who recorded the final out in the team’s 11-1 Olympics-clinching win over South Africa — a win that Cramer said was an emotional one.

“There were tears in everyone’s eyes for different reasons,” he said. “Some players had kids there who never saw them do anything on a baseball field. Others were remembering their grandparents, and how proud they would have been.”

He said that memory is fueling his preparation for Japan. “Whenever I think about not going to the gym, I think back on that and remember how special it was,” he said. “I’m doing everything I can.”

Since the Olympics take place in the middle of the Major League Baseball season, current MLB players will not be participating. However, players from the top professional leagues in Japan and South Korea, and others, will participate.

Wagman is aware of the challenge facing Team Israel. But he is hopeful that the team — which includes former major-league infielder Danny Valencia — will continue to make history.

In 2017, Israel qualified for the World Baseball Classic in a headline-generating run that was described as a “David and Goliath” story.

“My focus is on becoming a true Olympian,” Wagman said. “If we’re fully prepared, there’s no reason we can’t bring home a medal.

“There are only six teams in the tournament, and three teams medal. So why not us?”

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.