Baltimoreans Involved in New Organization To Boost Baseball’s Popularity in Israel

Team Israel competes in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. (Courtesy of Israel Baseball Americas)

America’s favorite pastime has had a difficult time finding its footing in Israel. Despite the sport’s long history of Jewish involvement, efforts to establish baseball leagues in Israel have borne little fruit. In terms of sports, Israelis generally prefer soccer and basketball to baseball, and would-be athletes don’t have many Israeli baseball players to look up to. And while the Olympics and the World Baseball Classic have given Israeli players an opportunity to compete on the world stage, these events only occur every few years.

A new organization founded by Jewish baseball coaches and sports executives, including some from Baltimore, is hoping to change that. Israel Baseball Americas opened its doors on Monday, March 18, in order to build interest in the sport by having Jewish American players train athletes and sports fans overseas and by supporting the Israel Association of Baseball’s efforts to promote it. The new organization is headquartered in Baltimore.

Through this work, Israel Baseball Americas’ founders hope to build grassroots interest in baseball and inspire the next generation of batters, pitchers and outfielders.

“Now these kids in Israel will have someone to look up to, and can say ‘Hey, he was born right where I was born, and he’s playing professional baseball. I can, too,’” said IBA Chief Operating Officer Adam Gladstone, a Baltimore resident who has worked with the Baltimore Orioles and Team Israel.

In addition to Gladstone, other Baltimoreans involved with IBA include board member David Warchawski and Director of Communications Avi Miller, as well as advisers Dan Wahlberg, Adam Zarren and Adam Neuman.

Much of the interest in Israeli baseball has come from fans and aspiring players in the U.S. Israeli players have started to gain more of a foothold in Major League Baseball recently — Orioles pitcher Dean Kremer and former catcher Ryan Lavarnway are both dual citizens who also played for Team Israel during past World Baseball Classics. Last year, MLB signed its first-ever Israeli-born baseball player, Assaf Lowengart, who previously competed in the 2020 Olympics.

“When baseball became popular in places like Venezuela and the Dominican Republic and Japan, it wasn’t because an organization made it happen. It comes up from the bottom rather than from the top down,” explained Nate Fish, IBA’s CEO and a coach for Israel’s national baseball program. “Part of it is being a cultural fit, and we haven’t found that same cultural fit in Israel. But the secret to getting baseball popular is this sort of grassroots cultural movement, and a big part of that is having role models and stars to look up to.”

While the events of Oct. 7 ramped up the importance of IBA’s mission, the organization has been in development for several years. The Israel Association of Baseball is largely run by volunteers who have other commitments, so there was a need for U.S.-based athletes and sports executives to step in and help sustain the sport outside of the Olympics and the World Baseball Classic.

Part of IBA’s plans include creating baseball-centric summer camps for children and teenagers interested in playing high school and college-level baseball. Many of these efforts, as well as ones intended to train professional players, will be facilitated by American baseball players and coaches. IBA’s leadership includes several familiar names, such as former second baseman Ian Kinsler, former Red Sox player Kevin Youkilis and Israeli pitcher Shlomo Lipetz.

IBA is also focused on merchandising, as Israeli baseball-related merch has been successful in terms of sales. When Team Israel had its surprisingly successful run at the World Baseball Classic in 2017, they were the only country that completely sold out of the merchandise they had brought to sell. Establishing a dedicated merchandise line to capitalize on that success is another one of IBA’s goals.

Fish and Gladstone, along with IBA’s board, are currently in conversation with USA Baseball, a U.S.-based organization with a similar goal of growing baseball’s popularity in the United States.

“They want to see us successful, so we’re going to emulate what they do on a year-round basis,” Gladstone said. “If at some point, someone has a passion for the game, and playing isn’t in the cards for them, then we want to help them, through our relationships, find something that they are passionate about within the game of baseball that they can potentially start a career with.”

While they opened their doors on March 18, IBA will be officially rolling out its programs and merchandise on April 2.

“We’d like to have one large community of players both in Israel and in the States, all housed under one roof,” Fish said.

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