After Israel surprised the universe at the World Baseball Classic, The Sports Rabbi had a chance to sit down with Peter Kurz, the architect of the success story a few weeks after beating the likes of Cuba, Holland, Chinese Taipei and one of the hosts, South Korea. Baseball is a curious sport in Israel and the team’s fine showing caught the country off guard as primarily American Jews played for the Blue & White on the diamond.
Let’s go in depth with Kurz as we learn about who the man behind Israel Baseball really is, the history of Baseball in the Holy Land, the ups and downs of the sport in Israel, the missed opportunities during the tournament and the accountability that he along with the Israel Baseball Association will now be under after the fine showing on the grandest stage.
Who is Peter Kurz?
“I grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and when I was 10 years old I came to Israel. At the age of 12, the New York Mets won the World Series and that was the beginning of my connection to everything in my life.”
When did you move to Israel?
“The last time I moved was when I was 28 years old. I came here many times as a teenager and I came here to study for my MBA. My children were born in America but I had met my wife here and I moved back and forth and have lived for many years in Givatayim.”
Outside of Israel Baseball, what do you do in your “Real Life”?
“I worked for an export company and now I am doing a lot of freelance export.”
Who was your Baseball Idol?
“Tom Seaver. My best friend and I used to go to the park and I would be Seaver and he would hit. I was a big fan of all the guys growing up in that time period of late 60-70’s.”
How did you get into the Israel Baseball scene?
“Living in Israel, I tried to be as Israeli as I could and my son asked me about baseball one day. I took him to Tel Aviv Sportek and eventually I found myself coaching the team after the previous coach had moved to Netanya.”
When you got involved, what did you do off the bat?
“I got a team in Tel Aviv and very quickly he (Haim Katz, the President at the time) came to me and asked if I could take a team oversees, he said he would get me a real coach and we went to Holland. We got a guy named Shlomo Lipetz, Mr. Baseball. I took a group of 8 or 9 year olds. We lost all of the games. There are four or five from that team from the mid 90’s that are still involved with Israel Baseball. Soon after I took over as Secretary General of Israel Baseball.”
How involved were you with the short lived Israel Baseball League, the IBL?
“We weren’t so involved with the running of it but we kept telling them you have to market it, but they didn’t. They made a lot of mistakes and didn’t have a chance to correct them. Very quickly they went bankrupt and that almost had an effect on us. When I became president we had 600 players now we have 900.”
Where’s the funding coming from for the fields in Beit Shemesh and Raanana?
“All the funding is coming from the JNF Project Baseball for the field that’s being built in Beit Shemesh. The field in Raanana is being funded from overseas. We will get around $350K net profit from the WBC. Our budget is about 1.2 million shekel, where less than 200k of it comes from the government.”
How does the Toto Lottery fit in with funding the fields and baseball in Israel?
“There hasn’t been more coming from the Toto because we haven’t had to opportunity to turn to them. Now we have the right funding and the right locations and it’s the right time to do it. You need to have money upfront and locations before you can even talk to them.”
You had 300 people in the 90’s and now 1,000, don’t you think the growth should have been higher?
“The growth should have been higher, but we aren’t like every sports organization in Israel. We are very centralized. I’m trying to change it but we are very centralized, we will be building more up in the north.”
World Baseball Classic? What were your initial thoughts in September during the qualifying rounds?
“We had a mini camp in upstate New York a week before we went to Brooklyn and we had 12 players left from the first team a few years back. The first player to speak was Nate Freiman. He got up and said that I’m here because I want to win for Israel. That just sucked everybody in. Josh Zeid who had been on the mound the previous WBC and came up short was the same pitcher on the mound for us this time when we clinched. It was meant to be. These guys are going to come to Israel after they retire and help build baseball in Israel, like they said they will do.”
Let’s look at the tournament. How did you think it would play out?
“We did a lot of scouting beforehand and my dream was to make it to Japan. It was just incredible. We had no expectations. All the pressure was off of us.”
How did you find manager Jerry Weinstein?
“I first met him in the Maccabiah 12 years ago and I said to him we want you to manage. I had a little fear that he was too old, but it was amazing as to how he handled himself and all of the players it was just amazing, they all just bought into it.”
Are you disappointed because Shlomo Lipetz, the only Israeli born player on the team didn’t get a chance to pitch to at least one batter?
“Well he was supposed to come in and pitch, but it didn’t happen. At the end of the day, Shlomo is an important central part of the team. The guys played because of Shlomo.”
Does it hurt you that most of the players are American-Jews rather than Israeli-Jews?
“We had twelve of our best Israelis five years ago with us and we gave them a phenomenal experience in the minors but eventually they dropped out once they got back to Israel. Today we have six of those twelve still playing. why did they leave baseball? They went to work, they moved, lived and went to do different things, it’s a turnover. Two years ago, we decided as a committee that we were going to put the most competitive team on the field. The goal is to have more Israelis and now we have $350K to invest. This is huge for Israel Baseball.”
How can you now translate this success and can you get more kids involved? You have a chance of a lifetime. How will you make sure that you succeed?
“That’s a major fear of mine, because we are all volunteers. So there is only so much time you can give. Firstly, we have had more early signups for Baseball leagues. I’m meeting with people trying to get more into the schools, we are branching out even more so and getting more exposure. Maybe we can put a team into the Olympics. More JNF fundraisers, bring the players to Israel, the buzz is there.”
When a group of players came to Israel in January, do you think that the players were not accessible enough? At the open evening at the Baptist Village there was no more than 200 people who came out and there was nothing in Jerusalem. There should have been busloads of kids at the event and something in Jerusalem which has the most American Jews. What happened?
“I’ll tell you, I was not the one who organized the trip. The guy who was paying for it said, I want to take them all over Israel. I said let’s do more things related to the teams. They were there for five days with very limited times.”
Even as the tournament approached and during the actual tournament itself, the players weren’t accessible and it seemed like a missed opportunity. They had to be promoting Zionism and they didn’t do that in the Israeli Hebrew media. Perhaps if they would have, the Israeli public wouldn’t have been so split on the fact that the players primarily weren’t born Israelis:
“First of all we were taken by surprise. We didn’t prepare for the success. Secondly, it was also the time difference, I was up until 3am every night and you can’t have the players up at that time. We also wanted to protect the players and have them focus on playing.”
Can we see some of the Israeli ballplayers today make the Majors? What’s the ultimate goal?
“My goal is to build the sport in Israel, build fields, bring back a professional League and winter ball. Why can’t the Mets or Yankees bring teams here for the winter? Then there will be an incentive for players to come here.”
“To see the first Israeli who grew up here in Israel playing Major League Baseball. There is a 7 year old in Jerusalem, whose pedigree is baseball and maybe he could be the first Israeli to play professional ball.”