By Jesse Berman and Lexi Gopin
On their way to the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Team Israel made a few stops in Maryland to play exhibition games.
On July 18, Team Israel won an 8-7 victory against Big Train Bethesda at Shirley Povich Field in Bethesda. The next evening, on July 19, Team Israel lost 9-3 against the Cal Ripken Collegiate League All-Stars at Aberdeen’s Leidos Field at Ripken Stadium.
The Maryland games were part of a series Team Israel is playing across the United States.
The team played these exhibition games in the United States, rather than in Israel, because the level of competition is higher in the U.S., said Peter Kurz, general manager of Team Israel.
“Unfortunately, the level of baseball is not such in Israel that we could do that,” he said. “So we decided to do this here in the United States in the Northeast U.S., because the level of competition is much greater.”
At Shirley Povich Field, as the sun set on Sunday, fans lined up at the entrance, chattering excitedly as players from Team Israel warmed up on the field. Tisha B’Av, a somber holiday of mourning, was coming to a close and now the mood was shifting toward excitement.
Fans in blue and white hats and jerseys with the Team Israel logo filled the stands, some waving small Israeli flags. The seats filled up and fans huddled in the standing room only area. Tickets had sold out within 48 hours.
Kurz said the tour of the Northeast is “all about the Jewish community.”
“We really see the Jewish community as being the 25th player helping the 24 reach the Olympics,” he said. “We have a strong team. We’re very proud to be that team that’s representing Israel and the entire Jewish community.”
One of those 24 players is pitcher Eric Brodkowitz. A native of Potomac, Brodkowitz said he returned to “his backyard” for the game against Big Train.
At the top of the seventh inning, Team Israel catcher Nick Rickles drove home teammate Tal Erel, and outfielder Rob Paller hit a home run, bringing Erel home and defeating Big Train 8-7.
In response, fans stood, waved Israeli flags, clapped and chanted, “Yallah Israel.”
The following day in Aberdeen, the crowd was excited and focused, said Jeremy Diamond, a member of Suburban Orthodox Congregation Toras Chaim, who decided to attend to show support for Israel.
Team Israel did some top-notch fielding, said Diamond, though he was particularly impressed by their pitching.
“I thought they pitched really, really well,” he said. “You could hear the pitch snapping hard into the catcher’s mitt.”
Diamond had not expected the Israeli team to play a game so close to Baltimore, and was excited by the news.
“I hadn’t seen that many Jewish spectators in a baseball stadium, I think, in my life,” said Diamond, who lives in Cheswolde. “Pikesville was there, and other Jewish-focused neighborhoods came out to see the game.”
Speaking after the Aberdeen game, Kurz sounded unfazed by the team’s loss.
“I’m really not looking at the results at all, or anything like that,” Kurz said. “I understand we lost in the end by a lot of runs, which really doesn’t affect me or affect the team. What’s important is that we got our work in.”
Israel is one of six countries that will compete in baseball at the Tokyo Olympics. The others are Japan, South Korea, the United States, the Dominican Republic and Mexico. Team Israel’s first game at the Olympics will be against the South Korean team on July 29.
“We’re not going to the Olympics to go to the Olympics,” Kurz said. “We’re going to get a medal.”