Israel’s baseball team turned to Shlomo Lipetz for the biggest out in program history

Israel Baseball
Margo Sugarman
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As Israel led by 10 runs and had one out left to clinch its first Olympic baseball berth, manager Eric Holtz made a pitching change. He called on 40-year-old Shlomo Lipetz, a sidearm right-hander with a beard and mullet who had not appeared in any of the team’s four previous games in its Olympic qualification tournament.

“Shlomo was born and raised in Israel,” Holtz said in an email early Monday morning from Italy, where the joint Africa-Europe tournament was held. “He has put in over 30 years into the growth and development of this program. He played on fields that did not exist. Soccer fields transformed into some sort of diamond. He exemplifies what we are trying to show and prove to the youth in Israel. That if you work hard and put your time in, that even homegrown Israelis have an opportunity to do something special.

“Given the right opportunity there was no question that he would hold the baseball at the end of the game. He’s special to the team and he special [sic] to the kids in Israel.”

Lipetz, a vice president for booking musical acts at City Winery based in New York City, forced a flyout from the second South African batter. Israel won 11-1. Teammates dogpiled Lipetz on the mound in one of Israel’s greatest sporting moments.

“It slowly starts sinking in and repeating, again and again, that this great group of people are all going to be Olympians,” Lipetz, profiled by the Wall Street Journal in 2012, said by phone late Sunday night while celebrating the victory. “The feeling is disbelief and happiness, excitement. It’s a bunch of emotions, but it’s really hard to believe. The odds were so against us that you kind of train your mind not to have your mind wander there.”

The 2020 Olympic baseball tournament — the first since 2008 and the last until, at the earliest, 2028 — will feature six nations. Israel was ranked 41st in the world before its captivating 2017 World Baseball Classic run that included wins over the Netherlands, South Korea, Chinese Taipei and Cuba.

By this year, that ranking was up to No. 19. But Israel still had to qualify for the Olympic qualifier. It went through a July European Championships b-pool event, beating Greece, Serbia, Russia, Ireland and host Bulgaria in front of listed attendances of fewer than 100 people per game and “a field carved out of a mountain,” Lipetz said. “With sheep.”

Then it won a playoff at Lithuania — “in the middle of a horse racing track, and right field was 270 feet” — just to get into the top-flight Euros earlier this month. At Euros, Israel was the fourth-ranked team going in and went 5-3 to finish fourth, good enough to advance to the Africa/Europe Olympic qualifier, but far from a favorable position. Only the winner of the Africa/Europe qualifier would clinch a place in Tokyo.

So Israel went to Italy for the qualifier and proceeded to avenge those three defeats to Spain, the Netherlands and Italy in its first three games. All it needed was one more win Saturday against the Czech Republic or Sunday against South Africa.

When Israel’s most recognizable name, former MLB infielder Danny Valencia, smacked a three-run home run in the top of the eighth on Sunday, it had an 11-1 lead. The 10-run mercy rule would come into effect to end the game an inning early, assuming Israel could close it out. The plan all along was for Lipetz to get that chance.

“Symbolic, I would say,” said Lipetz, who called himself part of Israel’s first generation of baseball players and was one of four Israel-born players on the 24-man roster. “The personal achievement aside, I represent in a lot of ways what Israel baseball is and what it can potentially be.

“One of the first things that came to mind when I was throwing that last pitch — if I can be a role model for any players on this team, can be a role model for a 10-year-old Israeli watching this on TV for the first time, then that really is everything I want because I never had that Israeli role model.”

Lipetz, born and raised in Tel Aviv, said there were no pitching mounds where he grew up. He practiced on soccer fields. Still, he was one of the first players to get a special athletic scholarship in the military. He played for Team Israel for the first time in 1989, at a Little League World Series qualifier on a German military base.

He moved to the U.S. at age 21 to play college ball in San Diego in the early 2000s. He was part of that 2017 World Baseball Classic team that included a mascot, “Mensch on a Bench,” that did not make the trip for the Olympic qualifier.

“Stuck in customs,” Lipetz joked.

That 2017 WBC team included many players who were not Israel citizens, a requirement for the Olympics. Lipetz was the only Israel-born player, but he did not see game action.

All of the men who celebrated with Lipetz on Sunday have an Israeli ID.

“This, I think, tops [2017], all because when it comes down to it, we did it with a group of Israelis,” Lipetz said. “Yeah, some of them may have been born in the U.S., but today everyone was Israeli. That’s what Israel is all about.”

Lipetz believes most of the players on the qualifying team will be brought back for the Olympics, which is also 24 players, though he could not be sure that its oldest player will be kept one more year.

Lipetz turns 41 in February and would be one of the oldest baseball players in the sport’s short Olympic history (since 1992).

“Let them try,” to leave me off the team, he joked. “Anything can happen. I feel very lucky that I’ve been able to be part of Team Israel for so long. My role on this team is more than just throwing the last out or playing a game. It’s what makes the team what it is, basically the Israeli national team. I plan to continue to be part of the team one way or the other. I would like to think that I still have something to add as a sidearmer, late movement guy.”

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MORE: USA Baseball taps longtime catcher to be Olympic qualifying manager

Ilia Malinin wins U.S. Figure Skating Championships despite quadruple Axel miss

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One year ago, Ilia Malinin came to the U.S. Championships as, largely, a 17-year-old unknown. He finished second to Nathan Chen in 2022 and was left off the three-man Olympic team due to his inexperience, a committee decision that lit a fire in him.

After the biggest year of change in U.S. figure skating in three decades, Malinin came to this week’s nationals in San Jose, California, as the headliner across all disciplines.

Though he fell on his quadruple Axel and doubled two other planned quads in Sunday’s free skate (the most ambitious program in history), he succeeded the absent Chen as national champion.

Malinin, the world’s second-ranked male singles skater, still landed two clean quads in Friday’s short program and three more Sunday. He totaled 287.74 points and prevailed by 10.43 over two-time Olympian Jason Brown, a bridge between the Chen and Malinin eras.

“This wasn’t the skate that I wanted,” said Malinin, who was bidding to become the second man to land six quads in one program after Chen. The Virginia chalked up the flaws at least partially to putting more recent practice time into his short program, which he skated clean on Friday after errors in previous competitions.

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Full Results

Brown, a 28-year-old competing for the first time since placing sixth at the Olympics, became the oldest male singles skater to finish in the top three at nationals since Jeremy Abbott won the last of his four titles in 2014. As usual, he didn’t attempt a quad but had the highest artistic score by 9.41 points.

Brown’s seven total top-three finishes at nationals tie him with Chen, Michael WeissBrian Boitano, David Jenkins and Dick Button for the second-most in men’s singles since World War II, trailing only Todd Eldredge‘s and Hayes Jenkins‘ eight.

“I’m not saying it’s super old, but I can’t train the way I used to,” Brown said after Friday’s short program. “What Ilia is doing and the way he is pushing the sport is outstanding and incredible to watch. I cannot keep up.”

Andrew Torgashev took bronze, winning the free skate with one quad and all clean jumps. Torgashev, who competed at nationals for the first time since placing fifth in 2020 at age 18, will likely round out the three-man world team.

Japan’s Shoma Uno will likely be the favorite at worlds. He won last year’s world title, when Malinin admittedly cracked under pressure in the free skate after a fourth-place short program and ended up ninth.

That was before Malinin became the first person to land a quad Axel in competition. That was before Malinin became the story of the figure skating world this fall. That was before Malinin took over the American throne from Chen, who is studying at Yale and not expected to return to competition.

Malinin’s next step is to grab another label that Chen long held: best in the world. To do that, he must be better than he was on Sunday.

“You always learn from your experiences, and there’s always still the rest of the season to come,” he said. “I just have to be prepared and prepare a little bit extra so that doesn’t happen again.”

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Mark McMorris breaks Winter X Games medals record; David Wise wins first title in 5 years

Mark McMorris
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Canadian snowboarder Mark McMorris broke his tie with American Jamie Anderson for the most Winter X Games medals across all sites, earning his 22nd medal, a slopestyle gold, in Aspen, Colorado.

On the final run of Sunday’s contest, McMorris overtook Norway’s Marcus Kleveland with back-to-back 1620s on the last two jumps. McMorris’ last three Aspen slopestyle titles were all won on his final run (2019, 2022).

“It’s something I never thought would ever come to me as a kid from Saskatchewan,” McMorris, 29, said on the broadcast. “Everything’s just been a bonus since I became a pro snowboarder.”

In a format introduced three years ago, athletes were ranked on overall impression of their best run over the course of a jam session rather than scoring individual runs.

McMorris won his record-extending seventh X Games Aspen men’s slopestyle title, one day after finishing fourth in big air.

“It just keeps getting crazier because I keep getting older,” he said. “People just keep pushing the limits, pushing the limits. Last night was such a downer, almost bums me out, like, dude, do I still have it? … To have one of those miracle wins where you do it on the last run and someone makes you push yourself, those are the best feelings.”

McMorris won slopestyle bronze medals at each of the last three Olympics and reportedly said last February that he was planning to compete through the 2026 Milan-Cortina Winter Games.

Canadian Max Parrot, the 2022 Olympic slopestyle champion, is taking this season off from competition.

Anderson, a two-time Olympic snowboard slopestyle champion, is expecting her first child.

Later Sunday, American David Wise earned his first major ski halfpipe title since repeating as Olympic champion in 2018. Wise landed back-to-back double cork 1260s to end his winning run, according to commentators.

“I wouldn’t still be out here if I didn’t think I had a chance,” Wise, 32 and now a five-time X Games Aspen champ, said on the broadcast. “I’m not going to be the guy who just keeps playing the game until everybody just begs me to stop.”

U.S. Olympian Mac Forehand won men’s ski big air with a 2160 on his last run, according to commentators. It scored a perfect 50. Olympic gold medalist Birk Ruud of Norway followed with a triple cork 2160 of his own, according to commentators, and finished third.

Canadian skier Megan Oldham added slopestyle gold to her big air title from Friday, relegating Olympic champion Mathilde Gremaud of Switzerland to silver.

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