Just four years ago, Israel broke onto the European Baseball Scene with the creation of the Israel Baseball League. The game has moved at breakneck speed since then, with the announcements that Israel would host a ECQ group just one year before sending representatives to a World Baseball Classic in the fall of 2012. For all the big dreams of baseball in Israel, there hasn’t been much precedent for the honor: the team is ranked 57th in the world, behind countries like Afghanistan, Ghana, and Aruba. Fortunately for the hosts, they caught another break in the luck of the draw. Just four teams will travel to Petach Tikva outside of Tel Aviv for a short round robin.
The top team in the group is Great Britain, which enters the tournament ranked 21st in the world despite not qualifying for the final round of the European Championship last year. Lithuania (#48) and Georgia (unranked) may be near the bottom of the rankings, but when three of the four teams need to travel four-plus hours by plane to get to the tournament, it has an equalizing effect. They will have a chance to spoil the hopes of Great Britain or Israel to advance out of the Holy Land and into the European Championships.
In the beautiful confines of the Baptist Village Baseball Stadium, the host nation will roll the dice on the future of baseball in Israel. The aforementioned IBL was a quasi-success, drawing mass international attention despite its short-lived duration, and was much more key in getting players in Israel much needed experience at a higher level. The national team went 2-2 in the 2008 qualifier, playing their opponents close but to no avail. Pitcher Schlomo Lipitz beat Lithuania 2-1.1 in a 10-inning complete game, and player-coach Dan Rothem had an outstanding all-around performance that year, going 4-5 at the plate and posting a .77 ERA in 11.2 IP. This year, they have the challenge of a big fish in their pond. Great Britain plays the role of favorite, but having such a huge home field advantage might tip the scales in Israel’s favor. Their federation could benefit by picking up a few players through the country’s unique citizenship policy, but the key to a qualifier championship will be the performance of home grown talent such as Oren Gal, Ofir Katz, Alon Leishman, Moshe Lewis, and Daniel Maddy-Weityman. With the support of big names in the baseball world, they’ve retooled their coaching staff as well. Head coach Pat Doyle knows the UK program well from his short stint there a year ago, while he is better known for his position as Global Coordinator of the Major League Baseball Envoy Program. Assistants Nate Fish, alumni of the IBL and Cincinnati, and Richard Kania, with years experience in European baseball, round out possibly the best staff the Israel Association of Baseball could have envisioned. Whether the talent will be enough to beat the British is a tough question to answer.
A first look at the recently released GB roster has many wondering, “How many Brits do they actually have on the roster?” The team is packed with talent and experience, a benefit the British are afforded through the expanse of their former empire. While many have not played on the island, they will don the red, white, and blue in hopes of making the Queen proud. Last year the Brits went 2-3 in group play at the European Championships in Germany, and were an extra-innings loss to Greece away from making the medal round. Returning players Matt McGraw and Bradley Marcelino played an important role in that teams offense, while pitchers Stephan Spragg and Alex Smith are again on hand. Given their strong play against the top teams, it’s hard to imagine the Brits slipping up against lesser competition, but there are some factors in play. Travel to Tel Aviv will be long and arduous for some of the players on other continents. Playing in the oppressive heat of the Middle East, it is reasonable to assume the team will be affected to some degree. Fortunately, they’ll face top challenger Israel in the evening, once the harsh sun has started to set over the Mediterranean.
The team from the Baltic took part in the Prague Baseball Week to see some high level competition before the ECQ, and get some reps in. Baseball in Lithuania has a good cult following, but the long winter makes it difficult for the boys of summer to prepare. The group is in need of a dark horse, and Lithuania could play the role of spoiler if they knock off the hosts. During the last Qualifier, pitcher Eimantas Zickus threw a complete game two-hit shutout, racking up 12 strikeouts while allowing just five runners to reach base. In order to complete the upset, they’ll need a team effort when at bat. Ramunas Santaras, Tomas Jankoitis and Vytautas Kiriys were responsible for the large part of the run production in 2008, scoring 10 of the teams 19 runs. If the team is able to milk some production from the bottom of the lineup, and continue to play defense better than their opponents, then they’ll improve their chances at reaching the final on the last day.
Georgia has the shortest trip to make to Israel, aside from the hosts. That is about all that’s certain of the team from Georgia. The team has been preparing in the Tbilisi sports club since April, getting their swings and bullpens done in a basement batting cage. They may lack the facilities and equipment that other teams take for granted, but no one can question the commitment the players have. This summer, instead of playing games against other teams, they’ve resorted to intrasquad matches on a horse race track, the closest thing to a baseball field in the Georgian capital. Head Coach Nugzar Kapanadze, who has been coach for 15 years and joined the Soviet league way back in the mid 1980’s, will lead his men into Israel. Hoping to find some luck to go along with their high level of enthusiasm, the Georgian team could make big news by knocking off any of the teams they’ll face.