Israel Baseball
Margo Sugarman

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

Leave a comment

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.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

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

Roger Federer saves 7 match points; next: Novak Djokovic in Australian Open semifinals

Getty Images
Leave a comment

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Roger Federer was not going to go gently, of course, no matter how daunting the number of match points — his opponent accumulated seven! — no matter how achy his 38-year-old legs, no matter how slow his serves, no matter how off-target his groundstrokes.

Federer still plays for the love of these stages and circumstances. Still yearns for more trophies, too. Down to his very last gasp, time and again, against someone a decade younger, 100th-ranked Tennys Sandgren of the United States, Federer somehow pulled off a memorable comeback to reach the Australian Open semifinals for the 15th time.

Despite all sorts of signs he was not quite himself for much of the match, Federer beat the biceps-baring, hard-hitting, court-covering Sandgren 6-3, 2-6, 2-6, 7-6 (8), 6-3 on Tuesday in a rollicking quarterfinal that appeared to be over long before it truly was.

“For the most time there, I thought that was it. Of course, there’s little sparkles where maybe not. Then you’re like, ‘No, it IS over,’” said Federer, who only once before had won after facing as many as seven match points, equaling his personal best from all the way back in 2003. “Only maybe when I won that fourth set did I really think that, maybe, this whole thing could turn around.”

He said afterward that it had been his groin muscle that was the problem and he couldn’t be certain whether he would be fully recovered for his next match. That will come against defending champion Novak Djokovic, who overwhelmed No. 32 Milos Raonic 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (1) to improve to 10-0 against the 2016 Wimbledon runner-up.

“He was just too good,” Raonic said.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

It’ll be the 50th meeting between No. 3 Federer, who has won 20 Grand Slam titles, and No. 2 Djokovic, who owns 16.

Djokovic leads their head-to-head series 26-23, including their past five matches at majors.

“Roger is Roger. You know that he’s always going to play on such a high level, regardless of the surface,” Djokovic said. “He loves to play these kind of matches, big rivalries, semis, finals of Grand Slams.”

About the only thing that slowed Djokovic’s progression to a 37th career Grand Slam semifinal — Federer earned his 46th — was the medical timeout the Serb asked for at 4-all in the third set so he could put in new contact lenses.

“It was just something I had to do,” Djokovic said, “because those few games, I really couldn’t see much.”

The last two men’s quarterfinals are Wednesday: Rafael Nadal vs. Dominic Thiem, and Alexander Zverev vs. Stan Wawrinka.

One women’s semifinal was set Tuesday: No. 1 Ash Barty, trying to become the first Australian Open singles champion from the host country since the 1970s, against No. 14 Sofia Kenin, a 21-year-old American never before this far at any major tournament.

Wednesday’s quarterfinals are Simona Halep vs. Anett Kontaveit, and Garbiñe Muguruza vs. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.

There was a lot to live up to after the drama of Federer vs. Sandgren.

“You can’t give a good player — let alone maybe the best player ever — that many chances to come back,” said Sandgren, his voice low, his eyes looking down. “They’re going to find their game and start playing well. That seemed to me what happened.”

In truth, so much had happened.

Federer got into a dispute with a line judge and the chair umpire over cursing. He left the court for a medical timeout early in the third set, then was visited by a trainer later for a right leg massage.

Sandgren was run into by a ballkid during a changeover in the tiebreaker; was distracted by a courtside broadcast commentator.

The 28-year-old from Tennessee has never been a major semifinalist and was trying to become the lowest-ranked man in the Australian Open’s final four since Patrick McEnroe — John’s younger brother — was No. 114 in 1991.

Imagine, then, the heartbreak for Sandgren, who toiled for years on lower-level tours and was so thrilled just to share the stage with Federer.

“Maybe,” Sandgren said, “I’ll get another look, another shot.”

After rolling through the second and third sets as Federer’s serve dropped from an average of 112 mph to 105 mph — “Wasn’t popping like it does normally,” Sandgren observed — and Federer’s unforced errors totaled 30, the underdog led 5-4 in the fourth set.

That’s when Sandgren earned his first trio of opportunities to complete a career-defining victory. But he missed a shot each time. There were four more match points in the tiebreaker at 6-3, 6-4, 6-5 and 7-6.

“Honestly, when they told me seven, I was like, ‘What?!’ I thought it was three,” Federer said. “It’s such a blur.”

Djokovic’s take on Federer’s comeback: “Amazing.”

Raonic’s: “Impressive.”

When Sandgren sent an overhead smash long to give Federer the fourth set. Federer quickly controlled the fifth and ended the victory with a service winner at 119 mph, a little more than an hour after first staring down defeat.

“Just seemed like his level picked up when his back was right up against the wall,” said Sandgren, who only got the chance to serve on one of those seven pivotal points. “He just wouldn’t give me anything.”

That’s how Djokovic makes foes feel.

The key moment for him Tuesday came rather early: Raonic went into the quarterfinals having won all 59 of his service games in the tournament. But that streak ended at 5-4 against Djokovic. On Djokovic’s ninth break point of the match, Raonic missed a forehand to cap a 19-shot exchange, handing over the opening set.

Djokovic yelled and threw an uppercut. Two Raonic service games later, he broke yet again, all he would need to own the second set, too. Soon enough, he was two wins from a record-extending eighth championship at the Australian Open.

Federer has won six titles at Melbourne Park and never lost there to anyone ranked worse than 54th. But Sandgren, whose career tour-level record is under .500, played superbly. He won more points, 161-160, and produced edges of 27-5 in aces, 73-44 in total winners.

“I mean, he never gives up,” Djokovic said about Federer. “When it matters the most, he’s focused and he plays his best tennis.”

Federer knows exactly the sort of pain Sandgren experienced.

Last July, Federer failed to convert a pair of championship points in the fifth set of the Wimbledon final before losing to Djokovic.

“These ones just sting, and they hurt,” Federer said. “But … I was incredibly lucky today.”

MORE: Top U.S. tennis player leaning toward skipping Olympics

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

World champion wins doping case citing bodily fluids from boyfriend

AP
Leave a comment

LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) — A world champion canoeist won a doping case Monday after persuading a tribunal that her positive test was caused by bodily fluid contamination from her boyfriend.

The International Canoe Federation (ICF) ended its investigation into 11-time world champion Laurence Vincent Lapointe, who tested positive for a steroid-like substance in July. She faced a four-year ban and could have missed her event’s Olympic debut at the Tokyo Games.

The Canadian canoe sprint racer and her lawyer detailed in a news program that laboratory analysis of hair from her then-boyfriend showed he was likely responsible for a tiny presence of ligandrol in her doping sample.

“The ICF has accepted Ms. Vincent Lapointe’s evidence which supports that she was the victim of third-party contamination,” the governing body said in a statement, clearing her to return to competition.

The legal debate is similar to tennis player Richard Gasquet’s 2009 acquittal in the “cocaine kiss” case. The Court of Arbitration for Sport accepted Gasquet’s defense that kissing a woman who had taken cocaine in a Miami nightclub, after he had withdrawn injured from a tournament, caused his positive test.

The 27-year-old Vincent Lapointe was provisionally suspended for almost six months and missed the 2019 World Championships, which was a key qualifying event for the Tokyo Olympics. American 17-year-old Nevin Harrison won the 200m world title in her absence.

She can still qualify for the Olympic debut of women’s canoe sprint events with victory at a World Cup event in May in Germany.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Viral Olympic moments of 2010s decade